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The Big Picture

By Keith Kloor
Nov 7, 2011 6:25 PMNov 20, 2019 12:39 AM


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Michael Levi, a climate and energy analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, shoots down Joe Romm and Real Climate in one post. I sense that it pains him to do this, especially with regard to the latter. More on that in a minute. First, I want to point out that Levi's argument about the Canadian oil sands oil issue and the proposed pipeline make perfect sense. But there's a reason why a main theme of the original Star Trek series was the tension between Dr. Spock's clinical logic and Captain Kirk's emotionally charged nature. These two essential human characteristics were brilliantly juxtaposed in every episode. So I find it ironic that Levi titles his post, "Missing the Big Picture on Keystone XL," because both he and the pipeline protesters are talking about two different big pictures. Yes, Levi is right that blocking the pipeline doesn't change the demand equation of this problem. But Bill McKibben is a smart person. He recognizes that political action on global warming is severely constrained by the U.S. political landscape and the global dynamics of energy demand (Levi's Big Picture). McKibben also knows that the complexity of climate change offers few tangible symbols. So the Keystone pipeline has become an effective rallying point, with serendipitous tail winds coming from the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Keystone is now representative of McKibben's Big Picture--which is about spotlighting the urgency of climate change and the need for action. Levi seems not to grasp this, because he writes (my emphasis):

I've clearly failed in my previously stated goal of largely avoiding the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which has somehow become one of the biggest energy issues in the United States.

It's not an energy issue. It's about climate change. And it has "somehow" become a focal point precisely because climate activists have nothing else to rally around. They are desperate. U.S. climate legislation has failed. Global climate treaty negotiations are Kabuki theater. President Obama is ramping up domestic drilling and Republicans spit when they mention climate change. Yet Levi wants McKibben and his fellow pipeline protesters to understand that what they are doing does not make logical sense:

What is it about Keystone XL that will cement our oil addiction that nearly ten million barrels a day (and rising) of U.S. domestic production won't? How will Keystone XL qualitatively alter U.S. dependence on the oil sands when other pipelines are already importing crude from there?

To McKibben and the protesters, though, that is irrelevant. Which perplexes Levi. As Spock has said:

Logic and practical information do not seem to apply here.

Indeed. McKibben might respond that using cold logic to tackle climate change at this juncture is useless. Additionally, countries are behaving rationally by putting their self-interest ahead of the planet's. So, as Spock might also say, an appeal to something other than reason (such as emotion) makes total sense. *** Finally, Levi slaps down Real Climate here:

A few people have asked me whether I plan to respond to the anti-Keystone post that went up at RealClimate last Friday. I probably won't. The post is a mix of correct arithmetic concerning oil sands emissions and some pretty awful economic and political analysis. The bad economics assumes that Canadian production won't affect what happens elsewhere in the world; the bad political science implies that the Keystone XL decision will determine what happens to the oil sands over the next thousand or so years. None of that has any support in reality, but adopting it makes the careful arithmetic irrelevant. I've gone through these arguments before, and don't see much value in going through them again. I'm a bit worried, though, that by straying from good climate science into bad economics and politics, RealClimate "“ which I normally love "“ will hurt its brand and credibility.

Now that's what I call tough love.

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