Keystone and Debate

The numbers in Robert Rapier’s recent Keystone XL post are spot on. It’s true that the 170 billion barrels found in the Athabasca tar sands reserve alone won’t cook the planet, just as it’s true that one Big Mac won’t make you fat and one cigarette won’t give you cancer. That’s not encouragement for you to go buy a pack of Marlboros. That’s just a fact.

Rapier’s numbers on coal’s destructive spread to the Asia Pacific region are spot on, too. There’s no arguing against the idea that campaigns on the scale of Keystone XL against coal are needed. Fortunately for us, we have them. Look at just one: Sierra Club and Michael Bloomberg have teamed up to spend a budget that dwarfs any directed at pipeline fights, and they have the victories to show for it. With any luck their model will serve as a learning experience for campaigners working to limit coal’s spread around the globe.

Rapier also argues that the coal should receive more attention than tar sands development since the “biggest threat should have the biggest focus.” Threat is a matter of perspective, and that’s what I’d like to concentrate on here.

For front-line communities, the threat posed by tar sands development isn’t just the 0.03C degree temperature rise that researchers have found would occur if the full volume of “economically viable proven reserves” of tar sands in Canada are developed. No, the threat is found in the poison that washes downstream everyday to their businesses, religious centers, and homes. Cancer rates in some places, like in the Fort Chipewyan community, located about 200 km down stream from the epicenter of tar sands extraction, are up 30 percent, an undersold story that’s a tragedy unfolding right before our eyes.

In towns where trains carrying tar sands crude rumble through late at night, their threat comes in the form of exploding rail cars. The people of Lac Megantic, Quebec know all about this, after they experienced a derailment of 74 cars carrying crude oil last summer, killing 50. By now we know that the oil industry is betting big on rail if pipelines are denied. If they get their wish, more towns, sadly, may have to have the experiences of the people of Lac Megantic, a tragedy in the making.

And for people that live around refineries, their threat can be felt every day in their lungs and on their skin. Take Port Arthur, TX, where Shell and Valero refineries have led to high cancer rates, asthma rates, and other adverse health effects. One study showed that residents were four times more likely to report heart and respiratory conditions than people just 100 miles away.

There’s another threat that’s worth examining, this one a bit more abstract. That’s the political threat felt by politicians who look for any excuse not to speed the transition off of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Some politicians may not understand the scientific logic of action, but trust me when I tell you that they understand the political logic of inaction if it affects the two things they care most about—money and votes.

Keystone XL has rallied millions to the cause of limiting fossil fuel development and acting on climate change. I was a part of an effort that collected over 800,000 comments into the Senate on Keystone XL in 24 hours. I was also an organizer for the rally that brought 50,000 people to Obama’s house—in February no less—to convince him to act on climate and reject Keystone XL.

Any political operative will tell you that intensity is what wins in politics. That’s why the Tea Party rose--for better or worse, and let's go with worse--to national notoriety when it started yelling at public officials about made up conspiracies like our president’s “true” birthplace and Agenda 21.

It’s this sort of intensity that must be leveraged for climate action—in the streets, online, and in the voting booth. And it is being leveraged, not just on Keystone XL, but on a hundred different fronts. I honestly don’t know how pundits and so-called experts can say that the environmental community has a single-minded focus on Keystone XL. Look at the websites and budgets of the Big Greens. Most of the money is not being spent on KXL. If that is where the passion is right now, then so be it. You cannot control social movements.

At a time when we have one of the worst performing Congresses in history, the import of the president’s decision on Keystone XL carries huge symbolic weight. That’s the this-is-a-fork-in-the-road argument for rejection, the battle over symbols in politics. But as we’ve seen, for people on the front lines, symbols are secondary. Ending the destructive role of fossil fuels in their communities is the primary concern. That’s a fight worth fighting.

Photo Credit: Keystone XL and Public Debate/shutterstock