Chris Hayes Is Not Making Sense on Keystone

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Several years ago, in the wake of the failure of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress, climate activists decide to rebuild a movement around blocking the Keystone pipeline. Two crucial premises informing that decision have since turned out to be wrong. Chris Hayes, in an interview with Salon today, seems to believe both of them are still true.

The first premise is that building the Keystone pipeline would unlock such a staggeringly large amount of carbon into the atmosphere that it would make any effort to mitigate climate change nearly impossible. Hayes cites a 2012 Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibben, the key figure in the anti-Keystone movement. In that piece, McKibben cites a forecast by James Hansen that Canada’s tar sands contained 240 billion metric tons of carbon, which was the basis for Hansen’s claim that approving the pipeline would be “game over” for the climate. But, as Ryan Lizza noted as an aside in a generally laudatory story for The New Yorker, this estimate was far too large. The amount of carbon recoverable under currently existing technology is 22 billion metric tons, less than one-tenth that amount.

And even that much-reduced figure further assumes that blocking the Keystone pipeline would keep that oil in the ground. The U.S. State Department, as well as numerous center-left environmental experts, believe that blocking the pipeline would simply spur Canada to develop alternate routes for exporting its oil.

The second premise was that, with cap-and-trade having failed, there was no other path to bring the United States into compliance with its Copenhagen targets for greenhouse-gas emissions. Hayes repeats this today:

Blocking Keystone is right on the merits. It is something the president has in his power; he can’t say, “Well, the Republicans in Congress won’t let me,” so there is leverage. And it is something concrete you can organize around. This idea that this is somehow stealing [momentum] from a broad-based movement to push a carbon tax through a filibuster in the frickin’ Senate, and a House filled with Republicans? Through what? What are you stealing from?

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Hayes’s implication — that legislation through Congress offered the only alternative — seemed to be true in 2011. When McKibben launched his anti-Keystone crusade, it was widely assumed that the Obama administration lacked workable regulatory tools to restrict emissions from existing power plants. But around the end of 2012, environmentalists and the Obama administration started discovering that this was not the case. I wrote about it in a long magazine story. And indeed, this June, Obama is unveiling new regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants. Depending on their size and effectiveness, these would eliminate somewhere between 10 and 27 times as much carbon as the Keystone pipeline would facilitate.

So, we have two empirical premises where Hayes is mistaken. First, the environmental impact of Keystone is far smaller than Hayes implies even if you disregard the conclusion that Canada will find other ways to move the oil. (And if you accept that conclusion, the environmental impact is negligible.) And second, the practical alternative, far from being nonexistent, is actually quite potent.

Now, these two empirical issues do not completely foreclose the possibility that Hayes is right anyway. One can argue that, despite massively overestimating the importance of the Keystone pipeline and failing to consider a vastly more potent alternative, McKibben and his allies were nonetheless correct to build a movement around opposition to Keystone. This is what Hayes is getting at when he proceeds to argue, “Jonathan Chait is terrible at giving people organizing advice.” I certainly have no experience at organizing social movements, aside from one night at the 1997 Inaugural Ball in which I tried to organize fellow coat-checkers into an ad hoc union.

The rationale for making Keystone the centerpiece of a new climate movement strikes me as highly roundabout. It runs as follows: The movement was founded on the belief that Keystone would have a huge impact on carbon emissions, and any alternative action by Obama would have a very small impact. Even though the opposite turns out to be true, the decision to focus on Keystone remains a good one because it is easier to rally people against a tangible infrastructure development ("something concrete you can organize around") than in favor of an intangible regulatory scheme.

The part that loses me is how this movement leads to a successful international treaty to restrict climate change. But, as I concede, I am not much of a movement organizer.