On Wednesday, President Obama was in town for a fundraiser, and I headed down to the Hilton Chicago on South Michigan to cover the Keystone protest.
A couple things:
1) It’s telling that despite the supposed scandals engulfing the president, I saw not one person with a sign that said anything about Benghazi, the IRS, the AP, or James Rosen. The conservative echo chamber is hard at work trying to get traction on any of these issues, but the President’s poll numbers have not budged and outside of a hard core of Obama-haters, no one cares. It’s also telling that some in the media have begun referring to this potpourri of scandals as “ObamaGate”—as in no one can really identify with any clarity what the President supposedly did that deserves a “gate.” Rather the objection is simply built in to the man himself.
2) The three protests with people in significant numbers were anti-abortion activists, immigration reform advocates, and protestors against the Keystone XL pipeline. Obviously, my interest lay with the latter, but this worked as a microcosm of what people outside of the DC Kool-Aid club are actually concerned about.
The anti-abortion protestors represented the bedrock political identifier of the rural conservative coalition. For all the sturm und drang against taxes, Obamacare and big government, the heart of conservatism remains embedded in a big government battle cry to topple legal abortion. It remains the lifeblood of the movement. They flanked the two larger protests, carrying enormous billboards with photographs of bloody, crippled fetus remains and a tiny skull torn in half at the eye socket. Other signs said things like “Obama=abortion” and the classic “It’s a child, not a choice.” For the most part, though they were a subdued group, happy to let their grotesque signage speak for them.
The rowdiest protest came from the immigration reformers, who actually had the most vitriol for the revolving doors of the Hilton, which served as Obama’s avatar for the crowd. They chanted loudly, passionately, and displayed signs that said “Deporter in Chief” or one enormous, jury-rigged cardboard monstrosity that claimed the immigration reform bill currently making its way through congress was “militaristic,” “anti-family,” “anti-poor,” and “anti-human rights.” This crowd, comprised largely of Hispanics and Native Americans, had more energy but side-by-side, it was probably just a few dozen people smaller than the Keystone group. Either way, I was reminded that the worst part of democracy is people chanting. Chants are universally sillier than a rabbit in a tuxedo no matter how much you agree with them.
Since I first wrote about the Keystone pipeline a few years ago, Obama has delayed and delayed his decision on its approval. Everywhere he’s gone protestors hoping to stop the pipeline that will carry the tar sands of Canada to refineries in the Gulf have followed.
Many of the people I spoke to pointed out all the well-known reasons to oppose the pipeline.
• The number of jobs it will create is wildly inflated. The pipeline company, Trans Canada, claims it will create 100,000. In reality, the State Department thinks it will create less than 5,000 jobs, most of which will disappear once it’s built.
• Even in the absence of climate change the pipeline is incredibly dangerous to water sources. It will run through the Ogallala Aquifer, the major source of water for most farming irrigation across the Great Plains. As we’ve seen, these pipelines leak without fail and very, very often burst and wreck ecological and economic havoc. We’ve now seen two tar sands oil pipeline disasters in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Arkansas. The 2010 Michigan spill is arguably a bigger disaster than the 2010 BP oil spill that riveted America for the summer.
• The State Department hired an outside corporation called Environmental Resources Management to write large portions of its report (many of which the EPA called bullshit on). ERM, it turns out, is a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute and once had TransCanada as a client. This is a hilariously enormous scandal that no doubt will be totally ignored by the mainstream media in favor of the usual faux-"gates."
In short, the Keystone XL is a terrible idea, endangering the country in many ways with virtually no economic benefit that couldn’t be matched by throwing up a handful of wind turbines. As Shirley Weese Young, 64, told me, “This is a moment when we need leadership. This is a way Obama can show leadership on this issue. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road on climate change.”
Obviously I agree with this assessment, but I do think there’s another angle to explore on Keystone. The pipeline has become a symbol to the struggling climate movement, which is very different in proportion to it’s actual impact on climate change.
If Keystone is approved it will add somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 to 21 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. Even at the high end, that’s still a small fraction of the overall U.S. GHG footprint. In other words, it’s not the end of the world, and proponents of the pipeline will point this out, along with the capital-T Truth that Canada will try to develop their tar sands no matter what happens with KXL.
A quick aside about Canada
Canada is turning into one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. Their economy is heavily reliant on fossil fuel extraction, and they’re sitting on the second biggest pool of carbon in the world next to Saudi Arabia. The tar sands produce 20% more carbon than regular oil, and if they unearth even a decent fraction of it that does mean the end of the world. Let me repeat that: The. End. Of. The. World. To even be thinking of tapping the tar sands is patently insane, and the climate movement, which is already fighting on fifty different fronts against the richest, most powerful corporations in the history of money, is not saying the Keystone has to stop. It’s saying Canada has stop digging up its Tar Sands, period.
Jason Duba, 30, had actually been up to Alberta to see the havoc being wrecked on pristine Canadian wilderness. The tar sands companies come through, clear cut the forest, blow the earth off the Earth, and leave behind what Duba describes as, “Worse than the surface of the Moon. It doesn’t even look like the planet. It’s worse than hell.” (Click here for an idea of what he’s talking about).
However, the tar sands and the Keystone XL in particular have become more of totem, a rallying point for a movement looking to pick some kind of fight and put even the most meager points on the board.
“It’s substantive,” Cora Koehler, 19, told me. “And it’s symbolic. It centralizes climate to one issue. One of the things about climate change is people get overwhelmed. ‘What the hell am I going to do about that?’ Well, here is something you can do.”
It’s here that I grow wary of turning the Keystone into the be-all end-all of the climate movement. 350.org’s Bill McKibben started this fight, and while he’s clearly one of the most heroic people operating in any forum anywhere right now (read my interview with him here), this is not the only ball our eyes need to be on.
Very few people I spoke to at the rally wanted to talk much about forthcoming EPA regulations for existing power plants, which are a way, way, way bigger deal in terms of climate change than Keystone. If Obama can implement the NRDC plan to put a state-by-state cap on emissions it will arguably be the most important moment of his, or any other, presidency to date. The plan could contribute to a sharp reduction in U.S. GHG emissions, past the 17% promised at Copenhagen. As I’ve mentioned before, Obama’s policies to date have led to the sharpest reduction in GHG emissions ever. His approval of Keystone would be hugely disappointing, but it will not undo the other policies he’s initiated, which environmentalists are loath to admit, make him the most climate-concerned president ever (though that’s not distinguished company).
Of course, many of the people at the rally did not share this view.
“In college, I decided I wanted to devote my life to fighting climate change when I realized how real, how extreme, and how dangerous it was,” said Katy McFadden, 24, of the Sierra Club. “Here’s something the president can do without Congress, where it’s not a carbon tax, where it’s not shooting for something hopeless. When it comes to climate so far [Obama] hasn’t been blowing expectations out of the water by any means.”
Part of that carbon reduction, however, has come because of natural gas fracking. At the rally I met Sandy Janusz, 24, (yes, I try to interview as many young, attractive liberal girls as possible; that’s called reporting—look it up). She was an anti-fracking advocate from the Illinois organization that wants an immediate moratorium on fracking in the Wabash Valley.
“Yes, natural gas does burn cleaner,” she said. “But the extraction process is leading to horrible health effects on the ground. It’s a solution that’s going to cause problems in the future—mental disabilities and asthma. It will end up costing Illinois more.”
However, the story isn’t quite that simple. The contamination argument actually has more to do with what happens with fracking chemicals at the surface than below the ground, an issue that can be addressed easily by regulation. Fracking can cause earthquakes, and it may have other adverse health effects, but there’s hardly a scientific consensus around that yet, only anecdotal evidence.
Then there’s the ugly climate concern. Right now the gas boom is the entire reason coal is getting displaced, which is a lot of the reason GHG emissions have fallen. Ending the burning of coal is, in reality, the most immediate and necessary climate concern. Coal is the enemy of the planet and everything that lives on it, and we have to leave almost all of the rest of it in the ground. Therefore, even if natural gas fracking is poisoning people, causing earthquakes and birth defects, one could make the argument that it might still be worth it if only to bankrupt Big Coal. The whole “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing (I should also add there’s the possibility that it releases some amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and of course, both fuels would make far less economic sense if their pollutive externalities were properly priced via a carbon tax--so many caveats!).
And that’s why climate change is such a tricky issue, because nothing about this is going to be easy. Forget Keystone—humanity is going to have to reinvent its entire energy, agricultural, and transportation systems, and it’s going to have to be the fastest revolution in human history. Every part of it is complicated, and anyone with a utopian vision of how we can create a better world with solar panels is taking a kernel of truth and extrapolating it to a ridiculous fantasy.
There are going to be compromises and setbacks and highly muddy ethical territory. No one wants to say this, but at some point shit is going to get bad enough that democratic governments will begin to do seriously undemocratic things to control emissions. All those freedom-loving libertarians are blissfully unaware that their opposition to moderate measures now is locking in a future when the government will become a much more onerous presence in the economy and people’s personal lives.
The bottom line
...Is that if Obama approves the pipeline, it will be a way more serious black eye to his presidency than any of this other horseshit engulfing the hopeless yapping mouths of the commentariate. Yet it will not be the end, either for what he can do about the climate or what ordinary people can do about the pipeline. Already over 60,000 people have signed a pledge to begin a massive wave of civil disobedience should construction begin.
“I’d be willing to get arrested,” said Vilija Alecksa, 19, and, along with Koehler, a student at Elmhurst College. The two talked about going to Nebraska for the campaign of civil disobedience that would follow an approval of KXL.
“I’m getting paid $1,000 for an internship this summer, and I’d be happy to use it all as bail money,” said Koehler.