This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the US Gulf Coast the "Selma and Stonewall" of the climate movement.
Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we're aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the "environmental review" the State Department is conducting on the feasibility and advisability of building the pipeline. And there's good reason to put pressure on. After all, it's the same State Department that, as on a previous round of reviews, hired "experts" who had once worked as consultants for TransCanada, the pipeline's builder.
Still, let's put things in perspective: Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we'll be rallying in scuba masks. (I'm not kidding. The section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac River out of downtown DC.)
It was certainly joyful to see marriage equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings. In one weekend, Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia figured out that they had "evolved" on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too, had "evolved," once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe bet.
Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to do about the Democrats.
Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Let's begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole, they're better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if necessary, he would "build it myself." (A charming image, it must be said). Every Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the pipeline—every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you know exactly what you're getting from them.
With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their Senate caucus—about a third—joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone XL. As the Washington insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, "Obama's Achilles Heel on Climate: Senate Democrats."
Which actually may have been generous to the president. It's not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change. His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.
Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough, that the president doesn't think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist on an "all-of-the-above" energy policy which, as renowned climate scientist James Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week, simply can't be squared with basic climate-change math.
All these men and women have excuses for their climate conservatism. To name just two: the oil industry has endless resources and they're scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic and pragmatic, as far as they go: if you can't get re-elected, you can't do even marginal good and you certainly can't block right-wing craziness. But they also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of voting records than party affiliation.
Anyway, aren't all those apologias wearing thin as Arctic sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights. Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost. At least, however, inaction didn't make the problem harder to solve: if the Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they'll be able to marry.
Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will prevent long-term global catastrophe. We're clearly nearing that limit and so the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for their positions to "evolve" along with the polling numbers. What we need, desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public opinion and public policy.