Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How is the Keystone XL Protest Affecting the Broader Climate Movement?

by Duncan Gromko

Over 1,000,000 comments have submitted to the State Department, asking for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to be stopped. The comments specifically address the State Department's Environmental Impact statement for the pipeline, but, like the years-old stand against the pipeline itself, they represent a growing movement demanding action on climate change. Latest to comment on the Environmental Impact statement is the EPA, which delivered an excellent critique

Nick and I attended an interesting debate last week (hosted by Chris Mooney of Mother Jones), featuring May Boeve of 350.org, Michael Grundwald of Time Magazine, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, and David Roberts of Grist. May, Michael G, and David are outspoken supporters of the protest against KXL, while Michael L has argued that the pipeline is the wrong fight. There has been lots of in-fighting amongst environmentalists on the actual carbon impact of the pipeline and thus whether or not it was worth protesting.

What amazed me most about the debate was that not one of the speakers addressed the merits or climate implications of the pipeline itself. This reflected the consensus that the pipeline has become a symbol for the environmental movement. As Bryan Farrell wrote:

"But these critics [of the anti-Keystone movement] are missing something vital about the anti-Keystone movement: It was never about just a pipeline. [Bill] McKibben and a handful of others had another, less talked about goal—to remake the environmental movement into something far more active, creative, and formidable for years to come."

As an 350.org organizer, May attested to that sentiment at the debate. She talked about the importance of having a symbol to rally a diverse set of environmental groups. It has managed to unite the Sierra Club and Occupy Wall Street, ranchers in Nebraska and college students. Climate hawks have had a tough time getting attention when they talk about CO2 concentrations, parts per million, and other abstract concepts. She said that having a physical (proposed) piece of infrastructure is a much more tangible thing to get people's attention. 

David spoke mostly about the sociology of social movements. Central to his point is that movements are often slowed by pluralistic ignorance. Basically, people make false assumptions about the beliefs of their neighbors and peers. In the beginning of the civil rights movement, for instance, although many people might have supported desegregation, they assumed that others did not, and kept silent about it. David said that people need social proof - cues from others around them - that it is socially "OK" to change beliefs or behaviors. The recent surge in support for gay marriage rights is a reflection of this. Although people's views on homosexuality have probably been changing slowly for decades, over the last five years, public opinion has changed dramatically. There is a sort of tipping point to social movements, where, once people get enough social proof that it is "OK" to support a change, a minority opinion quickly becomes a majority one. And, having politicians come out and say that they support gay marriage is a particularly strong social proof. 

David's argument then, supported May's: we hope that having 40,000-50,000 people out under the Washington Monument, protesting the pipeline, serves as a sort of social proof for average folks who are unsure of what to think about climate change. 

It was a bit unfair to have Michael L as the only debater "for" the pipeline as I suspect that a large part of him supports the protesters. Fortunately, he is a smart guy and can easily hold his own. Michael L's main point was that the protest against Keystone XL alienates mainstream people that the climate movement needs on their side. People in "fly-over states," might be mildly sympathetic towards the climate movement, but turned off by rabid opposition to one pipeline. Right-wing pro-pipeline people have also turned the KXL fight into a symbol, but one of governmental-overreach and sentimental, hippie environmentalists. Michael L said that environmentalists should adopt more rational positions to avoid the backlash that protesting the pipeline would create. For instance, he said that if Obama does not approve the pipeline, it may make it more difficult for him to regulate power plants via the EPA

I think the smartest riposte to this was the idea that only 350.org and other activist groups are responsible for the changing opinion and mitigating climate change. For some people, the excitement of getting arrested to protest a pipeline might be what brings them on board. For others, it's going to be the rational analysis of Michael L. In fact, said David, the backlash created by people like May might make some centrists seek out analysts like Michael Levi. 

The hard part is that there are no definitive answers to the question of how best to organize a movement. Yes, the pipeline fight is creating support for climate change action. But is it alienating more people than it recruits? Is this the kind of social proof that people need? Is it making it harder for Obama to support other climate change action? As much as we analyze other social movements and test our theories of change, the unique context of the climate movement today make it different than any other movement. What worked for civil rights may not work for climate change.

This led to another important conclusion of the debate: why can't we all just get along? Rather than waste ink criticizing May and 350.org, focus on your theory of change and the positive way you want to affect the world. 

And, to paraphrase Michael G: you don't want to be the one telling Rosa Parks, "It's not about the bus system."

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