Whose Job Is It To Fix the Environment?

David Roberts makes a very good point about much of the criticism that the victorious anti-Keystone Pipeline activists received (boldface mine):

Many Keystone skeptics (“Keystone doubters”?) assume that the way to evaluate a climate activist campaign is by the carbon emissions it reduces. By that metric, Keystone seems an odd choice.

But it’s an odd metric, if you think about it. And it speaks to the odd relationship the US political establishment has always had with climate change and climate campaigners.

The assumption has been that climate change is an “environmental issue” and that it is the job of environmentalists to fix it. It is the job of everyone else to tell them they are Doing It Wrong, to critique their methods, communication strategies, policy choices, and activist campaigns.

Anyone who understands the scale of the climate challenge ought to view this implicit arrangement with bafflement. The idea that one underpowered, underfunded faction of the US left, with all its cultural and institutional baggage, should or could be responsible for the climate portfolio is ludicrous.

It is also ludicrous to imagine that the primary goal of climate activist campaigns is to reduce emissions. It would be like criticizing the Montgomery bus boycott because it only affected a relative handful of black people. The point of civil rights campaigns was not to free black people from discriminatory systems one at a time. It was to change the culture. “Keystone isn’t a perfect battlefield,” wrote Michael Grunwald, “but neither was Selma or Stonewall.”

…And maybe that’s fine. Maybe it isn’t the role of activists to imagine and bring about a new world. Maybe that’s for policymakers, designers, engineers, artists, and entrepreneurs. Maybe the highest and best use of activism is just to make things uncomfortable, and more expensive, for the bad actors benefiting from the unsustainable status quo…

But the other part of transitioning to a new world is contesting the legitimacy of the old one. That means taking assumptions, institutions, and technologies that have a presumptive social warrant — that are assumed necessary, legitimate, and worthwhile by default — and, God help me for using this word, problematizing them.

Fossil fuel extraction and transport projects have a presumptive social warrant. Local opposition or environmental standards may sometimes trump that warrant, but the heuristic applied defaults to positive, to yes.

That to me, was the resounding success of the Keystone opposition: for the first time, a president judged an energy project based on the harm it might do to the efforts to combat global warming.

Not too shabby.

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