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How Science Can Predict Where You Stand on Keystone XL

Want to make sense of the feud between pipeline activists and "hippie-punching" moderates? Talk to the researchers.

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The anti-Keystone "Forward on Climate" rally in Washington DC, February 17th, 2013.

On February 17, more than 40,000 climate change activists—many of them quite young—rallied in Washington, DC, to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which will transport dirty tar sands oil from Canada across the heartland. The scornful response from media centrists was predictable. Joe Nocera of the New York Times, for one, quickly went on the attack. In a column titled "How Not to Fix Climate Change," he wrote that the strategy of activists "who have made the Keystone pipeline their line in the sand is utterly boneheaded."

Nocera, who accepts the science of climate change, made a string of familiar arguments: The tar sands will be exploited anyway, the total climate contribution of the oil that would be transported by Keystone XL is minimal, and so on. Perhaps inspired by Nocera-style thinking, a group of 17 Democratic senators would later cast a symbolic vote in favor of the pipeline, signaling that opposing industrial projects is not the brand of environmentalism that they, at least, have in mind.

The Keystone activists, not surprisingly, were livid. Not only did they challenge Nocera's facts, they utterly rejected his claims as to the efficacy of their strategy: Opponents of the pipeline have often argued that it is vital to push the limits of the possible—in particular, to put unrelenting pressure on President Obama to lead on climate change. Van Jones, the onetime Obama clean-energy adviser and a close supporter of 350.org founder and Keystone protest leader Bill McKibben, has put it like this: "I think activism works…The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement kept pushing on the question of marriage equality, and the president came out for marriage equality, which then had a positive effect on public opinion and helped that movement win at the ballot box and in a number of states, within months."

This article is about the emotionally charged dispute between climate activists and environmental moderates, despite their common acceptance of the science of climate change. Why does this sort of rift exist on so many issues dividing the center from the left? And what can we actually say about which side is, you know, right

Does Joe Nocera really have a sound basis for calling the pipeline opponents' strategy boneheaded—or is that just his gut feeling as a centrist? Does Van Jones have any basis for claiming that activism works—or is it just his gut feeling as someone favorably disposed towards activism?

This line of inquiry should prove duly humbling to both activists and moderates—and help to unite them.

It's high time we considered the science on these questions. There is, after all, considerable scholarly work on whether activists, by pushing the boundaries of what seems acceptable, create the conditions for progress or, instead, bring about backlashes that can complicate the jobs of sympathetic policymakers.

There's also data that may shed light on why these rifts between "moderates" and "activists" are more the rule than the exception—across the ideological spectrum. "I can't really think of any movement where there isn't some internal dissent about goals and tactics," says Carleton College political scientist Devashree Gupta, who studies social movements. The recurrence of this pattern on issues from civil rights to gun control to abortion suggests that there is something here that's well worth understanding, preferably before the next rhetorical bloodbath around Keystone.  

A chief benefit of this line of inquiry: It should prove duly humbling to activists and moderates alike—and thus might help to unite them.

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FROM THE OUTSET, I think we can agree on one fundamental point: Over the past several years, driven by the failure of cap and trade and a worsening climate crisis, America's environmental movement has become considerably more activist in nature—some might even say "radical." Exhibit A is the successful attempt by 350.org inspirer-in-chief McKibben (who has written extensively about climate for Mother Jones) to create a grassroots protest movement rather than simply to work within the corridors of power.

"What Bill is doing is actually quite impressive—he's the first one to create a social movement around climate change, and he's done it by creating a common enemy, the oil industry, and a salient target, which is Keystone," says Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies environmental politics.

There's really little doubt that the "dark greens" are on the ascendant.

One crucial aspect of this shift is a growing reluctance by environmentalists to work hand in hand with big polluters. The latter was a central feature of the US Climate Action Partnership, the industry-environmental collaboration that led an unsuccessful cap-and-trade push a few years back. Nowadays, the environmental movement is moving toward a more oppositional relationship with industry, as evidenced by its attempts to block a major industrial project (Keystone) and to get universities and cities to drop their investments in fossil fuel companies (another of McKibben's goals).

The rival environmental factions are sometimes described as "dark greens" (the purists who want to force radical change) and "bright greens" (those who seek compromise and accept tradeoffs). There's really little doubt that dark greens are on the ascendant. "He's pulling the flank out," Hoffman says of McKibben. "I do think he has a valuable role in creating a space where others can create a more moderate role."

Then along come the moderates, unleashing flurries of "hippie punching" under the guise of being more rational than the activists they are criticizing.

It's also fair to say that McKibben—the charismatic journalist-turned-organizer—lies a good way to the political left. Its centrist biases notwithstanding, a recent paper by American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet does capture McKibben's "romantic" ideology: Like most people, he's unhappy about environmental degradation, but he also seems opposed, in a significant sense, to the economic growth engine that drives it. He believes in living smaller, in going back to nature, in consuming less—not a position many politicians would be willing to espouse. (Indeed, President Obama's comments about climate change often contain an explicit rejection of the idea that environmental and economic progress are mutually exclusive.)

So environmentalists are moving left and becoming more activist in response to political gridlock and scary planetary rumblings. Then along come the moderates, unleashing flurries of what Grist's David Roberts calls "hippie punching" under the guise of being more rational and reasoned than those they are criticizing. For example, Nisbet writes: "McKibben's line-in-the-sand opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, his skepticism of technology, and his romantic vision of a future consisting of small-scale, agrarian communities reflects his own values and priorities, rather than a pragmatic set of choices designed to effectively and realistically address the problem of climate change."

You can see how an activist might find this just a tad irritating. For what is Nisbet's statement if not a reflection of his own values and priorities? Words like "pragmatic" and "realistic" give away the game.

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