Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: on moving beyond protest

The email pleas started flooding in yesterday from every environmental and liberal advocacy group on the net -- sign the latest petition to the Senate to oppose Republicans' latest attempt to resurrect the Keystone XL tars ands oil pipeline. We did. The counter at 350.org reads 802,180 as I write this. That fight goes on. Thrust and parry; pipeline pushed forward and pipeline blocked ...

Jim Schultz at the Democracy Center has some sharp observations about this struggle. Shultz has been around a lot of fights, from California's initiative wars of the 1990s through Cochabamba, Bolivia's water revolt against privatization. He recounts the story of how the Keystone XL pipeline become a prime issue for environmental campaigners, beginning with Nebraskans who raised the alarm about the harm Canadian oil might do to their water supply. Their cause was joined by climate change activists bent on curbing carbon-spewing fuels who saw an opportunity to push President Obama in election season. Publicity and a mass civil disobedience encouraged Obama to delay the pipeline and then to deny it a permit. Opponents were jubilant while Republicans still think they have been handed a stick to beat the President with, that citizens worry more about gas prices than the hypothetical dangers of global warming. That's where the matter stands today.

Schultz has some thoughts:

Why is the battle against the Keystone pipeline so urgent? If there is one thing we have learned from the fight against coal (by far the single largest U.S. contributor to climate change) it is that once corporations have made big investments in infrastructure, they will fight tooth and nail for decades to squeeze the last return possible out of that investment, environmental concerns be damned. Another 50-year infrastructure investment in petroleum in the U.S. means another 50 years of political battle to wean our economy off oil.

Converting Keystone XL from being an invisible issue to being a global cause is a major achievement, as was convincing President Obama to reject permits for the pipeline. But in politics, on issues this big, leveraging can work in the short-term – but in the end public opinion bats last. Now that actions at the White House have made Keystone a major national issue, we are going to have to win not just the protest game but public opinion as well. That won’t be easy. Keystone backers have a far bigger megaphone and have already spent millions in donations to Congress to buttress their case.

It is in the nature of strong advocacy to expect a backlash. Ultimately winning depends on your ability to meet that backlash head on and defeat it. To ultimately win, opponents of Keystone XL need to make the case on the merits to the public, not just on the politics to the President. We need to make clear that the jobs estimates are wildly overblown; that the winners from all that environmentally reckless oil transport will not be families and communities but corporations; and that those who oppose the pipeline are all kinds of Americans not just one kind. Finally, we are going to have to make and win the most fundamental case of all on climate – that the environment we will bequeath to our children and their children matters so deeply that this time we need to leave the oil right in the ground where we found it, even if someone has to sacrifice a hefty profit in order to do so.

My emphasis. That is, election year pressures from strategic sectors (such as some Democratic donors) won't win this battle over the longer term. If we want to move toward policies that guard and preserve the habitability of the planet, we must convince strong majorities that action is necessary and an urgent priority.

Though most citizens (Tea Party die-hards excepted) believe that global warming is happening, less and less of us are concerned enough to want to make hard choices about what to do.

And that is Schultz's point: the Keystone XL project will keep coming back until strong majorities slap it down and additional carbon-fuel exploitation comes to seem unthinkable, perhaps suicidal.

That's the way of democratic decision making. Interested minorities can keep bringing their pet hobby horses back even when majorities think the issue has been settled -- look what we're seeing from the Catholic bishops as they try again to enforce their condemnation of birth control. It's extremely unlikely that fight will help the President's detractors -- he has the people on his side. But on climate issues, the public is not there with us yet. So winning against the Keystone XL won't stick unless the public becomes convinced that ending fossil fuel exploitation expresses their values. Stopping Keystone XL can't seem some kind of worthy but rotten-tasting medicine pushed on them by enviro freaks. We've got a ways to go.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

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