I am writing in anticipation of a demonstration in Seattle on Monday, February 3, saying “NO” in response to the State Department’s final Environmental Impact Statement on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Chances are, you’ll read this some time after February 3rd, but the issues will remain with us for months to come, and there will be other occasions to voice your opinion.
The XL Pipeline decision has been pending for a long time, and still more time will pass before the buck stops and President Obama announces his decision. First, Secretary Kerry has to speak his mind, and right now he’s dealing with more urgent business.
There’s background and a context for all of this, and I want to address some of that. The recent State of the Union message didn’t contain any hints at the President’s inclination on the Pipeline; it only made clear that he considers other things more important – inequality and unemployment, for instance, and Republicans’ refusal to cooperate or compromise.
In the days before the State of the Union message, The New Yorker published a long article by David Remnick based on wide-ranging conversations with the President. It’s revealing and appealing; it captures Mr. Obama’s character and the workings of his mind at a crucial point in his presidency.
One passage in the article jumped out at me, begging for interpretation. Remnick asked Mr. Obama “what he felt he must get done before leaving office.” The question led him to compare his circumstances to those faced by two other presidents: “I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced. So I think it’s unrealistic to suggest that I can narrow my focus the way those two Presidents did.”
This means, I take it, that although he doesn’t have the Civil War or World War II to fight, he faces challenges on several fronts that are harder to manage successfully.
He goes on, however, to narrow the focus: “I will measure myself at the end of my Presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.”
I want to praise this emphasis on mending the flaws in our social fabric and controlling the economic forces that have created a widening gap between the rich and the rest of us. For too long, too many Democrats have been unwilling to acknowledge these problems, let alone do something about them.
The President’s priorities are appropriate, and politically apt, but it will take more than a jobs program, an increase in the minimum wage, and more support for education to make lasting progress toward those goals. My concern is that the basic conditions of our environment, globally and locally, are likely to undermine any short-term progress.
Over the long haul, everyone’s wellbeing will be threatened, or at least compromised, by the drastic consequences of climate change. In many parts of the world the problems are urgent already. Googling the scary phrase climate chaos, I was startled to find that it’s the name of a popular online adventure game designed for kids. Unfortunately, sometimes life imitates art, and in this instance it’s not funny.
Back in May of last year, writing in the Financial Times, the eminent economist Martin Wolf took up the topic “Why the world faces climate chaos.” He notes that “risk of calamitous change is large,” and he lists several reasons why, on a global scale, very little has been done to acknowledge the size of the problem and begin to address it. Mr. Wolf asks, “So why are we behaving like this?”
“The first and deepest reason is that, as the civilization of ancient Rome was built on slaves, ours is built on fossil fuels. … Putting carbon into the atmosphere is what we do.” How much longer will we be bound to continue doing business as usual?
The climate for thinking and taking action in response to what scientists call “carbon forcing” has changed somewhat in recent months. Al Gore, for example, has come out strongly against the continued extraction of tar sands oil in Alberta, Canada, and the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline.
According to some accounts of the State Department’s Supplemental E I S, President Obama will have a hard time justifying a decision against the pipeline. I’ve seen other accounts, however, that read that massive document differently. They stop short of predicting what Obama will do, but find support for arguments that the pipeline is absolutely not “in our nation’s interest,” which is the crowning criterion for the final decision.
As I understand it, the State Department’s analysis was constrained by a basic principle of diplomacy: respect for Canada’s sovereignty meant that whether the tar sands oil should or would be extracted was not to be considered in the calculation of the pipeline’s environmental impact.
But as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, K. C. Golden, and others are pointing out, that analysis begs the most important questions. Should the hard-to-transport and hard-to-refine crappy stuff from Alberta’s waste lands be extracted, or left alone? Can our planet’s atmosphere and the oceans and earth digest all of the carbon-based gases and noxious by-products entailed in this enormous and reckless industry?
I’m going to end this post abruptly, leaving those questions hanging. There is so much more to say, and I’ll come back to this subject and its local implications in another post, as soon as possible.