I’ve been writing a lot about the activist campaign to block the Keystone XL pipeline. Much of that writing has been devoted to pushing back against the squadron of Very Serious People who want to pooh-pooh the campaign as mistargeted, misguided, and futile.

But whether you like the campaign or not, it’s too late for second-guessing at this point. The fight is underway; it’s already freighted with symbolism. Within the next few months, the Keystone decision will be made, for good or ill. Then the question arises: What’s next for the climate movement?

This is an opportunity to take a step back and think carefully about the effort to address climate change and the role activism plays in it. I’ll probably do several posts on this — it’s a rich subject — and I hope others will join in the discussion too.

I want to kick things off by discussing one important distinction that has lurked beneath a lot of the conflict over Keystone:

Supply vs. demand

One of the recurring critiques of the Keystone campaign goes like this:

It is futile to try to choke off the production and transport of fossil fuels as long as there is demand for them. If people want and need fossil fuel energy, if they’re willing to pay for it, then someone will find a way to get the fossil fuels out of the ground. Fighting a mine here, a pipeline there, a port here, a rail line there … it’s spitting into the wind, doing the work of Sisyphus.

The way to keep fossil fuels in the ground is to reduce demand for them. If people use less energy (through efficiency and conservation) and shift to lower-carbon energy sources, demand for high-carbon energy will decline and it won’t be economical to go chasing after unconventional fuels. The market, not protestors, is the only force that can keep fossil fuels in the ground.

supply-and-demand signs
Shutterstock

That’s why New York Times columnist Joe Nocera said, “The emphasis should be on demand, not supply.” Many others have said the same thing in more sophisticated fashion; I think it’s fair to call it conventional wisdom.

Most importantly, it is Obama’s view. In fact, it is the basis of his energy policy: All along, he has supported increased production of fossil fuels while implementing policies to reduce consumption of fossil fuels. It’s the seeming contradiction that has made him so vexing to climate hawks.

So, what are we to make of the critique? Is it valid?

Well, it’s complicated.

From the point of view of pure carbon counting, the critique is accurate. To get substantial emission reductions, you need policies that reduce demand for fossil fuels: Carbon pricing. Large-scale renewable energy deployment. Research and innovation. Energy efficiency. All of it. That’s where the biggest carbon reductions can be found.

But that’s not the end of the story. There are two things to be said on behalf of supply-side battles.

First, the world is not a spreadsheet. The rise of supply to meet demand is not frictionless or inevitable. If supply of the dirtiest fuels can be hindered, delayed, or blocked enough by activists, the price for those fuels will rise at the margins. That will serve as a kind of carbon price — a crude, kludged, economically suboptimal carbon price, but a carbon price nonetheless.

Now, that’s no substitute for demand-side legislation. But it doesn’t need to be a permanent substitute. It just needs to delay the fossil fuel juggernaut, to create some time and space for clean energy to develop and continue falling in cost, to create some time and space for Congress to get its shit together. Think of it as a guerilla war, the classic strategy of a force that’s outsized and outgunned. It’s picking, nettling, a horse fly biting a bull on the ass, trying to distract it and slow it down. The horse fly cannot kill the bull. But that’s no reason to stop biting it!

Second, as I keep arguing, climate analysis and climate activism involve different logics. The biggest sources of carbon are not necessarily the best targets for activism, because the goal of activism is not merely carbon reduction, it is organization and empowerment. The goal of activism is to create a vibrant, impassioned constituency that can throw enough weight around to shift the balance of power in politics.

To create such a movement you need symbolism. You need dramatic confrontations that help define a moral contrast. It’s not like integrating Montgomery’s bus system was going to eliminate structural racism, but the Montgomery bus boycott was a defining moment in demonstrating what was at stake and the possibility of change. I once wrote of Keystone:

There aren’t many easy or obvious ways to make viscerally affecting stories out of the models and statistics of climate science. “Cap-and-trade” certainly stirred no one’s loins. Activists are now looking around for other stories.

In Keystone XL, they found one. Through whatever combination of luck, happenstance, and tenacity, this one worked. It’s an entrée to the climate fight that is immediate enough, vivid enough, to spark the popular imagination.

For all the criticism of the Keystone campaign (and, come to think of it, the cap-and-trade campaign), I’ve seen too few critics acknowledge that finding a fight that can galvanize a movement is incredibly difficult. It’s like creating a viral video. You may have an idea that sounds great and a top-notch production team, but creating a video that goes viral is an art as much as a science — hell, a magic as much as a science — and if you happen to hit on something that works, you run with it.

Broad popularity vs. narrow passion

Now, let’s introduce one more wrinkle. There’s an interesting and difficult conundrum facing climate activists: The actions most popular with activists are not the most popular with the public. In fact, the inverse tends to be true.

If you want to get activists fired up, fight an evil fossil fuel company that’s trying to despoil some new patch of ground. Block a new source of fossil fuels. (This is why activists have so quickly marshaled against fracking.) The public, however, does not share this passion.

The wider public, as I’ve said before, is in favor of more good things and fewer bad things. To them, more energy — of any kind — sounds good. Cutting off a source of energy sounds bad. Given the choice between dirtier energy and cleaner energy, they’ll choose cleaner. But they will rarely choose higher costs or reduced energy supply.

That’s why Gallup found that majorities in both parties favor approving Keystone XL. To the public it means more energy, from a nice country. (Most people, suffice to say, do not fully understand the dynamics of tar sands.) That’s why battles against coal plants are most popular when they are paired with alternatives — the public will switch energy suppliers, but only if they’re confident that service will be maintained.

In short, the public does not share activists’ opposition to fossil fuels as such.

What conclusion to draw from this?

One conclusion might simply be that, insofar as passing serious climate legislation (eventually, when it becomes possible) requires a broad base of support, activists make a mistake when they rally around supply-side campaigns that aren’t broadly popular. They’d be better off rallying around something that sounds good to the wider public, something the public can get behind.

That makes some sense. But again, I think it’s too simple. The forces behind cap-and-trade spent a lot of money and time trying to garner broad-based support, and they got it. But it turned out to be shallow and useless. What wins in politics is intensity. It’s better to have 10 activists in the streets than 100 people who will check the “yes” box on a poll. So there’s at least a strong argument to be made that activist campaigns are better built around things that activate the few than around things that gently tickle the fancy of many.

Does this kind of activism risk alienating the masses? Is the public going to be put off climate action by the Keystone campaign? I don’t think so. (Nor do I think polls tell us all that much.) If you want to move the center, you have to pull from one end. The presence of activists making what appear to be unreasonable demands strengthens the hand of those working in the center on behalf of incremental demand-side policy.

The presence of activists with unreasonable demands also serves an important signaling function. It is a peculiar feature of human psychology that we look first to one another, not to reality, for cues on how to behave. Psych experiments reveal that people will not intervene in a crisis situation — even an obvious crisis situation, like a room on fire or a woman being attacked — until they see others doing the same:

The passive bystanders in this study succumbed to what’s known as “pluralistic ignorance” — the tendency to mistake one another’s calm demeanor as a sign that no emergency is actually taking place. There are strong social norms that reinforce pluralistic ignorance. It is somewhat embarrassing, after all, to be the one who loses his cool when no danger actually exists.

“Pluralistic ignorance.” Have you ever heard a better description of climate politics?

When activists go out and march and chant and chain themselves to bulldozers and get arrested in the name of fighting climate change, those actions may not be popular with the wider public, but they signal to the wider public that there is an emergency. That signaling has been missing from the climate discussion. People talk like the world is in danger but they don’t act like the world is in danger. Doing some of that signaling is a service in itself, even if doesn’t directly reduce any carbon emissions.

So. Where does that leave us?

I’m not arguing that supply-side campaigns are always best for climate activism, simply that “focus on demand rather than supply,” or even “focus on maximum carbon reduction,” is too simple a prescription. Supply-side campaigns can be crudely effective as demand-suppressing measures in their own right, but more importantly they can be inspiring and symbolic. Activism should focus on shifting social and political power, through whatever vehicle presents itself.