Taking the Long View on Keystone

Taking the Long View on Keystone

When you work on climate, time is usually of the essence; every moment of delay makes the problem worse and harder to reverse. Yesterday’s decision by President Obama to order a second environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline is unusual in that it buys the climate movement a tiny bit of time. Time not only to work out a strategy that will ultimately halt the pipeline and rapid development of the Tar Sands, but, most critically in my view, that will increase long-term public engagement on climate.

Taking the long view on climate is paramount in addressing climate change, but all too often it is absent from climate campaigns, especially when there is an impending decision. This is why we consider it among the Seven Reasons Why the Public Is Not Engaged on Climate and why we spoke to several experts earlier this week about how campaigns, especially those involving protests, over immediate issues such as Keystone contribute to long-term public engagement. In the aftermath of Obama’s decision to delay—which is a victory to celebrate and a sign of the vitality returning to the environmental movement — this is even a more relevant and important discussion to have, as leveraging this moment to ensure long-term success on energy and climate issues is key.

Ted Glick is policy director of of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which is part of the coalition trying to stop the pipeline. He says that it has been an “exemplary campaign” where a lot of work was done to keep the protests non-violent, on message and featuring a broad coalition of voices, including farmers, landowners, and religious leaders (“It was important to show that this was not some narrow group of disaffected radicals”). According to Glick, “The Keystone XL fight has done a great deal to advance an understanding about the need to make that clean energy revolution, and the costs of not doing so.”

When we spoke with him on Wednesday, he predicted that Obama would do what he did on Thursday, which was put off making a final decision until after the 2012 election. Glick considers this a victory and says that such short-term wins are important: “In building a movement you do really need to win victories to keep people’s morale up, and give people a sense that we really have a chance to win over time.”

For Meg Bostrom, co-founder of Topos Partnership and researcher on climate, peace and security, economic and other national priority issues, what matters more is what sort of win it is. “It’s difficult that we have all of these do-or-die moments that we put all of our credibility on, and if we win, it’s not that big of a win—it’s a short-term win not a long-term win. And if we lose, we gain nothing the way we handle the narrative now…. The only way to change the thinking is for us to make a clear-cut case that each of these are battles in a larger war.

She worries that Keystone pipeline protests, despite efforts to the contrary as noted by Glick, are coming across to the general public as “impractical environmentalists yet again protesting against oil.” Bostrom also is concerned that the public response to the coalition’s emphasis on the likelihood of oil spills is “‘well then it’s the job of government to make sure that pipeline is built safely so there won’t be a spill’ when really the reason we’re against it is because of Tar Sands, and that gets lost in the whole mix….This is another one of those situations where we are complaining about a problem, and we don’t have a solution. It’s not like we’re coming out and saying, ‘do A, not B.’”
I was recently on a call with my colleague Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Climate Access Advisory Board Member, with a group of climate advocates discussing the role of the Tar Sands protests in building support for action on climate. I’ve been thinking about something Tony said ever since. He proposed that what is missing is an “ecology of meaning” on climate issues that helps provide a context for those protesting and choosing to engage in civil disobedience in particular.  Because climate change has yet to be a top-tier political issue as well as a concern discussed around the kitchen table, protesting energy developments can seem removed from the rest of what people are worried about – such as jobs and the economy.

This is why Gideon Rosenblatt, former executive director of Groundwire and author of the Alchemy of Change blog, thinks that the real long-term strategy should be changing our economy, a la the Occupy movement.  “All of this stuff is Band-Aids in a way, and sometimes you need Band-aids to stop the bleeding,” he says. “But the root cause is the way that a company like Trans Canada is run–all the incentives that they have in place and the economic infrastructure that surrounds them. The ultimate frame here is not just about climate, it’s about a social system and a economy that allows companies to come in and set the agenda for society.”

To Rosenblatt, it’s essential to think about what the long-term alternative actually looks like “and working to build the power of the players who can actually make that happen, and then ultimately weakening the power of those who would stop it.”

Glick agrees that articulating solutions is something that the Keystone coalition can do a better job of. He adds that part of the problem lies with the nature of media coverage and their interest in covering the conflicts between oil companies and pipeline opponents as well as jobs vs. the environment. “When you have it painted in those kind of ways it’s hard to get the solutions message out there. That probably is a weakness but I’m not sure we can do a lot to change it.”

Again, the coalition to stop Keystone should be congratulated on its victory (however temporary) and the intention here is not to take away from what they’ve accomplished, but to assess what can be added so that campaigns such as this can lead to larger victories.

Events yesterday helped put the Keystone issue on the map so while we appreciate this moment, let’s also recognize we have to create a broader context of meaning on energy and climate issues to reach the majority of Americans and Canadians who have yet to have heard about Keystone and understand why relying on the Tar Sands is not wise given global warming. The more success the Tar Sands and Keystone activists have, the more it calls on the rest of us to articulate within our own personal networks how energy choices and the risks we are facing from climate change are connected and why action is required now to ensure well being in our communities moving forward. We must reach beyond the Beltway and engage those who may want to do something but who either can’t make it to the White House or who cannot see themselves at a protest.

Until this happens, insightful voices such as Bostrom will, like me, remain frustrated by the lack of a long-term strategy. “This is where the conservatives get us every time. They have a strategy, they have a path laid out and they don’t care if they lose today; they never walk away from it, they just keep plugging away at their long-term vision,” she says.  “Whether we win or lose today, the question should be will it help us get further on our five-year, 10-year, 15-year, 20-year scenarios. Then people are constantly reminded of the new energy infrastructure we do want and no matter how you come out of it, you have won something, people have learned something–whether they love or hate the pipeline– about where we need to head.”

And for now, we’ll give the last word to Rosenblatt, who talks about the long view for the Occupy movement (for those interested, check out our recent blog about Occupy’s lessons for the climate movement) and what it means for climate campaigns.

“What is front of mind for people right now is pain, not long-term pain that they can’t feel, but short-term pain that they can feel. I’m not sure if it even matters right now in the short term that they (Occupy) are not talking about climate. I could be seriously wrong that they’re missing a huge opportunity to frame this in a way that’s much bigger, but I think part of the problem is that when you frame things in a way that’s too much like ‘and this, and this, and this, and don’t forget this’ and all of sudden it’s the same old shit that we’re heard a thousand times about peace, love, good will.’ Occupy is like ‘no, the pain we are feeling is this and these are the guys are causing it, we need to focus on changing things around so that they don’t have the same kind of power that they have,” he says. “And then once that happens, then a lot of stuff comes unblocked….Rather than trying to get Occupy to pick up our message on climate, maybe what we need to be doing is picking up their message in our climate stuff more and more and try and help that reverberate much more strongly because when that wins, that’s the long-term play; when that wins, our stuff has a chance.”

We look forward to hearing what you think. Members may post and view comments here as well as join the discussion on this issue in the Member Forums.

Photo by Emma Cassidy and used under Creative Commons from tarsandsaction.