Demonstrators march with a replica of a pipeline during a protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline outside the White House on Sunday, November 6, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
The laws of physics and chemistry don’t grade on a curve; neither should anyone who cares about the fast-approaching catastrophe of runaway climate change. Yes, President Obama managed to say the C-word, more than once, in his State of the Union address. He connected the dots between greenhouse gas emissions and the horrors of Superstorm Sandy and last summer’s record-breaking heat and drought (drought that has worsened this winter in much of the Farm Belt). And after making what he surely knew was a fruitless plea that Congress pass legislation to limit US greenhouse gas emissions, Obama affirmed that he will take action if Congress doesn’t.
This constitutes unmistakable progress from a president who has been all but AWOL from the climate fight for most of his presidency. But unmistakable progress is not the same as sufficient progress. Humanity is staring down the barrel of a calamity beyond measure, and the president is one of the few people on earth who on his own authority can do something about it. Despite the welcome tone of his rhetoric, however, environmentalists weren’t especially heartened by his speech. Obama failed, yet again, to commit himself to any of the most important steps to halt climate change that, as president, he could implement unilaterally. He also indicated that he remains wedded to an “all of the above” energy policy that splits the difference between fossil fuels and green energy.
Right now—but perhaps not for much longer—it is still possible, and indeed crucial, to emphasize that all is not lost in terms of Obama’s climate legacy. He could still do the right thing. Rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline—a topic at the forefront of the minds of the president’s environmentalist supporters, and one that went conspicuously unmentioned in his address—is the most visible of the potential executive actions he could take that would make a difference. By providing a link to the US Gulf Coast, the pipeline, nearly everyone agrees, would unleash furious efforts to extract the crude embedded in the tar sands of Alberta, a process so energy-intensive that it would emit three times more greenhouse gases than typical fossil fuel extraction. Without the pipeline, as resource expert Michael Klare has persuasively argued, the future of the Canadian tar sands industry would be in doubt. Obama’s decision thus matters tremendously. As K.C. Golden, policy director at Climate Solutions, a clean energy group in Seattle, notes, “Keystone isn’t simply a ‘pipeline in the sand’ for the swelling national climate movement: it’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption—stop making it worse.”
Five days after the president’s speech, in a massive display of grassroots determination spearheaded by the Sierra Club and 350.org, at least 35,000 people gathered on the Washington Mall in the frigid cold. They had a clear message for the president: say no to Keystone XL. As Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune put it, “Mr. President, we have heard what you’ve said on climate; we have loved a lot of what you’ve said on climate. Our question is: What will you do?” The assembled crowds—young, vibrant and diverse—could only hope that Obama would hear his words. Activists are also homing in on John Kerry, the new secretary of state, whose impressive environmental record will be tested when his department renders a decision on Keystone this spring.