Keystone protest sign in front of White House

Emma CassidySay what you will about the anti-Keystone movement, but it’s gotten a lot of activists enraged and engaged.

A new article in Nature highlights a supposed rift among some scientists over Keystone XL: Is it a smart focus for climate activists or a distracting sideshow?

There doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of a rift as author Jeff Tollefson suggests, but he does talk to some scientists who are conflicted over the Keystone focus:

The issue has … divided the scientific community. Many climate and energy researchers have lined up with environmentalists to oppose what is by all accounts a dirty source of petroleum: emissions from extracting and burning tar-sands oil in the United States are 14–20% higher than the country’s average oil emissions. But other researchers say that the Keystone controversy is diverting attention from issues that would have much greater impact on greenhouse-gas emissions, such as the use of coal.

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Some experts find themselves on both sides. “I’m of two minds,” says David Keith, a Canadian climate scientist who is now at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The extreme statements — that this is ‘game over’ for the planet — are clearly not intellectually true, but I am completely against Keystone, both as an Albertan and somebody who cares about the climate.” …

For Ken Caldeira, a climate researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, it is a simple question of values. “I don’t believe that whether the pipeline is built or not will have any detectable climate effect,” he says. “The Obama administration needs to signal whether we are going to move toward zero-emission energy systems or whether we are going to move forward with last century’s energy systems.”

In 2012, Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, tried to put the concerns about Canadian tar-sands oil into perspective:

He and a student calculated what would happen to global temperatures if the tar sands were fully developed. The proven reserves — those that could be developed with known technologies — make up roughly 11% of the global total for oil, and Weaver’s model suggested that full development would boost the average global temperature by just 0.03 degrees Celsius. Weaver says that the initial focus should be on coal, which he found would have 30 times the climate impact of oil if the world burned all proven coal reserves.

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Still, the fact is that a vibrant climate movement has grown up around the anti-Keystone fight.

Many researchers who have sided with environmentalists on Keystone acknowledge that the decision is mostly symbolic. But in the absence of other action, says Harvard’s Keith, it is important to get people involved and to send industry a message that the world is moving towards cleaner fuels, not dirtier ones.

Says David Victor, a climate-policy expert at the University of California at San Diego, “As a serious strategy for dealing with climate, blocking Keystone is a waste of time. But as a strategy for arousing passion, it is dynamite.”

Our David Roberts made a similar point last year:

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. …

From the perspective of activism and social change, such energy and enthusiasm is to be tended like a precious spark.

Does it make sense to critique the Keystone focus and argue for more attention to other aspects of the climate problem? Or should the critics put up or shut up — stop complaining about anti-Keystone activism until they form their own dynamic anti-coal or pro-carbon-pricing movements?

Jamie Henn of thinks the Nature article gets the frame all wrong: