In today’s energy policy discussions, the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline stands out. Keystone XL would bring tar sand oil from Alberta to the United States and has been the target of the largest and most prominent environmental campaign in recent U.S. history (see 350.org and Sierra Club, for example). The latest in the 5-year saga was President Obama’s unsurprising announcement to postpone the decision on the pipeline until after the midterm elections.

The campaigning against Keystone XL has been frequently criticized by energy policy analysts. Michael Levi argues that the pipeline will basically have no effect on greenhouse gas emissions — in large part because the oil will find its way to the market regardless — while Coral Davenport writes for the NYT that the EPA rules on emissions from coal plants will have much larger effects on carbon dioxide than the pipeline.

I agree to a large extent with the conclusions from the analysis, but these static calculations miss the point of the campaigning. If the fundamental obstacles to decisive action against climate change are political, then the first-order concern should be the building of a vigorous movement to demand transformative change. Keystone XL has brought more people to the streets to demand climate action than any other recent issue, and I doubt that emissions trading or EPA rules would be issues that would mobilize millions of latent activists. The campaign against Keystone XL is successful if it allows the climate movement to prosper, so that the Obama administration and other politicians face pressure to cut America’s carbon dioxide emissions, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy and “negawatts” from energy conservation.

Keystone XL may or may not be the ideal target for advocacy. Potential alternatives include targeting coal plants to force their early retirement, as the Sierra Club has successfully done in the past years in the Beyond Coal campaign. If U.S. coal consumption continues to decline, campaigning against export terminals could also be huge. Nonetheless, it is important not to lose sight of the strategic aspects of successful social mobilization. Neither Keystone XL nor Obama’s emissions rules bring us much closer to climate stability — but a large and vigorous movement for decarbonization just maybe might. Let’s focus our efforts on building that movement.

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