McKibben: Will Global Warming Be an Election Issue After All?

by Bill McKibben, in a re-post from

Conventional wisdom has it that the next election will be fought exclusively on the topic of jobs. But President Obama’s announcement last week that he would postpone a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election, which may effectively kill the project, makes it clear that other issues will weigh in — and that, oddly enough, one of them might even be climate change.

The pipeline decision was a true upset.  Everyone — and I mean everyone who “knew” how these things work — seemed certain that the president would approve it. The National Journal runs a weekly poll of “energy insiders” — that is, all the key players in Washington. A month to the day before the Keystone XL postponement, this large cast of characters was “virtually unanimous” in guaranteeing that it would be approved by year’s end.

Transcanada Pipeline, the company that was going to build the 1,700-mile pipeline from the tar-sands fields of Alberta, Canada, through a sensitive Midwestern aquifer to the Gulf of Mexico, certainly agreed.  After all, they’d already mowed the strip and prepositioned hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pipe, just waiting for the permit they thought they’d bought with millions in lobbying gifts and other maneuvers. Happily, activists across the country weren’t smart enough to know they’d been beaten, and so they staged the largest civil disobedience action in 35 years, not to mention ringing the White House with people, invading Obama campaign offices, and generally proving that they were willing to fight.


No permanent victory was won. Indeed, just yesterday Transcanada agreed to reroute the pipeline in Nebraska in an effort to speed up the review, though that appears not to change the schedule.  Still, we’re waiting for the White House to clarify that they will continue to fully take climate change into account in their evaluation.  But even that won’t be final.  Obama could just wait for an election victory and then approve the pipeline — as any Republican victor certainly would.  Chances are, nonetheless, that the process has now gotten so messy that Transcanada’s pipeline will die of its own weight, in turn starving the tar-sands oil industry and giving a boost to the global environment.  Of course, killing the pipeline will hardly solve the problem of global warming (though heavily exploiting those tar sands would, in NASA scientist James Hansen’s words, mean “game over for the climate.”)

In this line of work, where victories of any kind are few and far between, this was a real win.  It began with indigenous activists, spread to Nebraska ranchers, and eventually turned into the biggest environmental flashpoint in many years.  And it owed no small debt to the Occupy Wall Street protesters shamefully evicted from Zuccotti Park last night, who helped everyone understand the power of corporate money in our daily lives.  That these forces prevailed shocked most pundits precisely because it’s common wisdom that they’re not the sort of voters who count, certainly not in a year of economic trouble.

In fact, the biggest reason the realists had no doubts the pipeline would get its permit, via a State Department review and a presidential thumbs-up of that border-crossing pipeline, was because of the well-known political potency of the jobs argument in bad economic times. Despite endless lazy reporting on the theme of jobs versus the environment, there were actually no net jobs to be had from the pipeline. It was always a weak argument, since the whole point of a pipeline is that, once it’s built, no one needs to work there.  In addition, as the one study not paid for by Transcanada made clear, the project would kill as many jobs as it would create.

The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson finally demonstrated this late in the game with a fine report taking apart Transcanada’s job estimates. (The 20,000 jobs endlessly taken for granted assumed, among other stretches, that modern dance troupes would move to Nebraska, where part of the pipeline would be built, to entertain pipeline workers.)  Still, the jobs trope remained, and you can be sure that the Chamber of Commerce will run 1,000 ads during the 2012 presidential campaign trying to hammer it home. And you can be sure the White House knew that, which was why it was such a tough call for them — and why the pressure of a movement among people whose support matters to them made a difference.

Let’s assume the obvious then: that one part of their recent calculations that led to the postponement decision might just be the suspicion that they will actually win votes thanks to the global-warming question in the next election.

For one thing, global warming denial has seen its apogee. The concerted effort by the fossil-fuel industry to underwrite scientific revision met its match last month when a team headed by Berkeley skeptic and prominent physicist Richard Muller — with funding from the Koch Brothers, of all people — actually found that, what do you know, all the other teams of climate-change scientists were, um, right. The planet was indeed warming just as fast as they, and the insurance companies, and the melting ice had been insisting.

Still, scientific studies only reach a certain audience.  Weird weather is a far more powerful messenger. It’s been hard to miss the record flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and across the Northeast; the record drought and fires across the Southwest; the record multi-billion dollar weather disasters across the country this year; the record pretty-much everything-you-don’t-want across the nation. Obama certainly noticed.  He’s responsible for finding the cash every time some other state submerges.

As a result, after years of decline, the number of Americans who understand that the planet is indeed warming and that we’re to blame appears to be on the rise again. And ironically enough, one reason may be the spectacle of all the tea-partying GOP candidates for the presidency being forced to swear fealty to the notion that global warming is a hoax. Normal people find this odd: it’s one thing to promise Grover Norquist that you’ll never ever raise taxes; it’s another to promise that you’ll defeat chemistry and physics with the mighty power of the market.

Along these lines, Mitt Romney made an important unforced error last month. Earlier in the primaries, he and Jon Huntsman had been alone in the Republican field in being open to the idea that global warming might actually be real. Neither wanted to do anything about it, of course, but that stance itself was enough to mark them as realists.  It was also a sign that Romney was thinking ahead to the election itself, and didn’t want to be pinned against this particular wall.

In late October, however, he evidently felt he had no choice but to pin himself to exactly that wall and so stated conclusively: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.” In other words, he not only flip-flopped to the side of climate denial, but did so less than six months after he had said no less definitively: “I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world’s getting warmer… And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that.”  Note as well that he did so, while all the evidence, even some recently funded by the deniers, pointed the other way.

If he becomes the Republican presidential candidate as expected, this may be the most powerful weathervane ad the White House will have in its arsenal.  Even for people who don’t care about climate change, it makes him look like the spinally challenged fellow he seems to be. But it’s an ad that couldn’t be run if the president had okayed that pipeline.

Now that Obama has at least temporarily blocked Keystone XL, now that his team has promised to consider climate change as a factor in any final decision on the pipeline’s eventual fate, he can campaign on the issue. And in many ways, it may prove a surprise winner.

After all, only people who would never vote for him anyway deny global warming.  It’s a redoubt for talk-show rightists. College kids, on the other hand, consistently rank it among the most important issues. And college kids, as Gerald Seib pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last week, are a key constituency for the president, who is expected to need something close to the two-thirds margin he won on campus in 2008 to win again in 2012.

Sure, those kids care about student loans, which threaten to take them under, and jobs, which are increasingly hard to come by, but the nature of young people is also to care about the world.  In addition, independent voters, suburban moms — these are the kinds of people who worry about the environment.  Count on it: they’ll be key targets for Obama’s presidential campaign.

Given the economy, that campaign will have to make Mitt Romney look like something other than a middle-of-the-road businessman.  If he’s a centrist, he probably wins. If he’s a flip-flopper with kooky tendencies, they’ve got a shot. And the kookiest thing he’s done yet is to deny climate science.

If I’m right, expect the White House to approve strong greenhouse gas regulations in the months ahead, and then talk explicitly about the threat of a warming world. In some ways it will still be a stretch.  To put the matter politely, they’ve been far from perfect on the issue: the president didn’t bother to waste any of his vaunted “political capital” on a climate bill, and he’s opened huge swaths of territory to coal mining and offshore drilling.

But blocking the pipeline finally gave him some credibility here — and it gave a lot more of the same to citizens’ movements to change our world. Since a lot of folks suspect that the only way forward economically has something to do with a clean energy future, I’m guessing that the pipeline decision won’t be the only surprise. I bet Barack Obama talks on occasion about global warming next year, and I bet it helps him.

But don’t count on that, or on Keystone XL disappearing, and go home.  If the pipeline story (so far) has one lesson, it’s this: you can’t expect anything to change if you don’t go out and change it yourself.

Bill McKibben is a founder of, a TomDispatch regular, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

19 Responses to McKibben: Will Global Warming Be an Election Issue After All?

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice essay, Bill. You’ve got your hands full here, but I hope that you work with British Columbians to oppose the proposed route through their own wilderness. First Nations members are especially outraged, and less willing to compromise.

    As someone said, the keys to our future are to leave the oil in the soil, and the coal in the hole. You’ve inspired a lot of people here, and it’s nice to know that you won’t give up.

  2. M Tucker says:

    I predict that the Republican candidates will hammer him on killing jobs by delaying the XL pipeline extension. From the Republican point of view: any and all regulations kill jobs, the EPA is evil and represents job killing government overreach. Any new proposal to legislate GHG, which of course does not exist and no one is even talking about possibly maybe eventually drafting another, will be attacked as a job killer and a massive cost of living increase for the American people. The rabid conservative media drumbeat will be: Obama the job killer.

  3. was up in vancouver yesterday, met with tons of people who are ready to go to work fighting pipelines!

  4. Morris Meyer says:

    Consider the campaign optics weather disaster in the US next year, as Obama talks about addressing climate change with clean energy jobs and the growth in the solar industry, compared to the Republicans who would deny that the extreme weather wiping towns off the map is a problem, and that we should make the situation worse by cutting funding for clean tech and not putting a price on carbon.

    The GOP Wurlitzer will definitely be whirling, but on balance defying reality makes them look looney and unelectable.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    A Question, and A Question (For Bill) About The Question

    “Dear President (and candidate) Obama: If you are reelected, will you approve, or not approve, the Keystone XL pipeline?”

    This is, of course, a crystal clear question that could be posed.

    My question for Bill McKibben is this: Will you,, and the broader movement pose this question to President and candidate Obama, clearly and vigorously and repeatedly, until we either get an answer or until it becomes crystal clear that the President appreciates the importance of the question, understands that it has been asked of him, and yet refuses to provide an answer?

    I applaud your efforts, Bill, and those of, and have attended many of your events out here. That’s not the issue. I DO disagree with what you seem to be saying about the size and nature of the recent “win” — the President’s decision to delay his decision, which perhaps is the clearest way to understand what has (and hasn’t) actually happened. But even that difference in assessment is not important, now. What’s important is what is done going forward.

    One of the essences of the present post (above) involves the question of whether climate change will be an issue in the upcoming election, and if so, how big of one. Of course, all any person can do — all we can do — is choose our own actions. Thus, one ACTIONABLE question is this: Will we pose the question about Keystone XL, listed above, to President (and candidate) Obama? Will we pose it clearly and rigorously? Will we expect an answer? Will we “demand” an answer? Will we let the President know that we want, expect, and require an answer?

    There are other possible — and very concrete, and very easy — “next steps” that would help ensure that climate change will be an issue — and a necessary and responsible one — in the upcoming election. I listed some ideas in the recent post (last weekend) that sought suggestions. One of them would involve a post, on Joe’s part (and perhaps yours), and an associated request, addressed to four specific folks: the President of Harvard, the two leaders at Bain, and the head of the IOC. (Their names are in my comment under the earlier post.) Of course, Romney’s entire background and educational/professional credibility, prior to his governorship, are associated with Harvard, Bain, and the Olympics. In any case, I’ve explained the idea in the earlier comment, so please take a look, if you haven’t already.

    Another idea (also explained in earlier comments) involves ways to help ensure that the pivotal climate change questions are included in at least some of the upcoming Republican debates. After all, the debates aren’t all on Fox. Most of them are on PBS, NBC, ABC, and CBS. Joe’s efforts, and yours, could go a long ways toward encouraging, and prompting, any media organizations who presume to still consider themselves responsible, to include pivotal climate change questions.

    The scientific organizations should also INSIST, to the media organizations, that such questions be included. And they should go public, loudly, to do so. Perhaps Joe’s efforts, and yours, could help the scientific organizations “realize” this and take action.

    In any case, back to the question: Will you, and, be asking the question (listed above) of President Obama?

    In the meantime, I am beginning to look into the Green Party candidate. One potential candidate, as I understand it, is a Doctor from Lexington, MASS — a lady — who sounds (based on the very little reading I’ve done) pretty darn good, so far. I’m also interested in hearing about that idea that arose a month or so ago, about running a slate of candidates against President Obama in a Democrat Party primary process, hopefully as serious candidates but, at least, if for no other reason, than to force President Obama to debate real issues and clarify to POTENTIAL voters his stances. I am not going to offer my vote, this time around, based on vague “hope” and vague ill-defined promises that may not be met. No more. I think we need to pose clear questions to Obama, and get clear answers.

    To me, one of the things “at stake” is the credibility of the movement itself. At this point, I am less frustrated with (people like) Rex Tillerson, believe it or not, than I am with President Obama. Although I dramatically disagree with what Tillerson is doing — and indeed I think someone ought to sue the pants off him, at some point, and put him in prison if there ends up being any legal basis for doing so — yet at least he thinks he has “a job to do”, and he’s not pretending to be anything other than what he is. I can’t say the same, unfortunately, for President Obama, who has broken promises “right and left” and who seems to want to play political games, and make decisions that delay decisions, more than he actually wants to responsibly fulfill the promises that he made in order to get my vote the last time around.

    (Sorry for any typos. I’ve written this quickly.)

    Be Well,


  6. prokaryotes says:

    Does it matter?

    Homer Simpson tries to vote for Obama

  7. Paul Magnus says:

    Yes Yes Yes….
    “global warming denial has seen its apogee.”

  8. Paul Magnus says:

    It was an immense pleasure to be able to thank you in person at UBC for all your efforts at tackling this issue!

    You certainly deserve recognition…. like a nobel methinks.

    Keep going.

  9. Paul Magnus says:

    “the nature of young people is also to care about the world. In addition, independent voters, suburban moms — these are the kinds of people who worry about the environment. ”

    Plain old everyone, besides the staunch deniers, are beginning to realize just what GW means to our future.

    Its past ‘the Environment’ a side issue yuppies and softies fawned over. Its the environment, our place where we have been able to live, survive and prosper.

    It is clear that this is being destroyed faster than we ever anticipated, right before our eyes today.

    So, these people are not worried about the environment, they are worried about their future and their families future, and rightly so.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Spot on Morris. Ol Ma Nature is barracking for Barack and providing him with tons of ammo. He will come out fighting with a huge, and increasing, arsenal of disasters that cannot be denied. Anybody who trots out the normal nonsense that accompanies denial is just going to look silly. I expect it will only take a few rounds before it is declared a TKO, ME

  11. Ernest says:

    Whether we win politically or not, we should force the issue. One of the accomplishments of OWS is force the issue of wealth inequality into public dialogue. 2012 should not be dominated by Republican issues. Add more to the mix. There may be vehement denialists. Let them deny. Use this as an opportunity to keep talking about the issue, the evidence, the recent Muller BEST study. This is a multi-election fight, if not the fight of the next few generations. 2012 is one of those “leverage points” as people are trying to decide what direction the country should take. This is when they are paying attention. Do it for the record.

  12. Paul Magnus says:

    Obama does get GW. What he does not get is the urgency of the matter or maybe he just cant find the right path at the moment to achieve what he knows needs to be done.

    I agree with Bill. I think Obama is now prepared to move on the issue. It is after all the last chance for a reasonable shot at, at least arresting the relentless warming.

    See his essay in…
    Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril

    you can view inside of the book search for Obama or go to….

    Page 30 … The Future I Want for My Daughters, Barack Obama

    One of the things I draw from the Genesis story is the importance of being good stewards of the land, of this incredible gift.

    and this is one of those times where we’ve got to take the warning seriously.

    to recognize that we are borrowing this planet from our children and our grandchildren.

    And so we’ve got this obligation to them, which means we’ve got to make some uncomfortable choices. And potentially religious faith and the science of global warming converge precisely because it’s going to be hard to deal with…..

    We’re not going to leave it to the next generation. We’re not going to wait.

    We cannot afford more of the same timid politics when the future of our planet is at stake. Global warming is not a someday problem; it is now.

    This is not the future I want for my daughters. It’s not the future any of us want for our children. And if we act now and we act boldly, it doesn’t have to be. But if we wait, if we let campaign promises and State of the Union pledges go unanswered for yet another year… we will lose another chance to save our planet. And we might not get many more.

  13. Paul Magnus says:

    His recent speech to Australians…

    “And we need growth that is sustainable. This includes the clean energy that creates green jobs and combats climate change, which cannot be denied. We see it in the stronger fires, the devastating floods, the Pacific islands confronting rising seas.

    And as countries with large carbon footprints, the United States and Australia have a special responsibility to lead.

    Every nation will contribute to the solution in its own way — and I know this issue is not without controversy, in both our countries. But what we can do — and what we are doing — is to work together to make unprecedented investments in clean energy, to increase energy efficiency, and to meet the commitments we made at Copenhagen and Cancun. We can do this, and we will.”

  14. Paul Magnus says:

    Standing on the outside looking in: a Washington insider reviews the carbon tax
    Roy Neel is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and a long-time staffer for former Vice-President Al Gore. Roy is in Australia as a Visiting International Fellow at the University…

    Here in Australia the story could have gone the same way. You have an extraordinarily powerful mining industry that pulled out all the stops to discredit and defeat the carbon tax legislation. This well-funded bullhorn of denial even inspired death threats against several Australian climate scientists, researchers whose only crime was exploring and telling the truth about the science of climate change.

    But the Australian story is having a different ending than ours in the US. Last week your government passed an extraordinary measure creating a long-overdue price on carbon, establishing a means to fund new renewable energy projects, and setting meaningful targets for CO₂ emissions.

  15. Jim Baird says:

    As a British Columbia and ex Calgarian I have offered BC technology that addresses the cause and effect of climate change at “OpEdNews – Article: The Willie Sutton/Will Rogers Approach to Energy

    The economic opportunities in Canada developing technology that is a triple threat against global warming (reduces ocean temperature, increases ocean absorption of CO2, and produces a non-carbon transportation fuel) far exceed anything the tar sands or BC tight gas has to offer.

  16. Artful Dodger says:

    Hi Mike,

    Enbridge has offered First Nations land owners a 10% equity stake in the Northern Gateway Pipeline project in exchange for use of their Right-of-Way. In a $5.5 Billion project, that’s a $550 Million ownership share. The annual passive income is likely to be at least $55 Million. It’s also perhaps their first opportunity to participate in Canadian society as full partners.

    These groups, honorable though they may be, are not likely to take a pass on this offer. Here is Enbridge’s proposed route, filed with the Govt of Canada 2 years ago:

    Unlike the U.S., Canada has a working majority Federal Government with a 4 year mandate, one capable of passing Legislation. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s home Riding is in Calgary. You decide the likely outcome…

    Like it or not, the Northern Gateway Pipeline will be built, and will soon export 550,000 barrels per day of bitumen via it’s new West Coast terminals near Kitimat, BC.

    Western Governments are addicted to Oil, and are now spreading the addiction. I believe our best hope is on the demand side. We, and our neighbors, have to get off the black stuff. Just say no. ‘nuf said.

    Wind, Solar, Geo. Now, before it’s too late.

  17. Artful Dodger says:

    Understand and agree, Merrelyn. The sad situation is that natural disasters differentially affect the poor, while the advantaged are protected and coddled. The boot of big government stands on the throat of anyone who would speak out to slow or stop the gravy train. How many rich folks are homeless in Joplin, MO?

  18. Artful Dodger says: