Activism and policy are not the same thing
I was on vacation earlier this week (snowboarding in Utah, while I still can) and missed the latest round of VSP scolding about the Keystone XL campaign. There was New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who despite being thoroughly debunked and humiliated regarding his last column, continued his jihad against climate scientist James Hansen. And there was the Washington Post editorial board, which once again lectured environmentalists that they are “fighting the wrong battles.”
To be honest, I’m tired of responding to these things; they just keep repeating the same stupid arguments with no acknowledgement of the counter-arguments. If you want a sampling of my previous responses, try:
- Caving on Keystone: Still a dumb idea
- Debunking Nature’s arguments for Keystone
- Joe Nocera knows from boneheaded
- The virtues of being unreasonable on Keystone
- Supply, demand, and activism: What should the climate movement do next?
For now, I just want to make one quick point that I don’t think I’ve made previously.
WaPo editors, Nocera, and the rest of the legion of Keystone scolds seem to think that what activists are engaged in is a policy proposal — as though they surveyed the policy options and decided that blocking this one pipeline is the most significant, impactful policy available. And that’s why they’re rallying for it.
Thus, Nocera et al. spend thousands of words arguing that, no, it’s not the optimal policy.
But that’s stupid. Comparing activism and a policy proposal using the metric of direct carbon reductions is a category error. The goal of climate policy is to reduce carbon (and build out alternatives). Activism has different goals: persuasion, organization, and a shift in political power. That a particular activist campaign would reduce carbon less than a particular policy is not so much wrong as irrelevant.
It’s not enough for Nocera et al. to say, “A carbon tax would be better than blocking this pipeline.” Of course it would! They need to explain why an activist campaign devoted to a carbon tax would be better activism than the Keystone campaign. That’s a whole different comparison.
A carbon tax has to get through Congress. The House of Representatives is filled with Republicans from narrowly drawn, far-right districts whose main fear is being primaried from the right (not being protested from the left). How exactly are left activists supposed to change that dynamic? What possible prospect of success do they have? How would it pull together a passionate constituency? What would the mechanics of a carbon tax-focused activist campaign even look like?
It’s not so much that these questions have no possible answers as Nocera and co. don’t even attempt to answer them. They don’t even acknowledge them. They are content to say, “I want a carbon tax so protestors are stupid.” It’s just a criminally shallow and irresponsible approach to a real and difficult problem.