Secretary of State John Kerry delivered another set of powerful remarks on climate change last night. But all his poignant words will come to nought — indeed, they’ll come back to haunt him — if he makes the wrong decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
How precisely could Kerry lobby other countries to join an international climate treaty (and move away from fossil fuels) — perhaps his primary goal as Secretary — after enabling the accelerated exploitation of one of the dirtiest sources of fossil fuels in the world?
I had thought that Obama’s strong post-reelection words on climate, coupled with the choice of climate hawk Kerry as Secretary of State, might be a double signal that the administration was prepared to kill the Keystone XL pipeline. But last week, the White House started sending signals “the president is inclined to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.”
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. That can’t happen without some sort of international agreement (or multi-lateral or bilateral agreements). And such an agreement is not possible without the U.S. taking a leadership role, since we are the richest country and the biggest cumulative polluter.
Kerry certainly understands the risks posed by climate inaction. Yesterday at the National Geographic Society’s Ross Sea Conservation Reception, he said:
I have seen this fragile ecosystem change before our very eyes, whether it’s a problem of acidification, a problem of pollution and development, a problem of ice melt and potential ecosystem collapse, to the rise of the sea levels, which is happening in various parts of the world….
The entire system is interdependent, and we toy with that at our peril….
So climate change is coming back in a sense as a serious international issue because people are experiencing it firsthand. The science is screaming at us, literally, demanding that people in positions of public responsibility at least exercise the so-called “precautionary principle” to balance the equities and not knowing completely the outcomes at least understand what is happening and take steps to prevent potential disaster.
… I’m here to tell you that, proudly, President Obama has put this agenda back on the front burner where it belongs, that he has in his Inauguration Address and in his State of the Union Address and in the policies he’s working on now said we are going to try to exercise leadership because of its imperatives.
[Well, figuratively, not literally….]
But I’m not sure if Kerry has thought through the international implications of approving Keystone. The United States has already undermined its standing to cajole other countries into climate commitments by expanding oil and gas drilling as well as coal exports. But none of those were Kerry’s decision, whereas Keystone is.
Yes, the U.S. has a serious shot at hitting Obama’s Copenhagen pledge of a 17% cut in CO2 emissions from 2005 levels — if the President embraces strong emissions reductions from existing power plants. But let’s not pretend that target is either especially hard to hit or scientifically meaningful (see “Developed Nations Must Cut Emissions In Half By 2020, Says New Study”).
That is to say, the fact Kerry can go to the other big emitters and commit to meeting Obama’s pledge is a necessary minimum condition to achieve a climate agreement — but it is not sufficient. He needs some moral standing, he needs to be able to demonstrate to the world the U.S. understands that far deeper cuts are needed post-2020 and that means not sticking new spigots into huge, dirty carbon pools like the tar sands.
Kerry needs to show that his words are more than words, that he actually hears the screams from the science — and from generations yet unborn. Kerry must recommend to Obama that Keystone be killed. And Obama must agree — and no, Kerry will not gain anything if Obama were to over-rule him. Quite the reverse: That would be a vote of no-confidence in his Secretary of State on climate issues and make of Kerry a paper tiger.
Kerry starts as Secretary with clean hands on climate. But approving Keystone would be like dipping his hands into the dirtiest, stickiest tar imaginable — they could never be cleaned again.