What was Wrong with the Tarsands Fight
On January 18, after a months-long political battle, President Obama rejected a Canadian firm’s application to build and operate the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would have carried tarsands oil from Canada to Texas. Since the summer, Bill McKibben had organized a tremendous environmental battle against the pipeline.
Why this fight? McKibben quoted James Hansen, the government’s premier climate scientist, as saying that this pipeline would essentially mean “game over for the climate,” because the oil coming from the tarsands are so dirty and so energy intensive to capture – and because the pipeline would put the infrastructure in place for using this oil for decades. Even more pressing, the 1,661-mile pipeline cross the Sandhills Region in Nebraska: dunes under which flows the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 1.5 million people. This risk to the region’s drinking water spurred bipartisan opposition in Nebraska. (See articles about this here and here.)
Environmentalists also chose this fight because the decision was completely in the hands of President Obama – a chance to ask him to stay true to the environmental values he promised in his campaign.
The fight did not go easily. The environmental campaign included several rallies in Washington, including a rally in which a chain of people circled the White House. Business interests and conservative politicians were hell-bent on having this pipeline happen. President Obama originally tried to delay the decision until 2013, not making a final decision until after the election. Instead of taking the delay, Congress passed a law requiring the President to make a decision within two months. President Obama said that he would reject the pipeline if there wasn’t sufficient time for review. The American Petroleum Institute promised “huge electoral consequences” if the permit was denied.
Then, on January 18, the President denied the permit. The environmentalists cheer! This was the biggest environmental victory in recent memory. Hooray for the climate. Right?
In my community (and for that matter, in my family), liberal views aren’t always the most prominent. As the resident environmentalist, I started getting questions – and attacks. The promised “electoral consequences” came in the form of rage from all corners – Fox News, Republican speeches, etc. – whipping their base into a frenzy.
I listened for the good news on the radio (on NPR of all places) and heard this presented as a battle between environmentalists and business. The environmentalists win. The political consequences are analyzed.
I hate the way environmentalists show up in this fight, like political operatives who care about trees more than people. Like special interests. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m in this fight for the good of our future – for my son and his children, for the poor in low-lying islands and for a future that we can be proud of. When those people and those things are protected, it shouldn’t just be environmentalists celebrating! We should all be grateful for what is being saved.
Instead, the fight gets spun so that we are seen as radicals with an agenda. "He seems to have confused the national interest with his own interest in pleasing the environmentalists in his political base," Romney said in statement. Gingrich accused President Obama of caving in to “left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco.”
In 1998-99, I worked as the legislative assistant for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, advocating on the environment on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Jewish people. It was the year that Al Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol – the year that Congress voted 95-0 not to ratify it. That year, there were few environmental victories. A big fight on improving CAFE standards failed, despite many efforts.
I learned the lesson that environmentalists repeat again and again. There are no permanent environmental victories. You win some, but then the other side comes back and attacks you and you have to fight again.
And so with the tarsands. Every environmentalist knows this fight is not over. (In fact, the Washington Post reported today that 44 senators have signed legislation which would effectively overrule the President’s decision.)
Environmentalists seem to think that there is no choice other than this futile course. As David Brower, founder of Earth Island Institute, once said, "There are no victories in the environmental movement, only stays of execution." What an exhausting, futile context for a perennial fight against the tide of environmental damage. No wonder environmentalists get burned out. Is this really the best we can do?
I hope not. Since my stint on Capitol Hill, I’ve thought that the only way the environment will truly be protected is if becomes a bipartisan issue – an issue that is understood by all Americans to be a part of their self-interest. We need to be able to tell our story in a way that inspires people to that vision, to see the high moral choice that was made by President Obama: to protect the water, to protect the climate.
Instead, somehow, we manage to win battles in a way that feeds the lion that wants to eat us.
When my family members and community members turned to me with questions (and fury) about the pipeline, I tried to respond to all of their concerns. But I found myself getting frustrated. I didn’t have enough details or the moral language to explain why protecting the water supply for 1.5 million people and preventing massive air and carbon pollution was a victory. I didn’t have the language to transform a “stay of execution” into a victory that every American should be proud of.
My role in this fight was mainly on facebook and in emails and calls to the President. But I didn’t do what I did because I wanted an “environmental victory.” I did it for the future. That future vision is what is missing. It's not being communicated to the people who are hearing about it on the news — those people who are then talking to me (and each other) about all that is wrong with environmentalism.
Obviously, the oil companies will not express their pleasure at our achievement. But we have to present our message in such a way that they are ashamed to attack us. If the public is on our side (as they rightfully should be!) their message will not have power.
We – the environmentalists ourselves – need to have language of victory to explain to everyone we know why this is a win. Not just for us, but for the world, our children, and for a healthy future.
Will we be able win this fight for the long haul, or will this just delay the inevitable? To claim the future, we need more than anger and rallies from environmentalists. We need the moral high ground that can appeal to every American. We believe this, but we have failed to communicate it. And that’s where we, as environmentalists, have fallen short.