The tactics of Keystone XL protestors

I generally agree with the argument laid down by Matthew Yglesias today about the Keystone XL project. On its face, picking one particular carbon energy project and trying to prevent it from being completed does not make a great deal of sense. Doing so does not actually reduce total carbon emissions, at least not in the way that the protesters have in mind. If the protest is successful, all it really does is ensure that emissions are not being sourced from the specific project that they are trying to block.

Some of the Keystone protesters no doubt have other environmental concerns in mind. Apparently parts of the pipeline go through environmentally delicate parts of Nebraska, and I am sure mining the tar sands in Canada will cause all sorts of immediate local damage to the area. Protesters also complain that the pipes might corrode and lead to leaks, a worry with all pipes anywhere but perhaps especially concerning in this case. Some environmentalists care a lot about these local environmental issues, while others don’t.

Outside of those more narrow concerns, the real argument being waged on the Keystone XL project has to do with carbon emissions and climate change. But closing down the project does not actually do anything to ensure that carbon emissions will go down at all; it just ensures that they will not be sourced from the tar sands. The only way to make sure that aggregate emissions decline is to target aggregate emissions, either through carbon taxes or perhaps a cap and trade system. So, the question then becomes: what are the Keystone protesters doing?

Policy analysts may conclude that the focus of the protesters is rather naive, but that is only because policy thinkers are not always well-acquainted with activist tactics. Some of the protesters probably do think that blocking the pipeline will by itself be a net good even if it seems quite clear that the effect on emissions will be negligible. Others understand — as great activist movements have always understood — that you fight certain battles not just to win them, but for the larger impact those battles can have on the broader social consciousness.

The Civil Rights Movement probably understood this tactic the best. Protesters would pack into some small-town, segregated lunch counter day after day after day, hoping to force the counter to be desegregated. Winning such a tiny battle was not really the point: the net benefit of being able to eat at this lunch counter was extremely minor. But the battle itself roused media attention, and produced images of struggles against racism and violence. In the grand scheme of things, these local protests produced only very marginal improvements, but they dramatized and brought attention to the broader issues of racism and Jim Crow, helping to lead to the more significant national changes later on.

When done properly, making huge deals of smaller battles that may not seem that important in the big picture will affect the big picture debates. The Keystone XL protesters have been very successful at this so far. An otherwise obscure infrastructure project is now highlighted in every major newspaper in the country, and — thanks to the Republican attempt to hold payroll tax cuts hostage over it — the attention being paid to the project has multiplied even more. Except perhaps on Fox News, this coverage necessarily requires explaining the problems with climate change and carbon emissions and why protesters are concerned.

Whether this tactic will ultimately pay off depends on all sorts of things including the extent to which the public can be persuaded that carbon emissions are causing climate change. The right-wing has already turned climate change into a culture war issue, making it into one of those things that people distance from to avoid association with mother earth hippies. With that filter on the minds of many Americans, dramatization of the sort the Keystone XL protesters are trying might not ever be successful. But it can be successful, and it is not an inherently foolish tactic. Just because the immediate policy concern is fairly inconsequential, that does not make the use of it as a bullhorn to raise climate change concerns stupid or naive.