The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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What the Science March Was Like

I went to the March for Science, as promised, on Saturday. My husband went to our local satellite march (he was brainstorming chants for days ahead of time. My favorite of his: Science Yes!/Silence No!), but I felt a need to be in DC. So, I arranged to spend the week with my mother, and she and I bought tickets on a bus chartered by the university in my hometown. We went marching together.

My mother, incidentally, is a scientist, a geologist, specifically. I am trained as an ecologist, though I’m a science writer, rather than a researcher. It was our march.

It was not an ideal day for marching. The rain started just as we got on the bus, and the sky proceeded to variously spit and drizzle throughout the day, while the air temperature held steady around 60° F. Hypothermia weather. Heat travels much faster through water than through air, so wet weather gets dangerous at a much higher temperature than dry weather does. A four hour rally preceded the actual march, which took an additional two hours or so, a long time to stand or walk out in the rain. We kept ourselves as dry as possible and checked in with each other frequently.

I’ve been cold in DC before. At my first climate march, four years ago, the weather was cold and blustery. But that was in February. This time, in April, the grass had greened up, most of the trees had leafed out, the spring color enlivened and relieved by white and pink flowering dogwoods and the blond and white monumental architecture of the city. Tiny, winged elm seeds and fallen, string-like, oak flowers clotted together in the streets, and the slicked and flowing water turned everything silver and vague beneath dark, grey cloud. Sometimes the pavement shone with isolated grains of glitter, presumably shed from someone’s costume or sign. There is a loveliness possible, on a rainy day.

Our bus dropped us off near the Capitol Building, but the rally and the beginning of the march was at the Washington Monument, so we had to walk a good distance just to start. Clumps and clots of people, some carrying signs, moved in the same direction, presumably fellow marchers. One of my favorite things on march days is watching people converge, seeing actual, undeniable evidence that other people–maybe a lot of other people–are showing up.

As we arrived, we could hear the rally already in progress. The grounds were full of streaming lines of people. We went through security (a simple, efficient process, but one that did not occur on prior marches) and joined the crowd, which seemed largely organized around a big stage and a scattering of large video screens and tower speakers hung from cranes.

Unfortunately, I’m somewhat sensitive to sound. I don’t mean my hearing is especially acute, I mean that noise that is too loud drives me nuts. We found that there was no happy medium between being too close to those giant speakers for comfort, and too far away to clearly hear what the people on the stage were saying–which was too bad, because some of them seemed like they would have been interesting. Bill Nye was one of them. I have no idea what he said. Some of the others introduced themselves by saying their names, institutional affiliations, and the proud shout “I am a SCIENTIST!” Everybody cheered. I have no idea what they said, either.  But there were bands playing in between each speech, and the music was good.

Instead of listening to the people I couldn’t hear (I really hope all of that is posted online somewhere so I can watch it), I milled around, trying to spot anyone I might know, looking at signs, and people-watching. A few people wore pussy hats. One person wore a polar bear costume. Two dressed as dinosaurs and fought with each other and inspired frantic barking by various small dogs. At least one person wore a Beaker costume, as in the anxious Muppet who says “meep!” and works as a lab assistant to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Beaker showed up on a lot of signs, too. He seemed to be popular, as were t-shirts from my beloved XKCD (the best geeky internet comic, ever).

Organizers had suggested we either wear whatever we normally wear as scientists or dress as our favorite scientist. Accordingly, I saw several Einsteins and Darwins and at least one Bill Nye (other than the real Bill Nye, of course, whom I did not see except on the giant screen). I had been planning on wearing a hat similar to one worn by one of my science heroes, Tom Wessels, and I wished sincerely I had not forgotten it–that hat would have kept the rain off my head.

Finally, we surged out of the rallying grounds and onto the march route…and then we stopped, standing still in the road. After a few minutes, a strange sound issued from up ahead and grew and swelled…people were cheering! The wave of cheering passed over us–we duly cheered as well–and swept on behind us, and no, none of us knew why. We advanced maybe fifteen feet and stopped again. This went on for almost an hour, start and stop and start again, interspersed with cheering, and by the end of that hour we’d traveled only a few hundred feet.

“This is a good sign,” I told the people behind us. “The same thing happened at the climate march in New York, and that march was really big.” They seemed to agree with me, so I said it again to someone else. I meant that maybe there were so many people that we’d clogged up the route. I really hoped that was the case. Another wave of cheering passed over us.

In the middle of a demonstration, you can’t tell how big it is or why anything is happening.

I people-watched some more, and found the Wonder Twins, in full regalia, holding a banner, which I forgot to read because I was busy reading the Twins’ capes–which identified the scientific specialty of each and the fact that one of them was transgender, the other cisgender. The original Wonder Twins did not wear capes and had nothing to do with science that I remember, but I liked the costumes and we chatted for a while.

I read more signs.

SCIENCE HAS NO AGENDA

MARA LAGO WILL BE SO FAR UNDERWATER, YOU WON’T BELIEVE HOW UNDER WATER IT WILL BE

HAD POLIO LATELY? ME NEITHER: THANKS, SCIENCE!

BF IS MY BFF! (BF Skinner reference)

MY MONKEYS CAN WRITE BETTER EXECUTIVE ORDERS! (under copies of two paintings that did appear to have been made by monkeys or apes)

IT’S SO BAD, EVEN THE INTROVERTS ARE HERE. PLEASE DON’T TALK TO ME.

There were a lot of signs in which SCIENCE was an anagram for something, or written out using the Periodic Table or other suitably sciency symbols. There were quotes from Einstein, Thoreau, Emerson, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan. There were lots of signs using “trump” as a verb, as in “facts trump opinions.” There were puns on the word “resistance” involving electronics. There was a sign with the words SCIENCE and TRUMP separated by three parallel lines with a slash across them. I asked the man holding it what the symbol meant. “Exact opposite of,” he said. A popular sign read “science is like magic, except real.”

Which is pretty much true. It’s common knowledge that many branches of science grew out of magic–chemistry began as alchemy, and so on. Arguably, it remains magic, it’s just effective magic. I mean, any good wizard claims to have special knowledge and insight into how the world works and to be able to transform the world as a result. Scientists and engineers do just that. It actually is possible to make lead into gold, and gold has been made from bismuth. It is possible to change the entire climate.

What this march reminded me of were the Druids. I cannot find a really reliable source to cite here, so please don’t take my word for this, but I have read that the Druids and bards together were the educated class of the Celts and performed social roles that we now might identify with clergy, law, art, and science. And they were politically powerful, standing up to fight the Roman Empire. Everyone knows that the Romans tried to eradicate the Christians, but they quite literally slaughtered the Druids, too. Well, maybe the Druids are rising.

Perhaps the people carrying the REVENGE OF THE NERDS signs harbored a similar sentiment.

Other than the mysterious cheering, we were mostly quiet. A group of men beside us discussed possible chants: “If P is low/the null hypothesis has got to go!” which is definitely catchy, but instead of chanting it they began quietly discussing whether they were remembering the principal correctly, given that one of them hates statistics and the other is a physicist with dyscalcula (the math equivalent of dyslexia). I have a similar problem, and the physicist and I commiserated for a while. We never got around to chanting about P values. Around then was when I spotted the glitter floating by on the rainy street.

We still hadn’t gone anywhere. The advantage to not going anywhere was that we were still relatively close to the stage, and we danced to keep warm as long as they kept playing. My mother recognized the groups, though I did not. It was fun.

Finally, we got going, and some chants did start up. “Science, not silence” was popular. My favorite was “don’t pretend that you don’t care/science gave you back your hair!” My other favorite was “What do we want? SCIENCE! When do we want it? AFTER PEER REVIEW!” Which is extra-awesome because I first saw it as a joke on social media captioned “why scientists can’t have protest marches,” or some such. But we can, and we did, and peer review is important, so there.

We continued marching, without incident, back to the Capitol building and our bus home, though we did pass a few counter-demonstrators who seemed to think that we were all atheists (they held signs asking whether we had been brainwashed by professors who denied and mocked God. Of course, I can’t imagine any real science professor even mentioning religion in class, much less mocking it). Other demonstrations seemed to be embedded in ours, like inclusions in some larger mineral mass. We passed socialists handing out leaflets, anti-fascists with their own signs and chants (I suspect most of us agreed with them, but they did seem to be their own group and held their own miniature rally at the end of the march), and an abortion rights contingent, complete with their own counter-demonstration of pro-life people. I’ve never seen anything like that before, this symbiosis of highly disparate groups within the same overall system. My mother and I stopped, once, so she could buy lunch from a food cart, and once again so she could buy a dry sweatshirt to wear on the bus. Did I mention it was raining?

I was struck, all but literally, by how different this march felt from every other political protest or demonstration I have attended. There was no sage smoke. There was very little drumming, and no one costumed as Uncle Sam or Big Daddy Oil, or other such motifs. At all of the others I kept seeing the same signs and hearing the same chants, from march to march, regardless of what the specific event was supposed to be about. At the pipeline rallies, a large number of participants carried signs that had nothing to do with the land use issues and Native American rights placed front-and-center by organizers. No, it seemed to be just the usual suspects in for a generalized pro-environment event. But at the science march, it was all science.

A few “I’m with her” signs with pictures of the planet on them could have been previously used at other events, but mostly it was incredibly focused. Even the typical chants were missing. We knew them–someone started up with “show me what a scientist looks like/this is what a scientist looks like,” a clear riff on a recurring chant about democracy, but even that died out pretty quickly. It was just a different type of crowd.

When we, the marchers, spoke to each other, we tended not to make statements. Instead, we asked questions, mostly about what each others’ signs and shirts said or meant. “What kind of scientist are you?” was frequent. The kind who asks questions, apparently.

This march even felt different.

In every other demonstration or protest I’ve been on, there has been a definite pep-rally vibe. Someone starts chanting “the PEOPLE, UNITED, will NEVER be defeated!” and you feel all optimistic, like yeah, power to the people! And only later, afterwards, do you remember that if the people were actually united around progressive politics, we wouldn’t have elected Donald Trump, and anyway, united people are defeated routinely by folks with money and guns. We come back, but we do get defeated. The pep rallies help, of course, for a while.

This time, I felt no such surge of optimism–but no pessimism, either. We didn’t need to boost ourselves up. Our message wasn’t “we’re going to WIN,” but simply “we are here.” And, even more simply, “the world is what it is.” After all, we’re scientists. As many of the signs pointed out, facts don’t care whether you believe in them or not.

Whether we win or not, global warming is real. Whether scientists get the funding they need to watch it or not, anthropogenic climate change will continue to happen until we collectively stop making it happen. The world needs scientists, and individual scientists, of course, are part of the needing world. But the truth of that need exists whether the rest of the world recognizes it or not. There is a certain serenity in that.

It was nice to rally with the scientists, to see signs and hear chants that you actually need to think, to know something, or to ask questions to understand, to be in among the crowd that has never been the in-crowd, and know that today, this is our place, 40,000 of us strong. Today, we are the cool kids.

But it wasn’t a pep rally. It didn’t need to be. It was just rockin’ with the Druids in the rain.

 


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Step by Step

So, a few people took a walk together on Saturday. Perhaps you were among them?

First, I’ve just got to say it, THAT WAS A VERY BIG DEMONSTRATION!!! Millions of people across the world stood up and shouted and waved signs for women’s rights and other, related issues. YAY!!!

And yet I’m not feeling optimistic right now.

Too many wrong and dangerous things are happening, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it right now. We can jump up and down and wave signs, but the sad fact of the matter is that our elected officials have no reason whatever to believe that our enthusiasm is going to translate into political cover at the ballot box–because we just had an election, and right wing climate deniers swept both houses of Congress and the White House.

And to be clear, those electoral losses weren’t entirely our fault. While the many people who simply chose not to vote at all surely bear some responsibility for our current fix, there is also gerrymandering. There is voter suppression. There is the vast influx of money that has been busily building up and entrenching what became Donald Trump’s base for at least the past eight years. The opposition is currently larger than the recent election results imply. But if the system is indeed rigged now, it will not likely be less so by the time the next election comes around. Even if our leaders believe we want to have their backs, why should they believe we can deliver?

I don’t want to vent too much of my personal negativity–I don’t want my bad mood to become contagious. Our focus must be on solving the problems we have, not bemoaning them. But at the same time, I am feeling so personally overwhelmed that there isn’t very much I can do. Honestly, I spent most of yesterday in the grip of an utterly debilitating anxiety attack.

It would be nice if there were simply a to-do list to check off. That way, we could take this whole process step by step, without confusion, digression, or overload. I wrote one up shortly after the election, posted it, and did some of the things on it, but that was a one-off. I need a regularly updated list. I also need that is, within its parameters, reasonably close to exhaustive. A random smattering of things to call my senators about, for example, isn’t good enough–because even if I signed every suggested petition and made every suggested call, there would still be that one bill or that one political appointment that passed, like a thief in the night, utterly without my knowledge until after the fact. And I don’t know about you, but that sort of thing makes me want to weep and rend my garments and star blankly off into space when I should in fact be doing something useful.

I have been unable to find such a list, so far. I am thinking of making one.

Several guiding principles are apparent, right now:

  • The political resistance needs an environmental focus. As I have written before, the central objective of the Trump Administration appears to be the undermining of climate action. While many other aspects of Donald Trump’s plans seem very troubling, as far as I can tell, he and his major investors have little to nothing to gain from either misogyny or racism directly. They stand to gain enormously by forestalling climate action, however. Dog-whistling up deplorables is almost certainly a means to an end for them, therefor, and it is at that end–at the head of the beast–where the battle must be joined.
  • The political resistance must be intersectional, inclusive, and reciprocal. There is a meme going around Facebook right now in which a brown-skinned hand holds a sign, reading “So, all of you nice white ladies are going to show up at the next Black Lives Matter rally, right?” That meme has a point, and it is a point that could be launched at environmentalists just as easily as towards white feminists. There are those among us who are fighting for their survival–the anti-pipeline fights by Native American nations, various economic and political refugees, and trans and gender-nonconforming folk all spring to mind as other examples. For those of us not at immediate risk, supporting those fights is not only the right thing to do, it is also the only way we can, in good conscience, ask the others to sign on board with environmentalist fights. Climate action is part of justice, and we all need it, but we can’t reasonably expect anyone to fight for future generations if they’re busy fighting just to live to see tomorrow.
  • This blog can address a broad spectrum of political issues and yet remain strictly non-partizan. This blog is not Democrat. It is not Republican. It is not Green Party. It is not Libertarian. It is not Democratic-Socialist. I draw a strict distinction between taking a politically controversial position (e.g., transwomen ought to be able to use the same toilets that ciswomen do) and identifying with a specific political party. In general, the focus will remain on climate change, even though I may provide information on engaging with other issues (such as the time and location of the next Back Lives Matter rally, if I can find that information).

What I want to do is to create a couple of pages associated with this site that will list, in a comprehensive way, various actions that readers might want to take. And I’ll update those lists regularly. Perhaps one page for things to write or call elected officials about, one for links to petitions, and one for upcoming marches, direct actions, and related events. I’ve long wanted a page for links to scientific resources and one for other blogs as well, so I’ll do those, too.

And then I can get back to using the blog itself largely to talk about science and current events.

But I can’t do any of this alone. It’s just too much work to do on the limited number of hours per week I can spare for paid work.

I need donations. I need sponsorship. $50-$100 per week would take care of it. Split several different ways, it’s not all that much. Please.

 

 


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Looking Back

It’s time for our New Year retrospective again–here is a summary of the climate-related stories that caught my attention in 2015. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive or representative list. It’s in no particular order.

Looking over this list, I feel no particular optimism, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. I have a cold at the moment, which might make it difficult to remain up-beat.

Extreme Weather

The American Northeast became ridiculously snowy (although not unusually cold). California’s drought continued, as did drought in places like Texas and, for part of the summer, the Eastern states of the US. All of those places except California have also seen catastrophic flooding. Wildfires swept the Northwest of the US, from Oregon to Alaska and in to Western Canada. Several firefighters died. The planet as a whole set another heat record, and many new local heat records were set as well—few if any cold records. We saw some insanely powerful hurricanes and typhoons as well, all in the Pacific. Some of this wild weather is clearly due to our being in an El Nino, but climate change may play a role as well. It’s not either/or.

Fossil Fuels

The public process by which new offshore areas, including parts of the East Coast, could be opened to oil exploration has begun.

After years of largely symbolic political maneuvering, President Obama finally said No to the Keystone Pipeline.

A number of oil trains crashed. Same as last year. I hate that those two statements go together.

Shell Oil pulled out of its attempt to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska—which looks like a victory, but it is likely to ramp up pressure to be allowed to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge instead.

Electoral Politics

The US Presidential campaign is now well underway. And while the Democratic candidates at least are all climate-sane, the media has not been treating that aspect of their campaigns as important. I’ve been covering this issue because we have to win this next election, “we” being the climate sane, and the Democrats look like the vehicle to do it. This blog is neutral on all other issues.

ExxonMobile

We have learned that the energy giant knew about global warming decades ago, despite its more recent denialist rhetoric. Given that I knew about global warming decades ago, too, and I was a child whose father simply read a lot, I don’t see how this is a surprise. Still, there have been called to prosecute the company for fraud and I support those calls.

Paris Accord

The world’s leaders got together and decided that destroying the world would be a bad idea. Ahead of the summit, we in the US organized a series of demonstrations in support of a strong climate agreement and nobody noticed. I sound cynical and facetious. Actually, I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris climate accord. I am only cynical, at present, about the American political process necessary for meaningful action on the subject.

The Pope’s Letter

Pope Francis released an official open letter to his Church (called an encyclical) quite correctly describing climate change as a serious problem with a moral dimension.

Jellyfish Blooms

For the second year in a row, large numbers of jellies were seen in Maine waters, suggesting a deep ecological imbalance that is possibly climate-related—except nobody knows for sure, because we have no baseline data on jellyfish populations.

Syrian Refugees

Syria has blown up in all sorts of horrible, awful ways, from a massive refugee crisis to the formation of a really scary international terrorist organization that likes to behead men and sell girls as sex slaves in the name of God. And yes, climate could have played a role. These stories go back before this year, but it was in 2015 that they became dominant in American news (finally).


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This is what Democracy Looks Like

So, over the weekend, people all over the world came together to demonstrate how important climate action is to them. In Washington DC, only a few hundred people showed up.

Two of them were my husband and I.

We couldn’t get anyone from our area to carpool with us. Nobody seemed to have even heard about the event, and I would not have heard of it except I went looking for the information essentially on a hunch that there might be an event. The RSVP button on the organizer’s website didn’t work. We couldn’t find the regional carpool in Annapolis. We drove to the New Carrolton subway stop, parked, and took the train in. Then we walked around the city for a while, not entirely sure if the meeting point was really where it was supposed to be.

Finally we realized that among the hundred or so tourists milling around on Pennsylvania Avenue, two dozen seemed clumped around a banner that said something about fossil fuels. Almost equal numbers milled around what looked like semi-permanent kiosks dedicated to world peace and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It wasn’t an awe-inspiring site.

We joined the climate group and introduced ourselves and the organizers gave us posters to wave and cards printed with information for another demonstration that may or may not happen two weeks from now (apparently they haven’t decided yet). Gradually, more people started trickling in, until by the time the organizers started lining us up for photos, the crowd looked about two hundred strong. Eventual police estimates were between five and six hundred, and from inside the crowd at least we seemed like a pretty big group.

We walked around the blocks that contain the White House, eventually returning to our starting point. Our group contained men and women, young and old, able-bodied and otherwise…as far as I could tell, all but one of us were white, which I found disappointing (I don’t think people of color were excluded in any way, but the homogeneity suggests some kind of failure to communicate). Organizers led various chants and songs, and eventually the pep-rally aspect of the whole thing lightened my mood and for a while I forgot to be dismal about the low turn-out.

Afterwards, we emailed the organizer about the low turn-out and learned that actually more people showed up than she’d expected. She regarded the event as a sideline to the main demonstrations in Paris.

That I consider a serious miscalculation. For one thing, most of us can’t get to Paris, so if we’re going to stand up and be counted, we have to do it closer to home. For another, in the United States, our delegates in Paris (including our President) aren’t the problem. They already understand that climate is important. It’s our congress and our news media that still need to get the message–things are moving in the right direction, but we need to keep pushing. As long as Congress is dominated by climate deniers, Mr. Obama will be strictly limited in his ability to make any climate agreement stick. We really could have used a turn out of a few hundred thousand.

There were other US demonstrations, of course, including some that did much better than DC’s, but none were really huge, and DC, being our nation’s capital, should have been one of the big ones. And we have seen that kind of turnout before–organizers who intend to draw tens or hundreds of thousands generally do, because time and again I’ve seen them successfully plan logistics for the correct order of magnitude of crowd. For example, in the two DC events we attended on the Keystone Pipeline, there were portable stages set up on the Mall for rallies. Those things must be expensive, and the organizers would not have taken the plunge if they weren’t pretty sure enough people would show up to justify it. Police also need accurate estimates for crowd size so they know how many officers to deploy and how long they will need to block off traffic from the route. This week’s event was planned to be small (megaphones rather than sound systems for the rally, moving roadblocks rather than the entire route being closed to traffic at once) and it didn’t disappoint in that regard.

Who decided it would be a good idea to demonstrate a small interest in climate in our nation’s capital?

Sometimes I think that that old joke is true, that Democracy is a system by which everybody gets what the minority deserves. But while I was mulling over such thoughts, my husband had a much more concrete concern. He missed a specific chant he remembered from last time.

“How did that go? Something about what Democracy looks like?”

He said this a few times, wistfully complaining about the chant he’d liked. I jogged his memory, and together we remembered the wording.

“SHOW ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” he shouted, after a while.

“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” I responded, though I don’t quite have his vocal power. We repeated the call and response a few times, and on the third repetition three or four people around us joined me on the response. After that, fifty or sixty joined. When my husband stopped to rest his voice, someone else took up the call, this time remembering the second variation–“tell me what Democracy sounds like/this is what Democracy sounds like” and alternating between the two.

The chant died away but then bubbled up again from another part of the marching column. From then on, our chant alternated with others in regular and chaotic fashion:

SHOW ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE/THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE/TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY SOUNDS LIKE/THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY SOUNDS LIKE!

THE PEOPLE/UNITED/WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!

HEY, OBAMA/WE DON’T WANT NO CLIMATE DRAMA!

WHAT DO WE WANT? CLIMATE JUSTICE! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW! IF WE DON’T GET IT/SHUT IT DOWN! IF WE DON’T GET IT/SHUT IT DOWN! IF WE DON’T GET IT/SHUT IT DOWN! IF/WE/DON’T/GET/IT, SHUT/IT/DOWN!

And on and on. We were tickled that we’d managed to add something, that something we started just by shouting was taken up by others and rippled up and down a crowd of people we didn’t even know.

And see, that is one of the things that Democracy looks like; start something, and the people around you may start doing it, too, a pretty soon it gets bigger than you. It can happen.*

 

 

 

*Ok, technically speaking, successfully starting a chant is an example of mob dynamics, but the event reminded me that it’s possible to have an influence on things. So, not democracy, but the sort of optimism democracy engenders and requires. Cheered me up, anyway.

 


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Ding Dong! The Pipeline’s Dead!

I have written a lot of posts on the Keystone Pipeline over the past few years. This one might well be the last; today President Obama formally and finally rejected the project. Obviously, I’m pleased, but not so much because of the pipeline itself–as I’ve discussed before, the importance of Keystone XL has been primarily symbolic. One pipeline more or less is not going make all that much difference in terms of climate change–what is going to make a difference is who gets to frame these kinds of issues, who gets to decide what energy and land-use questions means. And a victory on Keystone is an encouragement to and a vindication of those people of think the environment–and especially climate–matters.

Today we got that victory.

And the thing I’m really excited about is the way President Barack Obama explained his decision. You can read the full text of his speech on the subject here. It’s not very long, you should click on the link and read it.

But the thing about that got me going is encapsulated by just two passages:

Now, for years, the Keystone Pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse.  It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter.  And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.

And

America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change.  And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.  And that’s the biggest risk we face—not acting.

Isn’t that interesting? That he said both that the pipeline is mostly symbolic and that rejecting the pipeline is a critical part of exercising–and deserving–global leadership on climate change. What does this apparent contradiction mean? In means that that Mr Obama is making a symbolic statement. He intends precisely to give those who care about climate change a victory.

Which means we have to use that victory, act on it, take advantage of it and expand on it. We need to keep the momentum up–to stand behind the symbol and make sure that the United States really is willing and able to lead on that. How?

Vote.

Volunteer and donate for the campaigns of candidates with strong climate platforms.

Continue to insist that the media take climate change seriously.

And show up for demonstrations–demonstrate to our elected leaders that if they lead on climate we will have their backs. Show them that if they commit to real, radical change in Paris next month we will support them. There is another global day of action coming up on November 29th. Click here to find and join an event near you. Let’s make this one big.

 

(Note: the title of this article is the creation of my husband, Chris Seymour. He wanted me to mention that)


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You Win Some

Right now my state (Maryland) is having a spot of weather. I like to report on extreme weather for this blog, but I’m going to wait until next week when we know exactly what the story is. For now–

Recently, my social media feed has filled up with congratulatory posts on apparent climate change-related victories. I’m not sure all of them are as good news as they seem, but at least they’re not bad news. Let’s review:

Nebraska land cannot be taken by eminent domain for Keystone

The fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline is being fought on many fronts. One of those fronts is in Nebraska where a group of ranchers have been fighting to keep the pipeline from going over their land. Their argument is that if the pipeline leaks (which it will, eventually), the oil will get into the groundwater and make it impossible to earn a living from the land. Also, part of the Nebraska pipeline route passes over the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the major water sources for American agriculture. A spill there, or in the sensitive Sandhills region, would be catastrophic.

The backstory on this victory is a little convoluted:

The pipeline as a whole cannot be built until the President signs off on the project because the pipeline crosses a national boundary. President Obama has so far refused to do so–he hasn’t said he won’t, and seems to be putting off committing himself for as long as possible, but he doesn’t seem to be in favor of the project, either. But even if he (or another President) does approve the pipeline, each state on the route must also approve it. If any state says no, the pipeline will be stuck. Nebraska has, officially, said yes. In 2012, the state passed a law that gave authority on pipelines to the Governor, who then approved the project. Some of the landowners said no, though. When TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, started to use eminent domain to take the land they needed, the owners of 81 properties sued on the grounds that the original law is unconstitutional. They say pipeline decisions should be made through the Nebraska Public Services Commission, which is more responsive to public opinion than the governor is.

So this past week, TransCanada dropped the lawsuit. That means the Governor’s approval is irrelevant and the pipeline must be reviewed by the Commission–a process that will take several months. At the very least, pipeline opponents have won some time, and the Commission could say no to the pipeline. In the meantime, no eminent domain. So, yay.

But it’s important to realize that TransCanada dropped the case because they think doing so is the best way to get the pipeline built as soon as possible. The Commission will render a decision in a couple of months, after all, whereas the courts could have held up the matter for years. This is not really a victory for anybody yet.

Shell decides not to drill in the Arctic Ocean

President Obama gave Shell approval to drill in the Arctic Ocean some weeks ago, much to the disappointment of environmentalists (my social media feed filled up with pronouncements that he’s a hypocrite–he’s not, he’s a politician and that means making trade-offs sometimes). This week, Shell announced that they’re not going to drill after all, becoming the latest in a series of companies to scrap Arctic Ocean plans. The company cited poor results from a test well combined with low oil prices for their decision. The Arctic Ocean is a difficult and expensive place to drill and requires a huge return–high oil prices or a huge amount of oil or both–to make it profitable. At the moment, Shell anticipates getting neither out of the deal so they have decided to cut their losses.

Naturally, environmentalists are cheering over this, jumping up and down about how Shell is “out of the Arctic.” Except that it isn’t. It’s out of the Arctic Ocean. There’s still a lot of oil in Alaska, and Alaska’s economy is still largely dependent on oil. The revenue that would have come from this project now has to come from somewhere else–somewhere else in Alaska. Like, for example, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They’ll be pushing hard for permission to do just that.

The US and China Agree to Work on Climate Issues Together. Again

This past week, the US and China announced a mutual agreement to work on climate issues in both domestic and foreign policy. Now, this is the third time they have done so, and I have yet to find any clear description of how these various agreements differ from each other. As far as I can gather, this new agreement is not much different from the earlier ones–it may indeed contain additional commitments (I just can’t tell because I can’t find a side-by-side comparison, so far), but much of it is simply a reaffirmation of existing commitments. It seems the two Presidents were simply checking up on each other, discussing their respective progress, perhaps. And both have made important progress since last time they spoke.

Frankly, if the Presidents of the two most powerful countries in the world decide to hold a press conference every couple of months to say “WE STILL BOTH THINK CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL, GUYS!” I am really ok with that.

A Day of Climate Action

Ok, this one isn’t a victory–yet. But there’s a huge network of coordinated demonstrations planned all over the US for October 14th. Remember how we all showed up for the People’s Climate March last year and the media started taking climate seriously all of a sudden? Well, let’s do it again. Click here to find an action near you.

 


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And in Comes O’Malley

Martin O’Malley has just thrown his hat in the Presidential ring, a move that surprises no one who has been watching his career. His presence also makes the race a bit more homey for me, since he has just completed two terms as Maryland’s governor and that is my state. Unfortunately, he’s a relative unknown outside the state, and the buzz so far is that he’s not going much of anywhere this time around. A recent cartoon depicted the “O’Malley Bandwagon,” being drawn by a rocking-horse. But he’s young enough that he could easily try again, perhaps with a cabinet-level position in the meantime to round out his resume.

But how is he on climate change? What would it be like if he did win?

Martin O’Malley is like the other two Democratic hopefuls in that we don’t have to rely on his campaign promises to guess how he’d do on climate as President–he has already shown his colors as Governor of Maryland. And his colors are surprisingly green. He has been called a climate hawk, and his interest in the environment isn’t just political. It’s entirely genuine. He’s taken some heat from climate deniers of late, who pounced on his assertion that climate change is a “business opportunity,” as if he were some kind of opportunist. Of course, that isn’t what he meant–he meant that actually doing something about climate change is not only the the right thing, but also the profitable thing. And he’s exactly right–there’s nothing fiscally responsible about environmental disaster.

Under Mr. O’Malley’s leadership, Maryland really stood out on climate and related issues. He has set goals of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (from 2006 levels) by 25% by the year 2020 and by 80% by 2050. He brought the state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a functional carbon pricing program that raises money for energy-efficiency programs that can lower residents’ utility bills. He released the Maryland Climate Action Plan, in 2008, championed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, and started Maryland’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Program and got the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act passed, both in 2013.

Then there’s the goal of diverting 65% of our waste from landfills by recycling and composting, in order to reduce methane emissions. There’s the tree-planting program designed to deepen carbon sinks. There’s the expansion of rail lines in Baltimore and in Maryland’s D.C. (reduces car traffic and related emissions). Public buildings follow highest International Energy Conservation Code from the International Code Council. Residents who cut peak-time electricity usage get discounts on their bills. Mr. O’Malley held ClimateStat meetings every quarter, where he was genuinely enthusiastic about the proper presentation of data.

Has all of this worked?

So far, yes. Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone down, and although much of the decrease was actually due to the Great Recession and other such factors, the state has done somewhat better than the country as a whole–even as its population grows faster than average.

How many of these programs will hold in the face of our new, pro-business, Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is anybody’s guess, but Mr. O’Malley could have taken steps to try to slow reversal of his policies; what many environmentalists see as his one major failing, his issuing of strict guidelines for fracking (as opposed to not considering fracking at all), can be seen as an attempt to make it harder for Governor Hogan to write his own, loose guidelines (in fact, Maryland remains under a moratorium on fracking, which Mr. Hogan agreed to not veto).

Mr. O’Malley does have a somewhat deserved reputation for verbal awkwardness (he’s a bit of a geek, though he also plays in an Irish rock band called O’Malley’s March) but he can talk the talk on climate change, too. He brought up climate change in his very first Presidential campaign speech and features the issue prominently on his website. He has publicly acknowledged that Maryland is feeling the effects of climate change already. He has unequivocally opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, in part on climate grounds. Of national energy policy, he has said “An all-of-the-above strategy did not land a man on the moon. This is a systems engineering challenge, as was landing a man on the moon,” and that reducing greenhouse emissions should be the explicit goal of American energy policy.

Mr. O’Malley is the real deal on climate, and he is a careful, strategic politician. Whether he manages to be a serious contender for the White House this time around or not, he will be one in the future. Speaking strictly as the author of a single-issue blog on climate change, I am very much ok with that.

 

 

 

 


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Jack vs. Jenny for Climate

I could do an entire series on Presidential contenders and climate change, but barring a major change in the field I probably won’t. There is no real reason for me to cover the Republicans, unless one of them comes out strongly in favor of climate action (something I dearly wish would happen), and I’m guessing that  the Democratic field is more or less set, now. Yes, a Warren campaign would be fun to see, but she has disavowed interest for this cycle and we badly need her in the Senate right now. Her political star is rising and she will have time to run for President (and quite possibly win) at some point in the future. Joe Biden has run before but has no plans to do so now. His Presidential boat has probably sailed sailed. Martin O’Malley has shown some interest, and he certainly has his merits, but nobody outside of Maryland has heard of him and he has not announced.

So, we’re looking at Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

We’re also looking at the most important American Presidential election the world has ever seen. I’m not indulging in hyperbole, this is the big one. President Obama has made an important start on dealing with the problem, but he’s only been able to act through executive order, which means his successor could wipe out all his gains with the stroke of a pen–and without US leadership, much of the world’s climate response will fall apart. It’s not that the US is a shining example of climate concern–we’re rather the opposite–it’s that a huge portion of the problem belongs on our doorstep and everybody knows it. We got rich and powerful as early adopters of fossil fuel, and the only way to get countries like India and China to forgo their fair share of that wealth is for us to bite the bullet and clean up our own mess. And since the chance of getting a climate-sane veto-proof majority on both houses of Congress is roughly nil, and since we really don’t have time to wait another four or eight years  to act on this issue, the upcoming Presidential election is basically about saving the world. Or not.

So, the big question is, which Democrat should climate-sane people support? Yes, I said Democrat; the place to create a viable third party is in state and local elections. Who can go toe-to-toe with whichever champion the Kochs decide to anoint?

(The title of this post, by the way, is a reference to the male and female Democratic hopefuls; most people know that a male donkey is correctly called a jack, but less well-known is that female donkeys are jennets or jennies. I find the idea of “jenny” as a technical term for an animal completely charming. And, the unfortunate connotations of “ass” notwithstanding, donkeys make fine political mascots–they are extremely strong and sure-footed, and they have a reputation for not letting people push them around.)

Personally, I would love for Mrs. Clinton to become President. She is clearly capable of doing the job and it is simply ridiculous that the United States hasn’t had a female chief executive yet. But I hardly ever hear her speak on climate and she has a reputation (which may or may not be deserved) for political expediency. Would she really make the issue a priority if it got in the way of her ambition? Mr. Sanders clearly has no problem whatever with political integrity (if he were interested in lying to improve his image, he wouldn’t call himself a socialist) and his loyalty to liberal, progressive causes is unassailable. And while it’s true that he seems a long-shot for the White House, so did Mr. Obama, and for almost exactly the same reasons (complexion aside, of course). But those were first impressions, and the moment clearly needs more than that. So, let’s take a look at these people. And since both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders have extensive experience in office, we have something other than campaign promises to look at.

Bernie for President?

Bernie Sanders’ senator’s website (as opposed to his campaign website) includes a poll on climate change. The first question asks respondent to choose between cutting Medicare and similar programs and imposing a carbon tax on “big polluters” as a method of deficit reduction, so the political bent of the poll is obvious. The point is to frame climate change as a liberal, progressive issue and to paint any objectors as big-business bullies who want to take money away from old people. I don’t really like such bald politicking, and I worry that it could backfire by further alienating social and fiscal conservatives from the environmental cause, but at least Bernie and his advisers are willing to put a lot of their eggs in the climate basket. That’s a good sign.

(I make a point of using respectful last-name address here, but Bernie likes to be called Bernie, apparently).

Bernie Sanders is a career grass-roots politician with a long record of dedication to economic and environmental issues. He has been almost continually in office since 1981, first as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then in the US House of Representatives and now the US Senate, where he currently serves. He is 73 years old, so we can expect his physical fitness to be questioned at some point, but Mrs. Clinton is almost as old as he is and both belong to a long-lived generation. He has spent much of his career advocating for the middle class and for alternative energy, especially distributed solar energy (household solar panels rather than the solar equivalent of a big power plant).

He is currently ranked 1st on climate leadership within the Senate and in recent years has sponsored or co-sponsored a number of important climate-friendly energy bills (that went nowhere, unfortunately). He is certainly aware of oil money in politics and openly refers to it as an adversary he intends to conquer by mobilizing massive grass-roots support–an inspiring image. He attended the People’s March for Climate Change (as did I) and is responsible for a brilliant little political move earlier this year; he amended a bill that would approve the Keystone XL Pipeline with a question on climate change, forcing Senators to go on record as to whether they believed climate change is real.

However, Mr. Sanders has stopped short of asserting that all remaining fossil fuel should stay in the ground. There is some speculation that he might say it, but he hasn’t yet. And of course there is the question of whether he can get elected in the first place, given that he is an outspoken giant-killer. Giants don’t like giant-killers and they fight back.

Hillary! Hillary! (maybe)

Hillary Clinton actually had a very good voting record on environmental issues as a Senator–87%, according to the League of Conservation Voters, a record that would have been higher had she not missed some votes while campaigning for President eight years ago. In that campaign, she included an ambitious climate action plan in her platform.  On climate alone, in fact, her record is nearly as good as Mr. Sanders’, it’s just that he talks more than she does about it. Almost more to the point, Mr. Clinton has supported exactly the same climate policies as Barack Obama, both as a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008 and when she was Secretary of State. That means that she has disappointed environmentalists and will probably continue to do so (as Secretary of State she championed fracking overseas, ostensibly because natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned than coal), but she is a vocal opponent of climate denial and has stated that “the unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.” Wherein she is absolutely right.

Where does this leave us?

So, where does all this leave us? In a pretty good position, actually. It means that whichever of the current two hopefuls actually get the Democratic nomination, we’ll have a major-party candidate who takes climate change very seriously and will, if elected, preserve and possibly extend Mr. Obama’s critical executive actions and diplomatic work on the issue. And it’s encouraging that they each have a passionate fan base that has been calling for their champion to run since approximately twenty-five minutes after Mr. Obama took office for his second and final term. We could win this.

The question really comes down to which one is more likely to beat a Republican and which one, if elected, is going to be better able to enact the climate-sane policies they both want.

At this time, I actually think that Bernie Sanders is the more electable of the two, and not because, or not only because, he is male. The issue is that neither of them are going to be able to win with a centrist, appeal-to-moderate-Republicans strategy–though Mrs. Clinton may try, since she seems to be temperamentally a pro-establishment moderate Democrat. The problem for her is that a lot of people really dislike her and always have. Frankly I do think sexism is part of it; as a candidate, Bill Clinton had a serious political problem in the person of his powerful, outspoken wife, who quite clearly was going to help him run the country if she could. A female President is no longer quite so scary a prospect a quarter-century later, but the venom spit on her then still clings to her career. She remains the target of an ongoing series of ad-hominem attacks thinly veiled as controversy and scandal. She can’t make people like her who don’t already. Like Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Clinton is only going to be able to draw additional votes by mobilizing people who would not otherwise vote at all–and as a pro-establishment politician, she’s unlikely to be able to do that. Bernie Sanders can and already is; radicals have been trading Bernie Sanders quotes on Facebook for a couple of years now.

But could Bernie Sanders use the Executive Branch effectively if Congress proves as intractable for him as it has for Mr. Obama? As an experienced legislator he clearly knows how to work with the Legislative Branch, but that won’t help if it refuses to work with him and that may happen (see my earlier comment about giant killers). Maybe he can, but he’s something of an unknown in that respect. Mrs. Clinton, in contrast, has extensive experience with executive power and diplomacy, and while she’s even more likely to face a hostile Congress (see my earlier comments about people disliking Hillary), it is entirely clear that she can and will play hardball when necessary. We will not lose President Obama’s climate actions on her watch.

We have time in which to make up our minds (or to watch registered Democrats make up theirs, in states with closed primaries). What we do not have to for is to be lackadaisical about making sure that everyone gets out to vote this time. We cannot see a repeat of the recent mid-term election, when liberal and progressive voters stayed home and pro-business, anti-climate candidates swept gubernatorial and congressional races in state after state.

The Earth has to win this one.

 

 


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They Actually Said It!

This past Saturday, Garrison Keilor devoted his News from Lake Woebegone radio monologue to bemoaning this year’s mild winter in Minnesota. I had not been following Minnesota weather this year, but apparently it has not been the deep and bracing freeze its residents have learned to expect–parts of the Eastern seaboard have been colder and gotten more snow. Mr. Keilor says that it is cold, severe winter that gives Minnesotans their regional identity, their chance to feel useful and competent. He is being comical, of course, but the best comedy has a heart of truth and his is very good comedy.

“Please, God,” he says at the end, “give us back our winter. We need it.”

Garrison Keilor is generally liberal but apolitical on air–it’s a big deal when he weighs in on a controversy or does more than poke equal-opportunity fun at public figures. A week or so ago, he made one of his very rare exceptions to point out that no one wants to find themselves at the mercy of an incompetent professional, such as an airline pilot complaining of a hangover or a surgeon who didn’t do well in med school–or a Congressman who doesn’t believe climate change is real.

An equally dramatic, but less fun, they-actually-said-it moment occurred on Thursday, on the PBS Newshour, when Gwen Ifill said the following:

Charles and David Koch may not be running for president, but they are certainly poised to decide who will. The billionaire brothers are raising their collective profile this year as political kingmakers, courting presidential hopefuls and making plans to spend nearly a billion dollars on the 2016 election, outstripping both major political parties.

Notice this: “Charles and David Koch may not be running for president, but they are certainly poised to decide who will.” That is not right. In the United States of America, the presidency should not be decided by a single pair of brothers who just happen to be two of the five richest people in the country. And while PBS has a reputation for a liberal bias, that reputation is largely undeserved. In fact, the PBS Newshour specifically has taken criticism for under-reporting climate issues and some PBS member stations or TV programs benefit financially from the Koch brothers, whose money comes, in large part, from the oil industry. Whether that criticism in turn is deserved is debatable, but clearly the Newshour, at the very least, gives the Kochs their due. For a news anchor on the show to openly admit that the brothers, and not the American electorate may choose our next president is a very big deal.

So, what are Mr. Koch and Mr. Koch planning on doing with the $889 million they hope to put into the 2016 election?

According to CommonDreams.org,

[The Kochs’ political action network] aims to advance a conservative platform that prioritizes austerity, deregulation, and privatization while opposing efforts to address climate change. Of Freedom Partners, the tax-exempt business lobby that sits at the center of the Koch-backed political operation, the Post‘s Matea Gold writes: “the group’s ultimate goal is to make free-market ideals central in American society.”

Austerity, deregulation, and privatization together generally mean the principle that the government should neither limit the activities of those who make money nor engage in social programs and public services that might require the collecting of taxes for funding. The Kochs want a clean field in which to make money.

That may sound unfairly cynical–certainly free-market ideals are often presented in vaguely populist terms of freedom and fairness for everyone. But even if the brothers are not acting out of pure self-interest, their political agenda serves their personal interests very well. It’s also worth noting that although the Koch brothers and their immediate allies are hardly alone in pouring private money into politics–liberal shadowy donors exist as well–the Kochs operate on a completely different scale. Between their own money and the donations they receive, no other individual in the country can command the kind of cash either of them do.

These men have a long and established history of supporting–arguably, creating–climate denial, through both electoral politics and the support of denial-focused organizations. While the brothers probably donate much of their personal wealth to their causes, they also raise money from other donors. In either case, the donations are typically anonymous. Where the money goes is also hard to trace, but much of it goes into creating climate doubt. It is not difficult to see why, given that the family fortune comes from the oil industry. Interestingly, they own a chunk of Canada the size of Delaware that sits right on top of huge tar sands deposits–the same oil that would flow if the Keystone XL pipeline ever gets finished.

So let’s state this plain; Charles and David Koch want to buy the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections in order to prevent anyone doing anything about climate change. And they are already raising the money and choosing their candidates.

If they succeed, their climate-denier president will be able to roll back all the executive actions President Obama has taken. That means ignoring international agreements and tying the hands of the EPA. We will not only not move forward, we will move backwards. We’ll be locked into leading the world on warping the climate until at least 2020–a critical timeline, since we know the world has to transition away from fossil fuel beginning now in order to have any chance of staying under 2 C°. This election is make-or-break time, for all of us.

So, how likely are these people to succeed? Likely enough that I’m worried. And likely enough that the brothers themselves are betting millions of dollars on the project. But it’s not quite a sure thing. Almost half of Americans polled say that climate change is a major threat to the country, and while that number is much lower than it should be, it is politically  significant. Some two-thirds of the country actually support the EPA’s regulation of carbon and many are willing to pay extra to reduce emissions. If those people who believe the problem is real voted for candidates who also take climate change seriously, then we will get the presidency and possibly a majority of at least one house in Congress.

So, the climate deniers are already raising money and organizing. Are we?


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Keystone Again

The Keystone XL Pipeline is back in the news.

For months, President Obama has been holding off making a decision about the pipeline, pending the results of a court case in Nebraska. A week and a half ago, that case was thrown out of court, ending one chapter of the story and beginning the next.

The case involved a state law that approved the pipeline route through the state and gave TransCanada the power of eminent domain. According to that law, if the pipeline corridor crosses your land in Nebraska, you can’t do anything about it. Three landowners fought back with a lawsuit claiming that such decisions should not be made by the legislature and governor but by the Public Service Commission. While a county court agreed with them, the state Supreme Court threw the case out because, somewhat bizarrely, the landowners don’t have standing to sue in this matter.

The new Republican-dominated Congress has meanwhile made it their first priority to pass a Federal law requiring approval of the pipeline at the Federal level. The House of Representatives has passed such a measure at least three times already, but it has always been defeated in the Senate. This time, with the same party in charge of both houses, the bill is likely to pass the Senate as well–not that it matters. To pass a bill requiring a President to do something he does not want to do is a bit silly, considering that the President has veto power.

The Senate is currently in the early stages of what will likely be a long, drawn out debate on the issue, with various individuals tacking various largely symbolic amendments on to the bill. Democrats have added an amendment that would acknowledge that climate change is real, a neat trick. Republicans have countered with an amendment that would prevent the EPA from considering climate in environmental impact assessments. If the Senate passes a bill that includes both these clauses, what kind of message will that send?

For so much time and effort to go into a bill that does not have the votes to override Mr. Obama’s promised veto is bizarre. It isn’t, after all, as though Congress doesn’t have anything else to do. For Republicans, Keystone seems to have gained nearly the same symbolic weight as the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Why?

The Republican version of the Keystone story is that the pipeline will lower American energy prices and provide a large number of much-needed jobs if only Mr. Obama will get out of the way.  The Party has a long history of public concern over the unemployment rate. But estimating the number of jobs a pipeline will create is notoriously difficult–even the number of short-term construction jobs could end up being much lower than proponents claim. The State Department estimates that only 35 permanent jobs will be created. It is even possible that the pipeline could ultimately increase regional unemployment, if large numbers of people move into the area to take temporary construction jobs and are then laid off.

As to energy prices, pipelines in general don’t stabilize prices, and Canadian oil flowing through pipes to Texas for export does not directly effect American energy availability anyway.

If global warming and the likelihood of oil spills were not factors, the Keystone XL pipeline might well be at least marginally good for the American economy, but not to the extent that would justify the priority Republicans have placed on it. And that other major Republican bastion, defense against government “meddling,” should be totally at odds with the prospect of eminent domain–the Governor of Nebraska has given a foreign-owned company permission to take people’s land, essentially for its own benefit. Why isn’t the radical right up in arms about this?

The cynical might guess that, once again the Republican Party is kowtowing to Big Business–that concern over jobs, energy, and regulatory relief are all thinly veiled code words for a basic corporate friendliness. The cynical may have a point. And yet, in this case the most obvious beneficiaries of building the pipeline would be the Canadian oil industry. Is this a case of Big Business transcending boarders?

It may be, but my guess is that this is about narrative.

The Republican Party is trying to control the narrative, trying to be the one whose framing of events the public accepts. From that perspective, it is irrelevant whether Keystone XL helps the American economy and it is nearly irrelevant whether the pipeline even gets built. Votes in the House that go no place still count as strikes in the larger cultural war.

Why Keystone? Because liberals care about it.

Critics sometimes point out that for all the furor around the Keystone XL, other pipelines are being built across the country with little or no fuss. As a line in the sand, this one looks arbitrary to some. In point of fact, some of the other pipeline projects do receive a share of controversy, most people just never hear about it. Moreover, there is indeed a reason to focus on Keystone; out of all the pipeline projects, it is the one that President Obama has the power to say no to, because it crosses an international border. Mr. Obama constituency is the entire country and he is just one person. A national movement can speak to him in a way it couldn’t if final decisive power lay in the hands of dozens of state and local officials. And the President does actually pay attention to environmental issues. In order words, this one is winnable in a way that the fights over other pipelines may not be.

But all that being said, if KXL is defeated, a very large and multifaceted minority will celebrate a huge symbolic victory.

It seems likely that the Republican Party, which is very corporate-friendly, is trying to prevent that victory. They are also gunning for a national debate in which the economy represents the highest imaginable good, clean water and clean air are not considered relevant or important, and the homes, livelihoods, and families of farmers, ranchers, and indigenous peoples do not have meaningful standing.

If they achieve such a limitation of parameters, there are fights more important than one 36-inch pipeline that they can and will win.

It is true that much of the discussion around Keystone has been tangential to climate change, the main point of this blog. But within this one story are all the major sub-themes that govern what is going on in the atmosphere:

  • Who benefits from environmentally risky or destructive practices?
  • Who makes decisions about the use of land and other resources?
  • Who pays for environmental accidents when (not if) they occur?
  • What is the responsibility of those who use petroleum products, thereby creating demand?

And, perhaps most importantly,

  • Of all the things the United States has traditionally called its own, which are we willing to give up and why?