Victory is sweet. In January, the Obama administration rejected the proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline that would have moved Canadian tar sands oil across the United States. A year ago, the pipeline was a backburner issue even among environmental groups. By the start of 2011 it had catapulted to the top of the national agenda and had even gotten wrapped up in the wrangling over whether tens of millions of Americans would get a payroll tax break. The White House’s decision against the pipeline marked a major victory for greens.
Of course, as David Brower once said, no environmental victory is ever final. Republicans keep angling to find a way to push through Keystone XL, and the fight will continue at least through next year’s inauguration, no matter who wins the election.
Still, this is a success – especially when viewed alongside the Obama administration’s retreat from imposing new ozone rules, the inaction on climate change, and the GOP’s drum-steady assault against using government financing to spur renewable-energy investment. On Keystone, greens picked a fight, set the agenda, rope-a-doped the opposition, and then got the president to make the right call.
It’s worth looking at the winning playbook to see how it happened.
Play Politics. The Keystone fight was sparked by Bill McKibben and the young organizers at 350.org and from the start they made this a test of President Obama’s commitment to addressing climate change. On the first day of a two-week-long civil disobedience protest in front of the White House, McKibben, NASA scientist James Hansen, and others wore their Obama 08 pins as they were hauled off to jail. The message was clear: You can’t count on our vote if you approve this pipeline.
Make Friends. The most determined opposition to Keystone XL came from the Sandhills region of Nebraska, where ranchers worried that a pipeline accident could contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer. Jane Kleeb of the group Bold Nebraska forged a trans-partisan coalition of conservatives and progressives, farmers and environmentalists to fight the proposal. Their dogged opposition eventually forced the state’s Republican leadership to oppose the plan. Clean water, it turns out, is not just a pet issue for Sierra Club members.
Just Say No. Opposition is galvanizing. In contrast to the push for federal climate legislation, which fractured the environmental movement, this fight brought a broad range of groups together. “No” works – precisely because it’s firm and it’s strong and it’s uncompromising. Sure, environmentalists can’t just be about stopping things. It’s crucial to project a positive vision of what sustainability can look like. But maybe we need more NIMBY-ism, not less. If everyone said Not in My Backyard to giant oil pipelines, coal fired power plants, and natural gas wells, there would be no place to put them.
Hit the Streets. Perhaps the most important takeaway is the reminder that greens’ most valuable weapon is grassroots muscle. We don’t have the money; we don’t have the insider connections; we don’t have the media. We do have the strength of a concerned citizenry. Organize 12,000 people to surround the White House and you can bet the president will listen.
Now we just have to do it again and again.
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