When I wrote my essay on the virtues of being unreasonable on Keystone XL, I implied, unfairly, that TIME journalist Mike Grunwald was among the ranks of Very Serious People who think anti-Keystone activism is misguided. He protested, and I promised that if he wrote on the subject I would do a special post on it.
Well, Grunwald has written a column about Keystone XL and it is a doozy, just about the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject in a mainstream publication. Unlike the Monday morning (or rather, Sunday afternoon!) quarterbacks who have been swarming, stroking their chins and asking whether this is the right time, the right target, the right tone, the right everything to satisfy their fussy standards, Grunwald recognizes that the fight is already joined. What’s left now is only to win or lose.
The pipeline isn’t the worst threat to the climate, but it’s a threat. Keystone isn’t the best fight to have over fossil fuels, but it’s the fight we’re having. Now is the time to choose sides. It’s always easy to quibble with the politics of radical protest: Did ACT UP need to be so obnoxious? Didn’t the tax evasion optics of the Boston Tea Party muddle the anti-imperial message? But if we’re in a war to stop global warming — a war TIME declared on a green-bordered cover five years ago — then we need to fight it on the beaches, the landing zones and the carbon-spewing tar sands of Alberta. If we’re serious about reducing atmospheric carbon below 350 parts per million, we need to start leaving some carbon in the ground.
Oh, wait, this is good too:
What we really need is a political price on carbon, a policy presumption that cleaner is better. Fossil fuel interests understandably reject that notion. But so do respectable pundits, because they’re desperate to differentiate themselves from the unkempt riffraff who never shut up about the broiling of the planet. Respectable pundits see themselves as rational analysts, not emotional activists. They recognize the emergency but feel uncomfortable about the sirens. They endorse the war, but like armchair McClellans, they are always finding excuses for why we shouldn’t fight.
Yes, yes, yes.
Wait, one more:
At his second Inaugural, after his memorable line about Selma and Stonewall, Obama finally broke his climate silence. He vowed to fight to slash emissions, “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Keystone isn’t a perfect battlefield, but neither was Selma or Stonewall. In a war, you don’t always get to choose where to fight. You still have to show you’re willing to fight.
It is truly a mystery to me why more mainstream pundits and analysts don’t see the wisdom of Grunwald’s take here, why there are so many “armchair McClellans” who say they understand the climate challenge but are loathe to draw any lines or pick any fights. The fact that they are “uncomfortable with the sirens” is, to me, inscrutable.
But it is what it is, and Grunwald is defying VSP conventional wisdom here. He did the same thing with his book The New New Deal, which told the true — but widely ignored — story about how Obama’s stimulus rescued the economy and, among many other things, kickstarted several cleantech industries. (In the wonderful world of the Beltway, giving Obama credit for things he actually did amounts to being “partisan.” The proper attitude is to lament Obama’s lack of leadership while calling on him to do things he’s already doing.)
I don’t want to exaggerate here — pundits aren’t soldiers or firefighters, they aren’t risking life and limb — but it takes real courage for a mainstream journalist to zig when the herd is zagging. If there’s one iron rule of the U.S. political commentariat, it’s that no one is ever punished for saying something stupid and wrong as long as it’s the same stupid and wrong thing everyone else is saying. And there is little reward for saying something smart and correct if it goes against the Sunday talk show consensus. Grunwald is risking real damage to his career and he deserves credit for it.
So huzzah to Mike Grunwald! Here’s hoping he inspires a few armchair McClellans to get off their asses and join the battle.