The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline may not actually affect emissions or stop Canada’s oil sands from being developed, but, darnit, it’s been good for the green movement! That’s the gist of a recent New York Times article, “Pipeline Fight Lifts Environmental Movement.” The piece reports:
Although some critics say the environmental movement has made a strategic error by focusing so much energy on the pipeline, no one disputes that the issue has helped a new breed of environmental organizations build a mostly young army eager to donate money and time. The seven-year-old email list of 350.org, an organization that focuses on climate change, has more than doubled to 530,000 people since the group began fighting the pipeline in August 2011. In addition, about 76,000 people have signed a “pledge of resistance” sponsored by seven liberal advocacy groups in which they promise to risk arrest in civil disobedience if a State Department analysis, expected this year, points toward approval of the pipeline. [...]
Politically, the draw of Keystone XL comes from its physical presence. It is far easier, environmental activists say, to rally people around something as vivid as a pipeline bisecting the United States than, say, around cap-and-trade legislation that would have forced industry to pay a price for its carbon emissions. The legislation failed in Congress in 2009.
Climate scientist James Hansen kicked the Keystone fracas off back in 2011 by ominously warning that building the pipeline would signal “game over” for our climate. This cemented Keystone’s position at the top of the green agenda. The Gray Lady might not be ready to judge the strategic wisdom of this, preferring instead to focus on the galvanization of the movement, but we are: It’s a mistake, a blunder characteristic of the modern green cause—one born of a policymaking process more closely aligned with a vision of how the world ought to work, rather than how it does.
But the details of this fight actually matter, because here’s the one, incontrovertible truth at the heart of all of this: The oil in Canada’s tar sands is coming out of the ground, whether Obama approves the Keystone pipeline or not. There’s money to be made and a thirst for energy to be sated, so Canada will extract this resource, regardless of how dirty it is (and it is, even by oil’s standards, quite dirty). Given that fact, what happens to Keystone is inconsequential to global emissions.
The NYT concludes this exercise in optimism with a cheery quote from environmental consultant Mike Casey: “If [greens] lose on this, this infrastructure doesn’t go away. It remains deployable and passionate.” In other words, whether or not the greens are victorious in their quixotic quest against Keystone, the movement has built up a more robust machine for influencing policy in different arenas.
To some extent, that may be true; mailing lists may be longer and donations may be up. But that doesn’t mean the environmental movement is in good shape. As long as greens continue to think about issues in the way that leaders like Bill McKibben or Hansen have framed them, they will continue to spin their wheels, regardless of how much extra horsepower they have under the hood. Gaining traction requires a different, smarter approach, more like the direction espoused by the likes of the Breakthrough Institute and Bjorn Lømborg.