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How the anti-Keystone movement can win — even if the pipeline gets approved
Putting pressure on the Obama administration is paying off
 
Keep it up, guys.
Keep it up, guys. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Obama administration just delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the election. Jonathan Chait, who has already gone several rounds with several writers more sympathetic to the anti-Keystone XL movement, is always ready for a fight:

Indispensable New York Times climate reporter Coral Davenport has a story in today's edition explaining that the Keystone pipeline, which has dominated the climate-change narrative, is substantively trivial, while existing and prospective regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency are massive. The Keystone pipeline would add 18.7 million metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere annually, while forthcoming regulations on existing power plants would remove 200 to 500 million metric tons per year. (Even already-issued regulations on cars and buildings have reduced carbon emissions by many times Keystone's total.) [New York]

This is pretty similar to what he's said before, and it's again missing the point: Anyone who took even a glance at the EPA's policy quickly realized that its rules would accomplish a lot more in terms of reducing emissions than canceling Keystone. At bottom, this is a debate about the logic of political activism, and I think a world without an anti-Keystone XL movement would simply be a world bereft of any climate movement. Chait's view of how mass movements intersect with politics seems weirdly narrow (but I've already written at length about why that is, so I'm not going to tackle it again).

However, Chait does raise one potentially serious question: How should the climate movement react if Keystone XL is approved, but fairly stringent EPA regulations come down on existing coal-fired power plants?

It is true that some activists might view that as a devastating blow. They spent all this time and effort to get one lousy pipeline stopped, and they couldn't even get that. Might as well give up and start shorting Florida real estate.

But this view would be badly mistaken. In fact, the climate movement is already winning: Just look at the dozens of coal-fired power plants that are being shut down across the nation. Cheap natural gas is partly responsible, of course, but new regulations on mercury and heavy metals from the EPA are partly responsible. I recently visited my hometown of Cortez, Colorado, and the improvement in air quality from the recent shutdown of the three dirtiest generators at the Four Corners Power Plant was remarkable.

The EPA is directly responsible, of course, but I believe the social pressure from the climate movement can claim some credit for those rules as well. Chait characterizes this position as saying the anti-Keystone XL movement is shifting the Overton window, but I don't think that's quite right. Moving the Overton window, basically, is when radical demands pull the range of what the public considers moderate and reasonable in one direction or another (see Party, Republican).

The anti-Keystone XL movement, by contrast, is just adding some muscle in the form of mass social pressure to what is already the sensible, mainstream Democratic Party position: that climate change is an enormous problem and we should cut carbon emissions. President Obama speaks about climate change with nearly the same language as climate activists, but he doesn't act like it. McKibben and company are trying to get him to put his money where his mouth is.

Sorting out the effects of mass protests on political outcomes is the work of sociology and history, but they are surely of vast importance, even when it comes to ostensibly independent bureaucracies like the EPA. Nobody questions this when it comes to the abolition movement, the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement — hell, even the Tea Party.

So, despite Chait and other pundits constantly knocking the only people who are achieving anything noteworthy on climate change, climate activists shouldn't take it to heart. Even if they lose on Keystone XL, the truth is that they've already notched up some serious victories. And should strong EPA regulations come down the pipe, they can reasonably claim to have achieved the greatest possible victory given the deadlock climate-denying Republicans have on the House of Representatives.

 
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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