In August, Bill McKibben wrote about why the climate movement should be leaderless. Instead, McKibben argued, the movement needed to function more like a distributed energy grid, with many people providing and dispersing the power, so it can be more fluid and nimble in the event of sudden changes.
Today at Earth Island Journal (cross-posted at Grist), four activists representing groups from across the US and Canada, argue that the climate movement needs to move beyond its preoccupation with oil pipeline projects, such as Keystone XL, and instead challenge the expansion of fossil fuel projects wherever they appear.
Kirby Spangler, Maryam Adrangi, David Osborn and Arielle Klagsbrun explain why focusing on one project could cause the movement to lose long-term focus:
Architecturally, a keystone is the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place. Without the keystone, the building blocks of an archway will tumble and fall, with no support system for the weight of the arch. Much of the United States climate movement right now is structured like an archway, with all of its blocks resting on a keystone — President Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.
This is a dangerous place to be. Once Barack Obama makes his decision on the pipeline, be it approval or rejection, the keystone will disappear. Without this piece, we could see the weight of the arch tumble down, potentially losing throngs of newly inspired climate activists.
They see the framing that tar sands development is "game over" for the climate, as problematic:
The “game over for climate” narrative is also problematic. With both the Keystone and Northern Gateway campaigns, it automatically sets up a hierarchy of projects and extractive types that will inevitably pit communities against each other. Our movement can never question if Keystone XL is worse than Flanagan South (an Enbridge pipeline running from Illinois to Oklahoma), or whether tar sands, fracking, or mountaintop-removal coal mining is worse. We must reject all these forms of extreme energy for their effects on the climate and the injustices they bring to the people at every stage of the extraction process. Our work must be broad so as to connect fights across the continent into a movement that truly addresses the root causes of social, economic, and climate injustice. We must call for what we really need — the end to all new fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction. The pipeline placed yesterday in British Columbia, the most recent drag lines added in Wyoming, and the fracking wells built in Pennsylvania need to be the last ones ever built. And we should say that.
This narrative has additionally set up a make-or-break attitude about these pipeline fights that risks that the movement will contract and lose people regardless of the decision on them. The Keystone XL and Northern Gateway fights have engaged hundreds of thousands of people, with many embracing direct action and civil disobedience tactics for the first time. This escalation and level of engagement is inspiring. But the absolutist “game over” language chances to lose many of them. If Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline, what’s to stop many from thinking that this is in fact “game over” for the climate? And if Obama rejects Keystone XL, what’s to stop many from thinking that the climate crisis is therefore solved? We need those using the “game over” rhetoric to lay out the climate crisis’s root causes — because just as one project is not the end of humanity, stopping one project will not stop runaway climate change.
They are, of course, right that the climate movement must be about more than Keystone XL. Yes, we do need to reject all forms of extreme energy, but I disagree that it is problematic to acknowledge that some fossil fuels are, in fact, potentially more harmful than others.
When NASA's James Hansen famously wrote in The New York Times that if Canada developed their tar sands to the full extent that they currently plan to, it would be "game over for the climate" he was not wrong. He was writing about tar sands oil, in general, instead of Keystone XL specifically. Unfortunately, these activists argue, that language has been used to describe KXL itself.
I can appreciate the frustration this could cause in conversation, but instead of worrying about specific language and phrasing used to describe the climate crisis, we need a clear vision of the kind of future they are helping to create. What will stop people from abandoning the climate movement post-KXL is a vision of what comes next. And what stops people from thinking inaccurate things is accurate information.