02/03/2014 04:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014

Keystone XL Is the Wrong Direction, and That's What Matters


What is most striking about the debate over whether President Obama should approve the Keystone XL pipeline is that supporters of the pipeline don't dispute that approval of the pipeline -- something completely under Obama's control -- would contribute to harmful climate change. They don't dispute that tar sands oil is very dirty oil from the point of view of carbon emissions, and that the pipeline would contribute to the extraction of that dirty oil, thereby contributing to harmful climate change. The dispute is about by how much approval of the pipeline would contribute to harmful climate change.

Supporters of the pipeline have claimed that the answer to this question is not very much, because the Canadian tar sands oil is going to be exploited no matter what we do, and therefore even though it would harm the climate President Obama should approve the pipeline based on other claimed benefits. (For example, some people in Washington want to replace oil on the world market from countries whose governments Washington doesn't like very much with oil from countries whose government Washington likes more. That's irrelevant to most Americans, but it's interesting to some people in Washington who want to run the world.)

Opponents of the pipeline have disputed the claim that the contribution of the pipeline to the exploitation of tar sands oil would not be significant.

But if you don't think that the claimed benefits are very great or very meaningful, then it's a slam dunk to reject the pipeline, regardless of how great we think the impact on climate change is likely to be. The impact of the pipeline will be to exacerbate climate change. If the benefits to the majority from the project do not exceed the harm, the project should not go forward.

Some argue that other regulatory measures, like EPA curbs of carbon emissions from existing coal plants, are more important in scale than reducing the rate of extraction and consumption of tar sands oil. But it's far from obvious why that would in itself be an argument for approving the Keystone pipeline. "Let's go ahead and do this bad thing now, because in the future, we may have the opportunity to do something good that will have a much greater impact than the bad thing we are going to do now." Why not try to do the good thing now, and also try to do the good thing in the future?

Of course, there's an implicit assumption that makes the argument somewhat more plausible. The implicit assumption is that rejecting the pipeline would be politically costly for President Obama because fossil fuel industry interests want it. So, the implied argument goes, why press President Obama to take a hit on this from the fossil fuel industry when we have a more important battle up ahead?

But that still doesn't explain how losing this battle now would help us win in the future. If we have to win a political confrontation with fossil fuel interests to control climate change, why not start by trying to win the political confrontation with them now?

Recall that before the threatened Syria war, similar arguments were used to insist that the war be allowed to proceed. Israel and Saudi Arabia were pressing the Administration to bomb Syria, saying that it was crucial to send a signal to Iran that we were willing to use force against them. If we don't bomb Syria, it was argued, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran will all get the wrong messages, and the danger of military confrontation with Iran will actually increase. Plus, it was argued, if President Obama didn't get Congressional approval for the Syria war, it would be a big humiliation that would weaken him politically: "the end of his second term," it was said.

How did that all turn out? There was no war. Most Americans were delighted and relieved. There was a diplomatic deal instead. U.S. diplomacy with Iran increased, and the prospect of war with Iran seems much lower now than it was before, not greater. And far from "having his second term destroyed," Obama went on, almost immediately, to win the political confrontation over the government shutdown and Obamacare.

If President Obama rejects the Keystone XL pipeline, life will go on, only with less harmful climate change, and with the president having signaled to Americans and the world that he's willing to do the right thing on climate change even if fossil fuel interests and their supporters in Congress don't like it. Some companies that planned to profit from the pipeline may be upset, but they'll get over it. We'll have shown that public mobilization and engagement can beat the fossil fuel interests, and that will open political space for further measures to address climate change, just like stopping the Syria war opened political space for more diplomatic engagement with Iran.

There are more than 200 vigils in 48 states planned Monday evening, calling on Obama to reject the pipeline. You can look for a vigil near you here.