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Keystone and Movement-Building

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I largely disagree with one major premise of Jon Chait’s post criticizing environmentalists for focusing on the Keystone Pipeline.  Responding to Ryan Lizza’s recent piece on Bill McKibben and the anti-Keystone argument, Chait argues that Lizza’s reporting inadvertently reveals major strategic blunders:

Sprinkled throughout Lizza’s story are statements by various supporters of the anti-Keystone movement to the effect that they seized on Keystone because they needed something to rally environmentalists on. John Podesta, an adviser to Tom Steyer, who has helped finance and organize the movement, tells Lizza, “People were beginning to doubt the president’s commitment.” Keystone “became the test of the question: Are we going to do anything long term about climate change?” Kate Gordon, another Steyer adviser, tells him, “The goal is as much about organizing young people around a thing. But you have to have a thing.” Lizza himself writes, “For many activists, the opposition to Keystone isn’t really about the pipeline … they want Obama to use Keystone as a symbolic opportunity to move America away from fossil fuels.”

Lizza doesn’t frame these observations as a damning indictment, but they do amount to one. The logic of the decision was the opposite of what it appeared to be: Rather than build a movement as a means toward the end of stopping Keystone, Keystone was the means toward the end of building a movement. Cap and trade was dead, Keystone was the best thing they had, so they went with it.

In assuming that this was a blunder, I think Chait ignores some of the realities of movement-building.  Opposing climate change is Olson’s collective action problem in its purest form: no one individual can stop it, the benefits are diffuse and long-term, and the costs are shorter-term, tangible, and are imposed in part on powerful vested interests.  Powerful symbols can help to overcome the collective action problem.  If the focus on Keystone was the result of a choice between a large movement to oppose Keystone and a large movement supporting tougher EPA regulations, then the choice of priorities is indeed foolish.  But I think it’s implausible that this was the real choice — it’s much more likely that the choice was a significant mobilization against Keystone or nothing.  That improvements in environmental regulations are objectively more important doesn’t make it equally viable to rally around them.

It’s also worth noting that symbolic victories can be something you can build with.  It’s true enough that creating opposition as an end in itself is a terrible idea, and dismayingly anyone who follows progressive politics knows this isn’t a strawman.  There really are people who think that it might be worth electing Romney because the much worse policies would be met with more ineffectual opposition — Uncle Sams on stilts would be up at least 20%, and isn’t that better than food stamps anyway? — and there really are people who believe that it would have been better had abortion been illegal in most states well after 1973 because people might have gotten so angry about it that by now abortion might only be illegal in 20 or 25 states which would be better because something something.  But I’m not sure that the anti-Keystone movement deserves this criticism.  There’s another possibility — a victory (or anger over a loss) might be something you can build on.  In the larger scheme of things segregated buses in Birmingham were a fairly minor Jim Crow injustice, but the successful opposition to it helped build a movement that could effectively oppose disenfranchisement, employment discrimination, etc. etc.  McKibben himself might be too focused on the Canadian tar sands rather than climate change in general, but he won’t necessarily always be in a position to set priorities for the movement he helped create. And there’s no heighten-the-contradictions involved here — nobody disputes that stopping Keystone would be a net environmental benefit.

On the other hand, I do agree with this:

My view, which I laid out in a long feature story last spring, is that the central environmental issue of Obama’s presidency is not Keystone at all but using the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate existing power plants. That’s a tool Obama has that can bring American greenhouse gas emissions in line with international standards, and thus open the door to lead an international climate treaty in 2015. The amount of carbon emissions at stake in the EPA fight dwarf the stakes of the Keystone decision.

Estimates differ as to how much approval of the Keystone pipeline would increase carbon emissions, but a survey of studies by the Congressional Research Service found that the pipeline would add the equivalent of anywhere between 0.06 percent to 0.3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions per year. By contrast, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s proposal for EPA regulations would reduce U.S. emissions by 10 percent per year – 30 times the most pessimistic estimate of Keystone’s impact.

If we’re talking about Obama’s record rather than movement strategies, this is certainly right — getting tough new EPA regulations on emissions is vastly more important than stopping the Keystone pipeline. Implementing much better emissions standards while letting the Keystone pipeline go through would be on balance an excellent environmental record (although there’s no reason environmentalists can’t want both and it’s not a zero-sum game.) Conversely, failing to implement good new emissions regulations would represent a substantial failure that stopping the pipeline wouldn’t really mitigate.

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