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Keystone: activists build a movement while wonks say ‘carbon tax’

2013 March 13

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After I published this piece, two future classmates from the Goldman School of Public Policy responded with their thoughts on Keystone (the skeptic, anti-Keystone)

When the final decision is made on Keystone XL this summer, activists are hoping that President Obama will put it in the grave for good. After Obama’s soaring promises on climate change in his second inaugural and state of the union addresses, activists are expecting him to walk the talk and reject it. The latest rallies against the pipeline on February 17, which numbered over 50,000 in Washington, DC and over 5,000 in San Francisco, have continued to bring attention to the pipeline and put continued pressure on Obama. Meanwhile, policy wonks and editorial boards say that the anti-Keystone movement is wasting its energy on the wrong fights. They say the movement should focus on a carbon tax, and that the tar sands will be developed regardless of the decision on Keystone XL. Grist’s David Roberts nicely highlighted why the wonks are talking right past the activists: activism and policy are not the same thing.

About a year back, I heard Bill McKibben of 350.org speak in Berkeley and asked him: “What policy proposal does 350.org focus on in Washington?” McKibben politely answered what may have been a dumb question. He said, “350.org’s sole focus is to build a political movement that demands action on climate change now.” He mentioned his interest in good policy proposals, but it is just not his organization’s focus. For someone who has clearly spent too much time in DC (ahem, one year), this was somehow an a-ha moment for me. It’s not about policy A vs. policy B. It’s not about lobbying to pass one big climate policy. It’s about creating a movement that will continue to demand laws, actions, and leaders on climate change no matter what the prevailing political winds or policy proposals are. Even if we do pass a carbon tax or cap and trade bill, that will be just the first battle in a very long fight against climate change.

Right now, a Keystone rejection would symbolize a win for the movement and validate that Obama can be swayed into action by the powerful group of voices that have spoken. And to be fair, the pipeline has so little going for it. Fellow BERCie Reid Spolek asked my 140-character opinion on the project, and I replied on twitter: “With few jobs, no U.S. energy security benefit, & climate consequences, why would Obama pass it? To protect business interests.” At least that’s what Obama’s golf round with oil execs on the day of the latest rallies indicated.

Jobs: The pipeline would create a couple thousand temporary construction jobs, but reportedly only 35 permanent jobs. Energy security: The tar sands shipped to Louisiana for refining would be sold on global markets with no apparent direct benefit to U.S. energy security (so please don’t try any gas price arguments). Climate: Refining and burning tar sands causes 17% more emissions than regular crude, and building this pipeline locks in their development. If you read the thousands of pages of environmental assessment prepared to date by the State Department, you would probably be left scratching your head as to why anyone would approve this pipeline (State makes no firm recommendation for or against the pipeline). Let’s hope that this summer, Obama doesn’t leave us all scratching our heads.

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