Confronting My Keystone Uneasiness

The anti-Keystone "Forward on Climate" rally in Washington DC, February 17th, 2013. Jay Mallin/ZUMA Press

The anti-Keystone "Forward on Climate" rally in Washington DC, February 17th, 2013. 

This evening I'm attending a Climate Desk Live event near Dupont Circle focused on the Keystone XL debate (UPDATE: The recorded livestream of the event is now available).

The event is hosted by Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America and The Republican War on Science

Panelists include: May Boeve, executive director of 350.org; David Roberts, Grist magazine; Michael Levi, author of The Power Surge; and Michael Grunwald, senior national correspondent for Time magazine.

For the good intro into this debate, a must-read piece is Chris Mooney's latest article:

In the article, Mooney outlines the two groups, "dark greens" & "bright greens" - both environmentalists, but one side as the purists that want radical change, and the other as moderates who seek compromise and accept tradeoffs.

I am very much a card-carrying member of the bright green, moderate camp. I can still recall being in graduate school, trying to start a student organization to educate people about Peak Oil and our energy challenges, only to meet undergrad after undergrad that only wanted to talk about polar bears and protecting other equally cute animals. It was one of my first lessons that the topics that are popular and sexy aren't always the topics that are most significant in the grand scheme of things.

I'm fortunate to live in Washington DC, so when the Keystone XL protests began, it was easy enough for me to simply catch the Metro to the protest site to witness with my own eyes. I was mostly there to talk to students/protesters because I was curious to see what people knew about Peak Oil and to get a pulse on the always changing relationship between the Peak Oil community and the Climate community.

But I very much had my "bright green" moderate hat on. I've never identified well with protesters and activists. A few years back, while I worked as a consultant at D&R International, we received a presentation that grouped people into different color categories on a value spectrum. I still refer to it today as a reference in proper communication to different types of people. Someone who is a "Jade" is a person we would think of as a standard environmental activist. Someone who is a "Copper", is someone more self-interested, concerned with success, power, and affluence. Someone who is a "Navy" might be the traditional "Fox News" viewer.

So when we discuss Peak Oil and related issues to people, I know that I have to tailor the message to the specific audience. For environmentalist "jades", I need to focus on people, about how we're one human family. For individualistic "coppers", I better focus on profit, what's in it for them, I zero in on how the Peak Oil challenges to the economy directly affect their bottom line. For absolutistic "navy" people, communication focuses on purpose, doing the right thing, family and leaving things better for children. But you have to get the right message to the right audience, because the wrong message won't resonate at all. And Mooney touches on this as well in his article.

All this is just to say that I've never really identified with the purist environmentalists, I'm not a jade. So when I thought about Keystone, I thought only about the tangible outcomes. I thought to myself "They really believe if they stop this pipeline they will actually stop tar sands production. Don't they know it's only ONE pipeline, there are plenty more. Don't they know that rail is increasingly being used to transport oil, and that industry is moving quickly to contingency plans just in case XL doesn't go through. Don't they know that China is more than happy to pick up the slack, and that Canada is already building additional east-west pipelines to help that transport."

In my view at the time, I saw the organizers misinforming their followers and convincing them that "If we beat this pipeline, we win the climate change fight" - which is both wildly simplistic and simply not true . But I did acknowledge that if the organizers said "Hey, guys, come out and help us defeat this pipeline - might not change anything, but at least we're doing something!" - that's not exactly a rousing rallying cry that will get thousands to a rally.

So the moderate in me just couldn't get on board with this. I found myself in full agreement with Robert Rapier's columns:

The big change for me? It came when I read David Roberts' powerful column:

Roberts argues passionately and effectively that symbolic actions do matter, that you can't wait for the "perfect cause" to emerge to begin the fight.

Recently I had a discussion with a friend about Bjørn Lomborg's Slate article "Earth Hour is a Collossal Waste of Time - and Energy" - here I found myself on the opposite of my usual positions. Because I find Lomborg's arguments to be sort of ridiculous. If you only look at Earth Hour as a math problem of "energy saved" then you're completely missing the point of Earth Hour. There's something to be said about the things you can't measure: the media attention of a large event, the force of millions of people taking part in an action, the way that big event affects how people think about energy at all the other times that aren't Earth Hour.

Earth Hour is much much larger than the single hour.

These thoughts reminded me of my long-standing problems with the Obama communication strategy. They just don't like sticking their necks out on things that can't get through Congress. It's like they sometimes feel that things that can't pass = worthless to pursue. The President's heated comments yesterday on gun legislation are a rare and positive exception.

But for the most part, the President's team stays as far away from environmental issues as they can. They miss the point that if the President stands at a news conference and affirms and proclaims deep environmental beliefs - even if no legislation comes of it - it matters because somewhere there's a 7-year old boy or girl watching that broadcast, and that will greatly shape thinking generations down the line. In the same way Reagan is worshiped and revered on the right, not for what he actually did (raise taxes), but for the issues and themes he constantly talked about - words that created a generation of college republicans. The Obama team sometimes seems to not understand this LONG game.

So in closing, the funny part about all this is that if someone asked me what Obama should do about Keystone - the answer is incredibly easy for me. He absolutely should reject the pipeline. He gains absolutely nothing from those that want him to approve it. Yet in rejecting it he'd gain much from his base both for himself and his party AND the tricky part - he'd know full well that blocking Keystone won't block that oil. It's like squeezing jelly in zip-lock bag - it's just going to move somewhere else. To other smaller pipelines, to rail, and other transport. Outside of the hot light of the Keystone protests, the administration can help that oil move in other ways. So for Obama, rejecting it is a WIN/WIN - approving it is a LOSE/LOSE.

But on the larger issue of the Keystone XL discussion, what's my ultimate opinion? I have no problem admitting that I honestly do not know. And I'm hopeful the discussion tonight will help clarify my thinking further.