The President, the Pipeline, and the first rule of the climate game: “Don’t lose”

I don’t trust any explanation of anything that begins “President Obama doesn’t get it.”  He’s not perfect, but he is scary smart.  I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid that it won’t all be okay if he would just read my blog!

But in his public observations about Keystone (in this Rolling Stone interview and elsewhere), the President is either missing or parsing his way around an essential truth:  the imminent prospect of economic lock-in to dangerous climate change.  The President told Rolling Stone:

“The reason that Keystone got so much attention is not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared and concerned about a general lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem.”

It’s true that Keystone became a defining battle in part because we were failing to have a serious climate discussion, and Keystone was a good way to restart one.

But the Keystone decision isn’t just symbolic.  Like coal export terminals, Keystone would be a major new link in the chain of transactions and physical infrastructure that connect the world’s largest carbon supplies to the world’s fastest-growing energy markets.  Bill McKibben calls them “fuses” that run from the match of global demand to the giant “carbon bombs” in the Alberta tar sands and the Powder River Basin coal fields.  Because they are so long-lived and so capital-intensive, they would be essentially irreversible commitments to dangerous climate change.  Keystone and coal export would violate the first rule of any viable plan to “win” the climate game:  “Don’t lose.”

Delivering climate solutions and extracting ourselves from our current fossil fuel infrastructure is great work, but quick it is not.  It will take 50 years of patient, sustained, strategic investment and action to “win” the climate solutions game and build a sustainable prosperity.  But we could lose it in a heartbeat.  We can’t keep making long-term infrastructure commitments that expand fossil fuel dependence while we invest in building a new energy economy.  We don’t have that much money.  We don’t have that much time.

The President has no doubt heard this from his science and energy advisors.  But he falls back on climate denialism’s most insidious secret weapon:  inevitability.  (The weapon is so lethal because climate deniers have somehow tricked the rest of us into aiming it at ourselves.)  Again from the Rolling Stone interview:

“…It’s important to understand that Canada is going to be moving forward with tar sands, regardless of what we do. That’s their national policy, they’re pursuing it.”

If we concede that the sum of existing national policies is our climate future, then we’re planning to leave a devastated planet to our kids. They are not amused.  Even if it were true that this would happen “regardless of what we do,” there’s no excuse for condoning, let alone facilitating it.

….”Regardless of what we do…..” 

Isn’t that the climate challenge in a nutshell?  Every individual, every mayor, every governor, every company, every nation that ever made a commitment to climate solutions has had to push past the sense that it could all be futile if others don’t act.  We have to buy into a culture of responsibility: we do the right thing and then use that as a stance from which to invite and challenge others to join, as Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed did so valiantly when he committed his low-lying nation to become carbon neutral in 10 years.

But building that culture of responsibility is tough when the POTUS dismisses huge investments in accelerating climate devastation as inevitable – and then poses for photo ops in front of the pipeline.

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