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The Climate Movement’s Pipeline Preoccupation

Yes, Keystone XL is horrible – but so are plenty of other fossil fuel infrastructure plans

By Arielle Klagsbrun, David Osborn, Kirby Spangler and Maryam Adrangi

This article also appears today at Waging Nonviolence.

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.

Keystone XL Pipeline Protest at White Housephoto by tarsandsaction, on FlickrKeystone XL Pipeline Protest at White House

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. As members of Rising Tide North America, a continental network of grassroots groups taking direct action and finding community-based solutions to the root causes of the climate crisis, we believe that to build the climate justice movement we need, we can have no keystone – no singular solution, campaign, project, or decision maker.

The Keystone XL fight was constructed around picking one proposed project to focus on with a clear elected decider, who had campaigned on addressing climate change. The strategy of DC-focused green groups has been to pressure President Obama to say “no” to Keystone by raising as many controversies as possible about the pipeline and by bringing increased scrutiny to Keystone XL through arrestable demonstrations. Similarly, in Canada, the fight over Enbridge’s Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline has unfolded in much the same way, with green groups appealing to politicians to reject Northern Gateway.

However, the mainstream Keystone XL and Northern Gateway campaigns operate on a flawed assumption that the climate movement can compel our elected leaders to respond to the climate crisis with nothing more than an effective communications strategy. Mainstream political parties in both the US and Canada are tied to and dependent on the fossil fuel industry and corporate capitalism. As seen in similar campaigns in 2009 to pass a climate bill in the United States and to ratify an international climate treaty in Copenhagen, the system is rigged against us. Putting Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the keystone of the archway creates a flawed narrative that if we, as grassroots groups, work hard enough to stack the building blocks correctly to support them, then elected officials will do what we want. Social change happens when local communities lead, and only then will politicians follow. While we must name and acknowledge power holders like Obama, our movement must empower local communities to make decisions and take action on the causes of the climate crisis in their backyards.

Because of the assumption that the climate movement can trust even “sympathetic” politicians like Obama, these campaigns rely on lifting up one project above all else. Certain language used has made it seem like Keystone XL is an extreme project, with unusual fraud and other injustices associated with it. Indeed the Keystone XL project is extreme and unjust, as is every fossil fuel project and every piece of the extraction economy. While, for example, the conflict of interests between the State Department, TransCanada and Environmental Resources Management in the United States, and Enbridge and federal politicians in Canada, must be publicized, it should be clear that this government/industry relationship is the norm, not the exception.

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’ root causes – because just as one project is not the end of humanity, stopping one project will not stop runaway climate change.

Blockader being arrested at lock down sitephoto by Tar Sands Blockade, on FlickrBlockader being arrested

The fights over Keystone XL and Northern Gateway have been undoubtedly inspiring. We are seeing the beginnings of the escalation necessary to end extreme energy extraction, stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis, and make a just transition to equitable societies. Grassroots groups engaging in and training for direct action such as the Tar Sands Blockade, Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, the Unist’ot’en Camp, and Moccasins on the Ground have shown us how direct action can empower local communities and push establishment green groups to embrace bolder tactics. Our movement is indeed growing, and people are willing to put their bodies on the line; an April poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found one in eight Americans would engage in civil disobedience around global warming.

However, before the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway mainstream campaigns come to an end, we all must recognize the dangers of having an archway approach to movement building. It is the danger of relying on political power-holders, cutting too narrow campaigns, excluding a systemic analysis of root causes, and, ultimately, failing to create a broad-based movement. We must begin to discuss and develop our steps on how we should shift our strategy, realign priorities, escalate direct action, support local groups and campaigns, and keep as many new activists involved as possible.

We are up against the world’s largest corporations, who are attempting to extract, transport and burn fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate, all as the climate crisis spins out of control. The climate justice movement should have no keystone because we must match them everywhere they are – and they are everywhere. To match them, we need a movement of communities all across the continent and the world taking direct action to stop the extraction industry, finding community-based solutions, and addressing the root causes of the climate crisis.

Arielle Klagsbrun is an organizer with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment and Rising Tide North America, and is a 2013 Brower Youth Award winner. David Osborn is climate organizer with Portland Rising Tide and Rising Tide North America. He is also a faculty member at Portland State University. Maryam Adrangi is a campaigner with the Council of Canadians and an organizer with Rising Tide Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. Kirby Spangler works with the Castle Mountain Coalition and Alaska Rising Ride.

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Thinking outside the box for protesters . . .

By gragor on Sun, January 12, 2014 at 2:35 am

I suspect there may be considerable drawback in the environmental movement as more of the “activists” start coming to the realization that the problem of environmental degradation and extractive processes (of all sorts, not just fossil fuels)is simply not resolvable; that the most unsustainable thing on earth is industrial civilization; that industrial civilization IS itself inherently an extractive process, and that no extractive process is ecologically benign.

Probably not the path we would have chosen if we had known better way back when, but it’s the path we’re on now whether we like it or not, and the only way off is to get off the path.  So, who wants to be first into the euthanasia center?

Yep, I said it: probably the only way to save what’s left of the diversity of life on this planet is to do something about the ONE species that is screwing it up for all the rest, and I think it is highly unlikely at this point that whatever form that takes will be voluntary.

This piece on the “pipeline preoccupation” makes some of these connections, but the underlying fundamentals always seem to get left out:

Industrial civilization runs on fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are finite, therefore
Industrial civilization will be self limiting.

The big corporations engaged in extractive processes are not the end users of the things they extract: we are.  They are just in it for the money, same as the guy who sells you a “No XL” t-shirt on the way to the protest.  So long as that is the case, most people protesting energy extraction and/or delivery projects are protesting against the delivery of stuff they themselves use in the present and will want in the future.

An uncomfortable Catch-22, but there it is.

And most of them I have met are delusional anyway, believing that “climate change” is something new (but totally under human control);  that “renewable energy” is some kind of magic not dependent on fossil fuels, and that slowing down (CO2 emissions) is somehow equal to going backwards. 

I imagine it is disheartening to find out how false all of those presumptions are, but maybe they will someday learn to grow a garden….

By Sc8bored on Wed, October 23, 2013 at 11:34 am

please also see the following from Macdonald Stainsby in CounterPunch - some of the same analysis, but also taking into account how the strategy is primarily developed by ‘Big Green’ foundation-funding-led organizations:

By Greg on Wed, October 23, 2013 at 5:27 am

We are starting to see the desperation of the industry and they understand the tea party as their radical group and now see a flood of equally committed radicals in the environmental movement.  Giving up just before the President makes his decision would be a strategy the industry would like to see.  Just give us the KeystoneXL they seem to say and we will work something out down the line.  Don’t fall for that line and keep it on KeystoneXL and TarSands.

By bill wilson on Fri, October 11, 2013 at 7:28 pm

Keystone XL isn’t just about fossil fuels/climate.  Poorly made, old and pipes otherwise unsuitable to transport heavy, toxic bitumen fuels have already had catastrophic leaks {e.g., a 2011 leak near the Kalamazoo River has still not been remediated}.  This country simply does not have fresh water to waste or despoil.  None.

By Paige Murphy-Young on Fri, October 11, 2013 at 3:32 pm

I fully agree, though I think sure, a lot of people will be disillusioned. In fact, many already are, as noted, the pipeline is complete from Alberta to Port Arthur; Obama approved the southern leg shorty before reelection and the main climate spokespersons remained silent!!; but I think people will fight on - a drop-off, sure, but what else is there to do?...but just one major thing missing: CONSUMPTION has to be at that basis of any organizing around fossil fuel extraction. As long as the “Demand” side remains underaddressed,the “Supply” side becomes ever more intractable - the Tar Sands WILL be burned as long as someone can get rich off the Demand.

There should be posters of the end use products of Tar Sands sludge everywhere (appears that jet fuel, diesel and gasoline are the main ones - the US Midwest is already awash with it.)

You won’t see consumption even mentioned by the foundation-fed “greens.” Could it possibly have anything to do with the fact that 350 is funded by the Rockefeller Bros.? And, most large and many mid-market professional “green” NGOs are now funded by one fossil-fuel-based foundation or another - Pew being primary.

And taking consumption head-on is part of “building a broad-based movement.”
I caught a ride with a tow truck guy the other day and he didn’t believe in Climate Collapse: “It can’t be that bad. After all, you don’t see Al Gore changing his high lifestyle, do you?”

It’s not just Gore. Consumption is an endemic blind spot. Hypocritical Frequent Flyer Activism isn’t going unnoticed by the general public.

Like it or not, until a movement seriously addresses Consumption and how it drives the “Supply Side” of the equation it makes dealing with the - necessary part of the equation’s - rolling back of the supply side’s ability to extract all the harder, if not impossible.

By Michael on Thu, October 10, 2013 at 10:39 pm

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