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Jonathan Chait Is Wrong: The Keystone XL Fight Is An Excellent Strategy And Tactic

By Joe Romm on October 31, 2013 at 6:37 pm

"Jonathan Chait Is Wrong: The Keystone XL Fight Is An Excellent Strategy And Tactic"

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I am generally a fan of progressive pundit Jonathan Chait. But his latest New York magazine column, “The Keystone Fight Is a Huge Environmentalist Mistake,” misses the mark.

Chait attacks Bill McKibben and the environmental movement for the decision to (supposedly) focus on Keystone rather than EPA regulations for power plants. His analysis suffers from several flaws:

  • It assumes the environmental movement can do only one thing at a time.
  • It assumes stopping Keystone has no strategic value.
  • It assumes movement building has no intrinsic value (strategic or tactical).
  • It assumes EPA regs are a stand-alone slam dunk — one that will achieve its ends without a protracted fight requiring a vibrant grassroots movement.

To make a sweeping analogy, dismissing the Keystone fight simply because stopping Keystone won’t save the climate by itself, would be like dismissing the civil rights movement’s use of protests or boycotts or civil disobedience. Each individual action failed to achieve civil rights and yet somehow the movement triumphed.

I think a great deal about strategy (and tactics) — I am, after all, an INTJ and that’s what we do. But I don’t tend to write explicitly about strategy because, well, that is bad strategy! Ironically, for that very reason, most discussions of strategy are written by non-strategists!

I’ll reply to Chait at length because the environmental movement seems to get beaten up for whatever it does these days (see here and here) and it can be quite disempowering to repeatedly be told that all of your strategies and tactics are flawed. So perhaps there can be a strategic value in talking about strategy, after all.

For the sake of clarity, “A strategy is a larger, overall plan that can comprise several tactics, which are smaller, focused, less impactful plans that are part of the over all plan.” That said, a very successful tactic can most certainly achieve a strategic end, like, for instance, the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956).

Chait begins by quoting McKibben out of context:

“To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement,” environmental activist Bill McKibben writes in the Huffington Post, “Keystone looks like a last chance.” It may be a last chance for the movement McKibben has helped lead — he has spent several years organizing activists to single-mindedly fight against approval of the Keystone pipeline — but Keystone is at best marginally relevant to the cause of stopping global warming. The whole crusade increasingly looks like a bizarre misallocation of political attention.

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.

Again, Chait seems to think that the environmental movement is a one trick pony that can’t fight against Keystone while fighting for EPA regs. In fact, it can do both — heck, it can do both AND fight each and every coal plant AND fight coal export terminals, all at the same time!

But by quoting McKibben out of context, Chait makes it seem that it’s McKibben who believes “Keystone looks like a last chance” — for the movement. But that’s not McKibben’s point at all. Here is the full quote in context:

If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically reset the international negotiations that he allowed to go aground at Copenhagen in 2009 — the biggest foreign policy failure of his first term.

But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.

Keystone isn’t the last chance for the environmental movement — it’s the last chance for Obama to show that he can stand up to the oil industry! I checked with McKibben just to make sure I was reading him correctly.

McKibben describes one strategic value of Keystone here — catalyzing a climate treaty. I tend to put it the reverse way: How precisely could John Kerry [and Obama] lobby other countries to join an international climate treaty after enabling the accelerated exploitation of the tar sands?

Keystone is a gateway to a huge pool of carbon-intensive fuel most of which must be left in the ground — along with most of the world’s coal and unconventional oil and gas –- if humanity is to avoid multiple devastating impacts that may be beyond adaptation.

Chait quotes from Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker story from September that James “Hansen’s dire warning about Canada’s unconventional oil deposits was based on the assumption that every ounce of oil in the sands would be burned. (Only a small fraction of the total estimated reserves is recoverable, and doing so will take decades.).” Chait then adds:

Oh! So developing the Canadian tar sands isn’t Game Over, or anything close to Game Over? While framed in the story as a minor detail, this seems like an enormously damning fact. In much the same way that conservative Republicans initially decided to shut down the government on the mistaken belief that doing so would defund Obamacare, and had to stick with their strategy once they had rallied millions of followers to the cause, environmental activists appeared to have built a strategy upon what was at best a rickety factual premise.

Fighting the Keystone XL pipeline is analogous to the GOP government shut-down strategy? Seriously? Funding Obamacare is the moral equivalent of burning one of the dirtiest pools of carbon in the world?

Charles Pierce replies in a blog post for Esquire, “Not everything is a tactic“:

I hope neither Lizza nor Chait is going to sleep at night believing that the extraction industries are going to be satisfied with the fact that “only a small fraction of the total estimated reserves is recoverable,” because I guarantee you, those same industries are perfectly willing to shred Canada to get at the presently “unrecoverable” stuff. Tar sands are the next stage of carbon-based fuels and there shouldn’t be a next stage of carbon-based fuels. The comparison with the Republicans who shut down the government is self-evidently ludicrous and unworthy of rebuttal.

Let me underscore Pierce’s point that “not everything is a tactic.” Contrary to what Chait says, Keystone is well worth stopping as an end in itself just for the multiple climate impacts from tar sands exploitation alone:

As a study I discussed last year makes clear, if the U.S. and Canada use only the proven reserves of the tar sands — 170 billion barrels, which we could do this century if production is merely quadrupled — we would blow out any chance of the U.S. and Canada contributing our share to the 2°C target. Or a 3C target.

It is simply the morally right thing to do to oppose KXL — and frankly no other justification beyond that is needed, especially since the President can stop Keystone by himself.

That said, “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory,” as Sun Tzu wrote in The Art Of War. Arguably the biggest critique of the environmental movement is that it stopped being a movement. If the only choice for people is to support a climate bill or screw in compact fluorescent light bulbs, then how precisely do you sustain a movement for the times when you need them?

We most certainly need a movement to avert catastrophic climate change. That’s why you must have fights for things at a level or scale below national legislation (or federal regulation). Certainly the civil rights movement understood that.

To quote the master strategist’s strategic masterpiece, “The Art of War,” again:

“Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.”

Well, if you keep your grassroots movement in nothing but salt water, it will die, too.

Although 30+ million Americans are alarmed about climate change and another 70+ million are concerned, there was until Keystone no grassroots climate movement to speak of. Is it possible we are going to avert catastrophic climate change without a climate movement, without their being a political cost for opposing climate action? It’s true that imposing such a political cost requires more than just an energized issue public, but it is hard to achieve that cost without one.

Indeed, the ultimate success of EPA regulations likely depends on a grassroots movement. Chait misses that key point when he writes:

The other accident at work here is one of timing. The Keystone movement developed in 2011, when environmentalists needed a cause to replace the failed cap-and-trade bill. It was only immediately following the 2012 election that the NRDC laid out a plan by which the EPA could effectively tackle existing power plants, the last big repository of unregulated emissions. The road map to solving climate change is far from certain: It involves writing a regulatory scheme to reign in existing power plants, surviving a legal challenge, and then, having credibly committed the U.S. to meeting Copenhagen standards, wrangling India, China, and others into a workable international treaty.

That plan is far from certain. But Keystone won’t affect the outcome much one way or the other. If Obama pulls off the EPA plan, then the U.S. can hit its emissions target even if it builds the pipeline. If he doesn’t, it won’t hit the target, even if it kills the pipeline.

I’m afraid Chait has not sketched out the full roadmap. He left out two key bridges. [And let's just let slide the incorrect notion that the Keystone movement developed in part because people were unaware of what EPA regs might do -- KXL was at the time a much more imminent presidential decision.]

First, if you think Republican governors are working hard to block Obamacare, imagine how hard they are going to work to block EPA state implementation plans (SIPs) that shut down actual coal plants. [This, by the way, is why I'd trade a reasonable carbon tax for those regulations.] A large fraction of the states with the most coal plants are run by Republicans. If they choose to delay/fight/obstruct action, they can certainly drag it out for many years. I for one would much rather go into this fight with an unrusty sword — a vibrant grassroots movement.

Second, while Obama’s initial EPA regulations are certainly critical for meeting the 2020 emissions target, that target was already too weak to put the US on the 2°C path — and we will need considerably deeper cuts for a 2030 target and even deeper cuts for 2040 and beyond.

Obama — or, rather, the next president and the one after that and the one after that — will need to put on the table increasingly aggressive emission reductions plans, ones that will inevitably extend beyond power plants and require new federal legislation. Again, it is hard to see how we could sustain that effort without some sort of energized climate movement.

The fight for a livable climate has just begun. We’ll need a lot of swords to win it.

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