The Keystone Principle

February 15, 2013

The big President’s Day rally on the National Mall is more than a Keystone pipeline protest.  It’s a statement of principle for climate action.

After a year of unprecedented destruction due to weather extremes, the climate fight is no longer just about impacts in the future.  It’s about physical and moral consequences, now.  And Keystone isn’t simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate movement.  It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption:  Stop making it worse. stop making it worse 2

Specifically and categorically, we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “locks in” dangerous emission levels for many decades.   Keystone is a both a conspicuous example of that kind of investment and a powerful symbol for the whole damned category.

It’s true that stopping a single pipeline – even one as huge and odious as Keystone – will not literally “solve” climate disruption.  No single action will do that, any more than refusing to sit on the back of a single bus literally ended segregation.  The question – for Keystone protestors as it was for Rosa Parks – is whether the action captures and communicates a principle powerful enough to inspire and sustain an irresistible movement for sweeping social change.

Stopping Keystone nails the core principle for climate responsibility, by preventing investments that make climate disruption irrevocably worse.  Again, it’s not just that burning tar sands oil produces a lot of emissions; it’s that long-term capital investments like Keystone (and coal plants, and coal export facilities) “lock in” those dangerous emissions for decades and make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable.

Now, if you are a fossil fuel company, “locking in dangerous emissions” means locking in profits.  It is your business strategy, precisely.  For the rest of us, it’s a one-way, non-refundable ticket to centuries of hell and high water.  We must not buy that ticket.

This is the Keystone Principle.  It emerges from multiple lines of scientific and economic research, most notably the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that the chance to avert catastrophic climate disruption would be “lost forever” without an immediate shift away from fossil fuel infrastructure investment.

But it doesn’t take a supercomputer to confirm that the Keystone Principle is basic common sense.  It’s step one for getting out of a hole:  Stop digging.  A comprehensive strategy for global climate solutions called “Design to Win” put the point succinctly:  “First, don’t lose.”   The choice is clear and binary:  Do it and we’re toast.  So don’t.

In contrast, the many things we must do to advance positive climate solutions – clean energy, more efficient cars and buildings, better transportation choices – are full of grey areas.  Implementing them is inherently slow, incremental, and subject to tradeoffs based on economic and other factors.  Should new fuel economy standards make cars 80% more efficient or 90%?  Over what period of time?  The answers are judgment calls, not moral absolutes.  But when it comes to stopping Keystone and other fossil fuel infrastructure investments, the choice is stark, clear.

“Climate solutions” are millions of Yeses and many shades of green, over a long period of time.  But they also require a few bright red Nos, right now.  These Nos are, you might say, the “keystone” for responding to the climate crisis, as in “something on which associated things [like, say, all efforts to avert catastrophic climate disruption] depend.”  No amount of clean energy investment will stave off disaster unless we stop feeding the fossil fuel beast with capital now.

Most importantly, as we enter the era of climate consequences, the Keystone Principle has moral power.   Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by Superstorm Sandy.  Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought.  Last month, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean.   This is what climate disruption looks like.

Now that the faces of the victims are regular features of the daily news, what will we say to them?  And what will we say to our children – the prospective victims of still-preventable disasters?  Defying the Keystone Principle is like saying “Sorry, you’re out of luck.  We will use our laws, our time, and our money to make it irretrievably worse.”

President Obama has begun to carefully edge away from the moral bankruptcy of this position.  As he said in his inaugural address:   “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

But no one will believe him, or us, until we stop making it worse.  That’s what Keystone is about.  It’s not just a pipeline.   It’s a principle.


State of the Union: pushing forward and backward on climate

February 13, 2013

“They deserve a vote.  They deserve a vote.”

President Obama repeated the phrase over and over, in a powerful appeal to Congress to curb gun violence at the end of last night’s State of the Union address.

His approach to climate and energy was different.  Senator McCain’s pained grin said it all, as the President gently chided Congress for its unwillingness to consider the kind of climate legislation that presidential candidate McCain had proposed – back before fossil-fueled denialism consumed his party.sotu 2 2013

The President went on to offer the rough outlines of an agenda for climate action through the use of existing executive authorities.   He slammed climate denialism and spoke frankly about the reality of climate impacts.  He spoke in broad terms of research and development investments and endorsed accelerated deployment of renewable energy.  He issued a “new goal for America” to cut energy wasted in our homes and businesses by half, and offered federal support for states that lead the way.  And he proposed to use oil and gas revenues to fund “an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”  That’s good:  “for good.”

And yet even as he suggested some meaningful actions to advance climate solutions, he stepped all over the message – as he has for several years – by focusing heavily on increased oil and gas development.  And he certainly did not elevate the issue to the level where he was willing to challenge Congress to do its job and adopt a national climate policy.  The victims of Sandy Hook surely do “deserve a vote,” but apparently the victims of Sandy do not.

The President is on the right track in terms of using existing executive authority to reduce climate pollution and accelerate investment in energy efficiency and clean energy.  (And the Northwest is in an ideal position to lead that national effort by leveraging our existing federal power infrastructure to drive the next wave of clean energy development.)

But he’s also stuck on the wrong track at the same time – expanding domestic fossil fuel production, waffling on the Keystone pipeline permit, and essentially giving away billions of tons of coal on public lands to support development of fossil fuel infrastructure around the world.

Simultaneously moving in the wrong direction and the right direction won’t do the job.  Business-as-usual investments that “lock in” emissions growth – even if they are combined with near-term investments in efficiency and clean energy – will result in catastrophic climate disruption, with unthinkable consequences for humanity.

The President’s right – we do know how to respond to the climate challenge while sustaining prosperity.  We can look at the victims of Sandy – and our kids, the prospective victims of still-preventable disasters – and say “we know how to make this better, and we will.”  But they won’t believe us until we stop making it worse.

The President – and America – can no longer go backward AND forward on climate.  We don’t have enough time.  We don’t have enough money.  We have to choose.

That message will be delivered to the White House loud and clear, this week.   You can amplify it at Forward on Climate.

And today, some of our most courageous leaders will be risking arrest at the White House.  Hear them, support them here.


Mr. Merkley goes to Washington: Filibuster-buster foiled, but unbowed

February 6, 2013

If you had to invent a word that meant “obnoxious and purposeful dysfunction of legislative process,” you could hardly think of something better or more onomatopoeic than “filibuster.”

fix the filibuster 2

Of all the flaws in our democracy, the filibuster and its abuse in the U.S. Senate is among the most flagrant, and the silliest.  So the Senate’s recent failure to enact meaningful filibuster reform – despite the inspired leadership of Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley –  is a big disappointment.

I come to the filibuster reform campaign from the perspective of a climate policy advocate (inspired by Alan Durning at Sightline Institute).  Over the last couple of years, much has been written about the failure of the U.S. Senate to pass a national climate bill[i].   This growing literature of climate policy failure analysis has many important lessons to offer, particularly about building movements and political power.

But, without dismissing those lessons at all, there’s a case to be made that even a moderately functional United States Senate would have passed the climate bill under the prevailing political circumstances.  After health care, it seems exceedingly unlikely that anything very complicated or difficult or big could have been produced by the Senate in President Obama’s first term.  The institution was kaput, and it hasn’t recovered much since.

Fixing the filibuster would not cure all that ails Congress.  But it’s a great place to begin the process of restoring our democracy to some semblance of functionality and efficacy.   It’s almost a test of self-respect, of whether we care about the American creed and instruments of self-government enough to slap aside this ridiculous impediment.

But when Senator Merkley and other leaders stepped up with serious reform proposals (like the “talking filibuster”) in January, the Senate balked.   “It’s some change in a Senate committed to no change;” that was about as much enthusiasm as Senator Elizabeth Warren, a reform advocate, could muster for the tweaks agreed to by Senators Reid and McConnell, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate.

The reforms offer a few new procedural efficiencies that may reduce the opportunities for delaying consideration of a bill and speed up the confirmation process for nominees.  But the minority party will still have free reign to filibuster procedural motions and substantive bills.  As Ezra Klein put it in the Washington Post, “The filibuster is safe.  Even filibusters against the motion to proceed [without which bills can’t even be considered] are safe.  And filibuster reformers have lost once again.”

What ultimately hangs up filibuster reform is fear, and the willingness of the minority to obstruct government.  The majority party, which can use the “constitutional option” to amend Senate rules with 51 votes, knows that someday it won’t be the majority party.  And when that day comes, they’ll want to have that filibuster wrench to throw into the gears.

This is clearly destructive to the purposes of good legislative process.  And it’s so notoriously obstructionist that it erodes public trust and respect for government.  “But at least” – one might argue – “it’s symmetrical:  the destruction cuts both ways, and arguably constrains the abuse of majority power.”

I don’t buy it.  The damage associated with legislative obstructionism is not symmetrical.   If you believe that government actually has some big, important jobs to do – like, say, tackling climate disruption – then you need a functional, effective legislative process.  If you believe that “government is the problem” and you just want it to go away, then leaving it wrapped around the axle of its own procedural paralysis isn’t the worst outcome.   “Filibuster” is almost like the name of the proposition that “government is lame.”   That is hardly a neutral message.

Senator Merkley has vowed to keep fighting for a functional U.S. Senate.  His statement after the tepid reforms passed was measured and collegial – that’s how Senators do – but his passion for serious reform shines through:

“The Senate spoke clearly today: the paralysis of the Senate is unacceptable. Senators of both parties have recognized the need for change, and supported several steps to make the Senate more functional…

“I would like to have gone further. In particular, I believe that if 41 Senators vote for more debate, then Senators should have the courage of their convictions to stand on the floor and make their case in front of the American people. Then the American people could decide if obstructing Senators are heroes or bums.

“I’m disappointed that we didn’t take a bolder step to fix the Senate, but what is most important today is the deep determination of Senators to return the Senate to a more functional institution. If the modest steps taken today do not end the paralysis the Senate currently suffers, many Senators are determined to revisit this debate and explore stronger remedies.

“We have a responsibility to address the big issues facing our country. I’ll keep working with my colleagues to achieve that goal.”

Note to climate advocates (and advocates of all major public policy reforms for that matter) Let’s learn our lessons and get stronger from the failure of the climate bill.  But let’s also focus on restoring some semblance of a functioning democracy.  It’s hard to imagine how we do climate policy, or much of anything, until we do that.


[i] There is now a robust literature of climate policy failure analysis.  Eric Pooley’s The Climate War is a classic of the genre.  And David Roberts offers typically incisive coverage of the latest flurry of regret and recrimination, touched off by Theda Skocpol’s entry, including responses from some of our most thoughtful climate warriors. Many of these lessons are useful, and plenty of us did plenty of things wrong on the way to not passing a national climate policy, no doubt.  And yet it should also be noted that plenty of people did plenty of things “right” – that is, the way you’re supposed to do them in the system we’ve got.  On paper, it seemed that many of the critical ingredients were there for “success:”

Both Houses of Congress and the presidency were controlled by the party that is nominally sympathetic to climate action.  The House had passed the bill, working through many of the tricky issues – like protecting manufacturing competitiveness – that could have precluded majority support.  A strong business voice for climate policy was brought to bear and actively working for passage, along with a diverse range of other constituencies.  Deals had been cut and special interests appeased (to the point where many of us wondered whether the bill was still worth having.)  The President had received the world’s first prospective Nobel Peace Prize, just before the Copenhagen climate summit — so fervent was the world’s hope that the U.S. would step up to its global responsibility for climate solutions, which would start, of course, with the adoption of a national climate policy.  And the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf provided a high-profile reminder of the devastating costs of fossil fuel dependence as an explosive and instructive visual backdrop for the Senate deliberations, if one can call them that.  But the Senate as an institution had veered off into a ditch after healthcare.


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