As the Pipeline Turns: Obama’s inescapable drama

“Keystone: A central cohesive source of support and stability; lynchpin; crux; principle” — The Free Dictionary

No one would have written it this way. No one, that is, except a xl

The Keystone XL decision – a permit for a pipe – turns out to be the moment of truth for the most powerful person in the world, the leader of the nation with the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis and the greatest capacity to deliver solutions. And it arrives at the last hour, or certainly the last Presidency, when we can change course before we become locked in to catastrophic climate disruption.

Thoughtful voices worry that Keystone is the wrong fight, that it’s “only symbolic,” that it has eaten up too much time and attention at the expense of battles that might have delivered more substantive results. They are being too literal-minded. Keystone is a well-chosen pipeline in the sand on climate, and a source of momentum and inspiration for climate action generally.

Part of the power of this battle is that – unlike, say, national climate legislation or ratifying an international treaty – it is the President’s decision alone. One of the toughest nuts to crack on the way to climate solutions is that responsibility is everyone’s, so, as a practical matter, it often ends up being no one’s. Keystone is a focused moment of accountability on the single human with the greatest power to effectuate solutions – the person whose evasion of the challenge would make all other efforts seem pointless.

To his enormous credit, the President put the Keystone decision squarely where it belongs: in the context of the imperative to stop aggravating the climate crisis. Now we will find out whether he has the integrity to do what is right and necessary when the decision is his.

But Keystone isn’t just symbolic – a gratuitous test of Presidential will, or an organizing stunt. The pipeline is an enormous piece of long-lived capital infrastructure that would mainline one of the world’s biggest carbon pools to the world’s hungriest energy markets. It is both a powerful symbol and a honking concrete example of exactly what we must not do if we are to avert climate calamity. As the IEA has repeatedly warned, we cannot keep feeding the climate beast with capital and hope to slay it. An up or down decision on a permit to build this pipeline is an excellent test of whether we got that memo.

This is a bare-naked question of whether the President will observe the most central principle for climate action – the Keystone, as it were, for solutions: Will we stop making it irrevocably worse, now, before it’s too late?

But ultimately, the most important reason Keystone is a (not the) right fight is because we’re having it. And lo and behold, that turns out to be the first condition for winning. We have slipped and slithered and dithered and dodged for well over a quarter century since it became clear that we had a five-alarm fire on our hands. And yet only now, in the context of Keystone XL, is climate emerging as a fight with the level of intensity it deserves, the passion needed to overcome the raw economic power standing between us and solutions.

One may very well be able to make a hypothetical case for why another defining battle would have been better. But that’s just it: this one’s not hypothetical.

The President says we should just all settle down – that both sides of the Keystone battle are overblowing it. But calmness in the face of calamity is part of what’s killing us.

No matter: as much as the President may wish his climate legacy would not be defined by the Keystone XL decision, that’s not his call anymore. It was the climate movement’s.

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