Dear John: Don’t make it worse

May 11, 2013

Talk swirls about some kind of “deal” for the Keystone XL Pipeline.  I don’t see it.

Political “realists” say Congress is incapable of passing a serious climate policy, period.  That assessment becomes more valid every time the “realists” echo it, so I’m not going there.  (I was expelled from their ranks long ago.) But a construction permit for a pipeline is nowhere near enough leverage to remove the obstacles to national climate policy.  As a political matter, the President’s opponents want to have the Keystone fight more than they want to win it.Maple syrup not dilbit

And it hardly seems necessary or wise to “trade” Keystone XL for regulation of climate pollution from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act.  We already won the latter in the Supreme Court and the President as much as announced his intention to move forward in the State of the Union address.  Sure, there’s a range of ultimate outcomes on the CO2 rules; but by the time we know how hard the Administration will really push for strong CO2 regs, this year’s Keystone decision will be long gone.  If it’s supposed to strike some kind of political “balance,” it’s only on paper – the real political (economic) constituencies for the pipeline and power plant emissions are different.

Moreover, there’s a principle at stake (the Keystone Principle).  It’s neither scientifically defensible nor morally acceptable to continue using scarce capital and time to invest in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure.  Regulating climate pollution from power plants is a vital step forward, and potentially a very big one.  But in no world where we actually step up to the climate challenge does it justify a big, irreversible step in the wrong direction, like Keystone.  There’s no symmetry, no justice there — just political games, and losing ones at that.

I was proud to join a big group of Heinz and Goldman prize-winners – including a bunch of personal heroes – in making the case to Secretary of State Kerry this week. We wrote:

May 8, 2013

The Honorable John Kerry, Secretary of State  

Dear Mr. Secretary,

As recipients of Heinz Awards for our work in environment, energy, and public policy, and the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism, we write to you with an urgent appeal to affirm America’s commitment to climate solutions by rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  

We are deeply honored and humbled to have been recognized for our achievements. But we are acutely aware that despite your best efforts and ours, the climate crisis is now upon us. After a year of unprecedented weather extremes and disruption, this is no longer only about impacts in the future. It’s about social, economic, environmental, and moral consequences, now.

We do not lack for viable solutions. Public and private leaders in America are demonstrating that energy efficiency, clean energy, transportation choices, and a range of other strategies are practical and economic. We are using them to build healthier communities and stronger local economies. We can say this with confidence: sustainable, broadly-shared economic opportunity is possible as we make the necessary transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and efficient energy systems.

But we cannot make the transition overnight. It will take many decades of patient commitment and investment to complete it. And while “winning” a safe climate future is a long game, we can lose it very quickly — within President Obama’s second term. Continued investment in capital-intensive, long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure like Keystone XL will “lock in” emission trajectories that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. This is the hard bottom line of the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that without an immediate shift in energy infrastructure investment, humanity would “lose forever” the chance to avert climate catastrophe.

Critics of the effort to stop the pipeline suggest that this is not “the right way” to deal with climate. It is certainly not sufficient, and it would arguably be unnecessary if we had a responsible national and global climate policies. You fought for such policy as a Senator, and we desperately need one. But stopping the pipeline is necessary to ensure that the problem remains solvable — that we don’t become irrevocably committed to emission trajectories that guarantee failure before we mobilize for success.

There is a strain of fatalism among some opinion leaders regarding Keystone (characteristic of prevailing attitudes toward climate generally): “Canada will develop the tar sands no matter what we do.” “We’ll get the oil from somewhere, so it might as well be North America.” “They’ll just find another route.” These objections are neither analytically defensible nor morally responsible. We can’t do everything to address climate disruption, but as the world’s biggest economy and the largest historic emitter, we can and should do a great deal. As a nation with unparalleled capacities for innovation and entrepreneurship, we can do even more. Facilitating accelerated investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is flatly inconsistent with this responsibility, and with the diplomatic effort to build our standing as an international leader and facilitator of global cooperation to tackle the climate challenge.

Keystone XL is a big, literal, conspicuous example of exactly what we must not do if we are genuinely committed to climate solutions. It is a fundamental element — a “keystone” if you will — of the industry’s plan to expand production of this carbon-intensive fuel from 2 million barrels per day to 6 million bpd by 2030. And as significant as its direct consequences are, Keystone XL is much more than a pipeline. It is a test of whether we will indeed, as the President said in his inaugural address, “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

The human consequences of unchecked climate disruption are almost unimaginably grave. We cannot continue to ignore — or, worse, aggravate — these consequences by considering decisions like Keystone outside of this moral context. Approving the permit would amount to affirming moral evasion, at exactly the moment that you and the President have argued so passionately for moral engagement.

We believe in the power and promise of climate solutions. We know they work; we know they are economically viable; and we know we can implement them. We believe it’s time to look our kids and grandkids — the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters — in the eye and say, “We will do what must be done to protect you. We will make this better.”

But they won’t believe us until we stop making it worse. That’s why we urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

With hope and determination to build a healthy future, and the deepest respect for your leadership,


KC Golden, Policy Director Climate Solutions, 2012 Heinz Award in the Public Policy Category

Lois Gibbs, Executive Director Center for Health, Environment & Justice 1990 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

John Luther Adams, Composer 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jane Akre, Independent News Group, LLC 2001 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

P. Dee Boersma, Ph.D Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science University of Washington, Department of Biology 2009 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Ralph Cavanagh, Energy Program Co-Director Natural Resources Defense Council 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Terrence J. Collins, PhD, Hon FRSNZ Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry Director, Institute for Green Science Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Chemistry 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Anne H. Ehrlich, Senior Research Scientist Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Thomas FitzGerald, Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. 2008 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jerry F. Franklin, University of Washington, College of Forest Resources 2005 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Maria Gunnoe, Community Organizer 2009 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner 2012 Wallenberg Medal Winner

James Hansen, Columbia University, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences 2001 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Richard J Jackson, MD, MPH, Hon. AIA Former Director, CDC National Center for Environmental Health Professor & Chair, Environmental Health Science UCLA Fielding School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Hilton Kelley, Executive Director & Founder Community In-power and Development Association, Inc. NPA Regional Health Equity Council: Chairman R-6 National Partnership for Action (NPA) to End Health Disparities Member National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Member 2009-2011 2011 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

Joanie Kleypas, Marine Scientist 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Elizabeth Kolbert, Journalist 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Peggy M. Shepard, Executive Director WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Inc. 2004 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jack Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi Professor on Environmental Health and Human Habitation Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard University, School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

George M. Woodwell, Woods Hole Research Center 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category