Allow me to bury the lead. The Keystone XL pipeline is a climate disaster.

I reiterate this, at the risk of what David Roberts calls “public flatulism,” because this post is about jobs, and I don’t want anyone to infer that any amount of jobs would justify committing climate suicide.

IEA’s warnings against imminent climate “lock-in” mean that any major investment in long-lived, capital-intensive fossil-fuel infrastructure must now be considered flatly immoral. So we quibble about jobs at the risk of blurring this moral line when we should be sharpening it. I hope I have mitigated that risk by naming it, because we also need to talk about this jobs thing.

The only independent analysis of the jobs impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline concludes:

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The construction of KXL will create far fewer jobs in the US than its proponents have claimed and may actually destroy more jobs than it generates.

And yet the Washington Post‘s “Fact Checker” reports:

There is bipartisan consensus: The Keystone XL pipeline means jobs, jobs, jobs.

Put those two together, and you get this: The truth may be found not in between the poles of political partisanship, but completely outside the realm of conventional politics as we know it.

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I will concede that I am looking at the facts through my own lens — the lens of someone who believes that the climate impacts are so unconscionable that we must not inflict them for any amount of jobs or treasure. And I am looking through the lens of someone who has a job (though my Dad never saw it that way). So I will understand if you don’t think I’m the final authority on the jobs analysis.

But consider that there may also be a distorting lens so powerful that it causes both sides in the now hyperpoliticized Keystone debate to completely miss the reality of the jobs impact. That lens is one of the most enduring frames in our political culture: jobs vs. environment. This construct, even as it comes unglued in economic reality, is regaining strength in the popular imagination and among political operatives because it helps folks make sense of the Keystone battle. President Obama’s opponents and the political horse-race media (increasingly, all of them) find it particularly irresistible now in the run-up to the 2012 election, because it sets up a nasty internal conflict in the president’s “base”.

The Washington Examiner drools conspicuously: “Obama faces choice on Keystone pipeline: Big Labor or Big Green.” But it’s not just a right-wing message (or, more to the point, it’s such a successful one): virtually all of the reporting follows this theme. So, if the truth were that Keystone is a job-killer (as, I repeat, the only independent analysis to date suggests it could be), well, that would be a total political buzz kill. We can’t have that. Who wants to concede to a reality that so completely undermines the dramatic narrative structure of contemporary politics?

Well, for those who need an alternative juicy plot line into which the facts actually fit before they are willing to contend with the truth (and face it, we all do), try this simple one: Big Oil owns Congress. “Jobs” gives Congress a way to hide that ugly fact. (As I write this, I believe the House Rs are dutifully unraveling the Senate deal to force a decision on Keystone in exchange for the extension of the payroll tax cut, because it will force the State Department to follow through on its threat to deny the permit. As much fun as the House thinks that showdown might be, they will not be allowed to have that fun at Big Oil’s expense.)

I am not even remotely qualified to comment intelligently on the dark art of jobs analysis. (All I can say is I wish I could just whip out some big fuzzy “multiplier” every time I wanted to sell my stuff.) So I won’t pretend to offer any rigor for this contention, but I will stand by it: the jobs impact of making big, irreversible commitments to deeper fossil fuel dependence and accelerated climate disruption will dwarf whatever temporary relief the oil industry is now offering to people who desperately need it.

This will be dismissed by some as hand-waving, but tucked at the end of the Cornell Labor Institute study of the jobs impact of Keystone is a reference to the Stern Review’s conclusions about the likely impacts to the global economy of our current climate trajectory.

“If emissions continue to rise according to a ‘business as usual’ scenario, climate change is likely to have an impact on the global economy equivalent to the combined effect of the two World Wars of the 20th century and the Great Depression. According to Stern, as much as 20 percent of global GDP could be wiped out.”

I wonder what the “multiplier effect” on that is.

Discussion of “climate” is now considered impolitic, so it is often buried at the end this way, when it is mentioned at all. And yet, as is so often the case, it is likely to dwarf everything else. The cognitive effect is bizarre, acrobatic: “Oh, and by the way, this project will significantly accelerate our progress toward the now-imminent end of civilization as we know it. And that could be bad for jobs too.”

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