The Keystone Principle: Stop making it worse

"The Keystone Principle: Stop making it worse"

I live in the one narrow strip of land in the continental United States that was slightly cooler than normal in 2012. Puget Sound was the only place coded green on a national weather map for average yearly temperatures - a small spot of coolness in a sea of raging heat. Mind you, what kept us cool was the unrelenting rain. We got soaked. But it did keep us cool.

On this particular map - (I can't seem to dig it out of the cyber-pile, so I'm not able to reference it here), the great body of the continental U.S. east and south of the Cascades was a tangle of yellows, oranges and dark reds, indicating average temperatures ranging dangerously above normal. The map looked to me like the very picture of a fire burning. It seems we are starting to learn what it means to live inside of  a burning fever.

Partly because of this, the U.S. climate movement is surging, and last Sunday's climate rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. was a heady day for the movement. I want to give some reasons why we should not only tolerate this new fervor, but join it.

Mark Hertsgaard described the rally in D.C. this way;

"Braving frigid cold, at least 35,000 demonstrators gathered in Washington on Sunday for the largest climate change rally in U.S. history. With a second climate and clean energy rally planned for Earth Day on April 22, Sunday’s demonstration had the feel of a first act, an opening statement of what the burgeoning U.S. climate movement is demanding from a government that for decades has denied and delayed action on the most urgent problem of our age."

KC Golden of Climate Solutions issued a rousing moral commentary on the meaning of this rally in a terrific piece in Grist earlier this week. He calls it "The Keystone Principle", since the centerpiece of the movement right now is stopping the Keystone oil pipeline from the Tar Sands in Alberta to the Texas oil refineries. Why is this so important? KC puts it this way:

After a year of unprecedented destruction due to weather extremes, the climate fight is no longer just about impacts in the future. It’s about physical and moral consequences, now. And Keystone isn’t simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate movement. It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption: Stop making it worse.

Specifically and categorically, we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “locks in” dangerous emission levels for many decades.

It’s true that stopping a single pipeline — even one as huge and odious as Keystone — will not literally “solve” climate disruption. No single action will do that, any more than refusing to sit on the back of a single bus literally ended segregation. The question — for Keystone protestors as it was for Rosa Parks — is whether the action captures and communicates a principle powerful enough to inspire and sustain an irresistible movement for sweeping social change.

He goes on to say:

If you are a fossil fuel company, “locking in dangerous emissions” means locking in profits. It is your business strategy, precisely. For the rest of us, it’s a one-way, non-refundable ticket to centuries of hell and high water. We must not buy that ticket.

This is the Keystone Principle. It emerges from multiple lines of scientific and economic research, most notably the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that the chance to avert catastrophic climate disruption would be “lost forever” without an immediate shift away from fossil fuel infrastructure investment.

It is the scale of moral consequence that has been largely missing from this debate, and the scale of action that legitimate moral fervor can engender. Moral abdication has been perpetuated by placing climate disruption in the category of 'just another issue' among many, and by continuing to hand the media megaphones to climate deniers long after the scientific consensus has become crystal clear.

The line is stark now. Again to quote KC Golden:

No amount of clean energy investment will stave off disaster unless we stop feeding the fossil fuel beast with capital now. Most importantly, as we enter the era of climate consequences, the Keystone Principle has moral power. Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by superstorm Sandy. Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought. Last month, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean. This is what climate disruption looks like.

President Obama has a scorching decision to make on the Keystone project, if he is to build moral authority into his rousing words on climate action in his State of the Union Address. This "pipeline in the sand", as Bill McKibben calls it, is rapidly becoming a moral rallying cry with enormous potential to leverage change. Citizen activism will continue to blossom on this front regardless of Obama's decision on Keystone, but the symbolic power of saying "No" to big oil on this one would be huge.

Because things are moving so fast on the climate issue through the organizing power of social media, and because the mainstream press continues to portray the movement as marginal, it is easy to miss this fervor, and to dismiss it as just another fad. It isn't. We will all be climate activists soon. Our unraveling biosphere will leave us no choice. So why not get started now? Join a rally near you. Cash in that next luxury vacation and explore the treasures close to home. Keep those jets grounded. Divest your oil stocks. Occupy your bike! Pester your Congressman. Lay down on the tracks. We are all living in the tongue of the rapids.