Hundreds of thousands of people turned up for the (perhaps questionably named) People’s Climate March in New York City over the weekend, presumably to voice support for the U.N. General Assembly’s summit this week that focused on the devilishly tricky issue of climate change. But as the CFR’s Michael Levi writes, the marchers’ message was less than unified, and in some cases seemed to contradict the concept of reducing greenhouse gas emissions:
There was barely any anti-Keystone paraphernalia beyond the small, designated anti-tar-sands section. There was little about coal outside the similarly small anti-mountaintop-mining zone. But boy were there a lot of anti-fracking signs. Ed Crooks of the FT noted on Twitter that anti-fracking signs “outnumber anti-coal signs by more than 10:1”; he followed that with an observation that there were “possible even more [signs] about #fracking” than about #climate”. Both are consistent with what I saw. This despite the fact that fracking, notwithstanding its problems and limitations, has reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and helped create the political space for EPA power plant regulations that will do more.
This is a stark illustration of the dubious change in tack made by the environmental movement in recent years, as Levi observes:
In the last five years, organizers have gone from drawing a few thousand people to lonely protests to bringing out hundreds of thousands on the streets of New York. They’ve done that in part through superior organizing and by tapping into growing concern about climate change. But they’ve also done it in part by shifting their emphasis from a central part of the climate problem (coal) to a marginal issue (Keystone) to opposing something that, while decidedly imperfect, actually helps deal with climate change (natural gas). This seems to be a Faustian bargain at best.
At the core of all of this lies the remarkable ability of greens to consistently fail to think strategically. If you’re an environmentalist looking for an enemy, you’d be hard pressed to find a better target than Old King Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel around, which manages to simultaneously cause toxic air pollution locally (as Beijing urbanites know well) while spewing out massive amounts of greenhouse gases.But as Levi points out, greens abandoned the fight against coal to rail against the construction of a pipeline that would connect Canadian oil fields with American Gulf Coast refineries. This was a bizarre location to draw a line in the sand, considering that the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline will have a negligible effect on global carbon emissions; that oil will come out of the ground regardless of whether or not this specific project is completed. And let’s not forget your typical environmentalist’s ability to ignore the huge emissions reductions afforded by the American shale gas boom. In both cases, the blanket rejection of any and everything to do with fossil fuels has inspired greens to focus their political and social capital on issues of little long-lasting import, while rejecting the most important green phenomenon currently at play in this country.The modern green movement is a bumbling, stunted thing, which is a terrible tragedy—our planet deserves advocates capable of doing more than mindlessly marching.