Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Debating the way forward on climate change

by Duncan Gromko

Keystone XL. Source: Ekhabishek
On April 18th at 6:30 pm, Michael Levi (energy writer for the Council on Foreign Relations), David Roberts (writer for Grist), May Boeve (executive director of 350.org), and Michael Grundwald (writer for Time magazine) will discuss climate change strategy at the University of California Washington Center (1608 Rhode Island NW). I'm really excited for the debate because it will cover competing views of the best way forward for the climate movement. Roberts, Grunwald, and Boeve have all supported protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Levi, on the other hand, has argued that the pipeline, while not a good thing for the climate, is less important than other issues the movement could fight for: "The Keystone decision ultimately became far more about symbolism than substance. It’s a shame that so much attention was diverted from things that matter more."

In anticipation of the debate, here are several issues that I hope the panel discusses:

How important is it for the climate movement to be "reasonable?"
In terms of direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions, the construction Keystone XL pipeline is not as important as shutting down coal plants, improving energy efficiency, putting a price on carbon, or any number of other actions. But, KXL has successfully galvanized support for the climate movement. In choosing its issues, how should the movement balance changes in emissions against the need to pick issues that galvanize people.

What's next if the pipeline is approved?
It is looking increasingly likely that the pipeline will be approved. 350.org and Bill McKibben have made a point of repeating James Hansen's statement that the pipeline will be "game over" for the climate. Focus on one infrastructure project and exaggerating its importance has been one reason that 350.org has been able to organize any people. But if the pipeline is approved, how does 350.org pivot to other issues? If the game is over, how do they convince people that it is still worth fighting?

Is there some middle ground between Activists like Boeve and Analysts like Levi?
I've argued before that Activists could focus their efforts on issues that Analysts would agree are important: fossil fuel subsidies or West coast coal ports are two examples. Rather than fighting over the pipeline, there are issues that could excite both groups. What are these issues?

How can the environmental movement avoid being torn apart by natural gas and fracking?
Levi and many others have written about the climate benefits of natural gas; increasing fracking would increase natural gas production and decrease our dependency on coal. On the other side, 350.org and others are vociferous opponents of fracking, mostly because of the damage that fracking can do to local water supply. I doubt that the two sides will ever agree on the issue, but can they at least reach some truce that allows them to work together on climate change?

Is it important for Analysts and Activists to get along?
Analysts have undermined the Keystone protest, reducing its efficacy. You could also argue that Analysts have an important role to play in this debate, pushing Activists towards issues that will have the greatest climate impact. Should Activists worry more about what Analysts think?

What is your theory of change?
An interesting post by Jonathan Foley got me thinking about theories of change and how the ideas of a movement are realized. I'd expect that Levi, an "insider," might argue that policy in Washington is affected by good research and compelling ideas, advocated for from a respected position (like the Council on Foreign Relations). Boeve and 350.org have taken the opposite approach, by protesting outside the White House and organizing divestment campaigns. So how does change actually happen? How can the two sides work together?

What lessons can the climate movement learn from other movements?

Nick and I will be at the debate, hope to see you there!

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