The Problem With Bill McKibben and John Kerry
Ah, so the Obama administration announced yet another delay in the Keystone XL pipeline review. And what a brilliant decision is this non-decision. If you have been opposed to climate change, tar sands or the oil and gas industry and live in the United States, you now know– thanks to Obama and Bill McKibben– what you are supposed to do for the next minimum several months. Isn’t it wonderful to have strategy handed to you by the US administration, and your so-called leaders?
I hope that I don’t date myself too harshly by referencing Peanuts right off the bat. Hopefully you recall the famous comic strips featuring Snoopy, Linus and the gang. There was that famous routine where Lucy, who had lied and lied many times before on the same promise, would swear to Charlie Brown that if he attempted to kick a football that she was holding, she would not pull it away– despite the fact she had done exactly that countless times before.
Of course, the joke is that we all know Lucy will pull the ball away, and Charlie will miss, falling on his rear after sailing through the air having just whiffed on kicking the ball. His injury, for us apparently, is part of the humour. He gets up, dusts himself off and we all well know it will happen again soon enough.
What we don’t know, since the ball never gets kicked, is if Charlie Brown can actually boot a football in any meaningful sense. Can he get it very far, will it be an effective kick? Since Charlie Brown has never kicked the ball it can’t be said he has failed. The anticipation of what may happen, should he get to kick the damn thing, keeps him coming back. Lucy has him right where she wants him.
If the administration gave approval to the Keystone XL, that might allow activists a chance to change tactics and re-evaluate strategy. If they denied it, McKibben, 350.org and many green types would celebrate, but what then? The same oil can be sent a million other directions by other means. Given the “new” oil sources from various locales and/or shipment methods, it may not even slow anything down at all. Where things are at the moment, we will spend the foreseeable future chasing this one, single campaign around– and without even knowing why.
The various anti-tar sands movements (it is a lie to refer to it as a single movement; there is no such thing– and three cheers for the diversity that prevents such from being the case) have, in many ways, put themselves completely at the mercy of multiple governing bodies on both sides of the 49th parallel.
Climate, unlike social issues separate from the biosphere, changes even when the political situation remains the same. However, the advent of climate change has deepened and also changed dramatically in the political sense since the start of the campaign against Keystone XL. As far as the atmosphere, it has sadly become far worse during that time.
In September the new IPCC declarations will come out. But for those of us who don’t want to grab a binder, a cup of coffee and attempt to go through pages and pages of evidence for things we long ago ceased needing paper-based evidence for, we have Sandy, global droughts and heatwaves, disappearing sea ice and multiple other real world means by which to demonstrate the obvious. Climate change is real, happening now, and the window to prevent runaway climate change– the point at which the earth itself begins to release carbon that feeds climate change without any emissions from human beings directly, making prevention of further climate change impossible—is closing.
Put another way, we have now entered well into climate change as visible and tangible; people who doubt the existence of climate change are quickly becoming more or less the equivalent of moon landing deniers, or flat earthers. The difference, of course, is that the results of a governmental policy based on a notion that the moon has never seen a human-built spacecraft would not likely be the death of much life and most human beings on the planet earth (flat or round).
The Keystone XL campaign, stage managed to appear grassroots while completely avoiding grassroots direction and controlled by massive foundation funding (the largest philanthropic foundations in the US now funnel their money through the Tides Foundation– and Tides has managed to garner complete control of the funded anti-tar sands movement on both sides of the border, while Rockefeller is the primary millions of dollars funder for 350.org)is now wielded by power to keep us busy.
While refusing to even critique the Obama administration– to the point of barring Ralph Nader from speaking in front of the White House even though the organizers originally invited him at their first White House appearance– Keystone XL has been pushed along as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, despite how ludicrous such a notion is give new developments.
Let’s recap how the fight against the Keystone XL has gone, and also recap how the well funded, giant NGO machinery has responded to such publicly. After a few hundred people were arrested in front of the White House in a prearranged media stunt coordinated with DC police, Obama himself announced that a decision on Keystone XL had been postponed (in the US north). That was over a year and a half ago. The portion of the KXL that was temporarily blocked was entirely within the United States, as were the large sections given the go-ahead for construction in the south.
Effectively, this meant that Keystone could be built, piecemeal, and the protests against it could continue without actually opposing the Obama administration, and even claim a false “victory” over the pipeline when it was not halted, and in fact was even still being constructed.
This works very well for the two sides on this conflict:
The Obama administration desperately needs to be left out of the discussion, or at least seen as a possible ally. All the while, TransCanada is continuing to plunder the earth and the climate for the energy companies and all of the various other pipelines are being constructed. It also allows the well-funded, middle class oriented and primarily white NGO movement that is wrapped around Bill McKibben and big Foundation money to avoid a discussion topic they cannot handle:
Not talking about the administration allows the great lie: We can “transition” away from fossil fuels, use “green” energy, leave the power structure the way it is and somehow– in time to prevent run-away climate change, to boot– have the exact same United States, economy, consumption patterns, war machine, super exploitation of the land in the rest of the planet, domestic colonialism and more.
Of course, this makes immediate sense, given that the same sources of funding received by “tar sands action” and 350.org also funded Moveon.org and multiple other pro-Democratic Party movements, campaigns and candidates. This saw-off– we don’t attack you, you don’t attack us– means the big NGO campaigns can exist without the contradiction of campaigns against people who share their sugar daddies.
The big NGO movement doubled down more than 2 years ago. They decided (without our input) that the tar sands of Canada were the wedge issue to begin a fightback against energy corporations around climate, and that the means to slowing down tar sands extraction was to stop the expansion of pipelines. In many ways, two years ago, this was somewhat accurate (albeit insufficient rather than wrong). Several things have happened along the way to call this into question.
Hydraulic Fracturing, or “fracking,” has become so widespread it even threatens to shadow tar sands– and given that the climate is planetary and knows no nation, fracking is now competing with tar sands around fossil fuel extraction, and the resultant emission damage as well as fossil fuel expansion.
There’s a part of this story you likely don’t know, and people like Bill McKibben– as well as Canadian public figure Tzeporah Berman– (who runs an outfit that legally exists as a project of the Tides Foundation called the North American Tar Sands Coalition, a secret outfit that determines both strategy and funding for literally dozens of environmental NGO’s and community groups across North America) would prefer it stays that way.
Many of the largest foundations now have a policy that they simply do not spend money opposing natural gas, even the natural gas that is fracked. Fracking has created a breakneck pace for new oil developments in the Bakken of North Dakota in the time since the Keystone XL pipeline became a household name for every environmentalist-sympathetic home in North America, but it is the major gas from the northeastern US, Texas and perhaps most significantly, northeastern British Columbia in Canada, that makes ignoring natural gas criminal and not mere incompetence.
Natural gas– if extracted the old fashioned way– produces 80% of the emissions that conventional crude oil does. When fracked, that number not only changes, often the escaping loss of methane into the atmosphere (methane is many times more damaging than C02) puts fracked natural gas at a level equal to or higher than tar sands, never mind conventional oil. What’s equally devastating? The gas deposits don’t exist in a relatively concentrated area like Canada’s tar sands (almost exclusively in Alberta province).
When gas was put forward by the other BP, T Boone Pickens, as the “Pickens plan,” foundations jumped aboard. This diktat has meant the Horn River Basin in BC– a very large shale trapped deposit of primarily natural gas that must be fracked to extract– has been ignored by the big funders, and consequently the big NGO’s and the media.
It goes deeper than that; First Nations who have campaigned against tar sands pipelines and development in Western Canada can not receive funding if they also publicly state opposition to natural gas/fracking pipelines– even when there is reason to believe that the gas feeds the construction of tar sands. You want the dough, you toe the line. This also applies to small community groups, NGO’s and the like. No money for you if you are opposed to decimating water tables, forests, climate, indigenous territory, human and animal health and more. It’s not tar sands, so it’s not getting funding.
Natural gas– as a substitute [“transition”] fuel– would require the construction of an entirely new power grid across the US. This “concept” is one that allows people to campaign on the idea of increasingly high levels of consumption, more and more energy being put into the grid, building up new fossil fuel plants and more– while “preventing runaway climate change.” It’s a farce– but it’s a farce you need to buy onto in order to get grant money: money from foundations who ARE a component part of the system, and often play the role of drag anchor on the positions of those they fund (keeping them in line through the use of money).
The Obama administration just announced yet a further delay in decision making around the Keystone XL’s northern section. Meanwhile, the southern section keeps being built by TransCanada and locals who have broken from the typical NGO script and blockaded are being terrorized by local police as more lands are slowly but surely lost to the Keystone XL pipeline– the same pipeline we are told is not being built, sortof. In mid August, in fact, the appellate court of Texas denied the case of a family in the north of that state the right to block eminent domain from taking their farmland.
So the courts and facts on the ground have essentially spent the last year and a half since the first bump of a decision regarding KXL greasing the gears for full construction. The pipeline is now de facto almost ready to go, yet the administration has done the remarkable of getting the mainstream enviro gang to continue talking about the KXL as the primary means of resistance to climate.
In June of this year, Obama himself made comments that spoke of a national climate impact being the determining factor of the pipeline application, while committing nothing, not even a date for the decision. What was the McKibben response?
“If that’s the standard — and it’s a good one — there’s no way the pipeline can be approved,” McKibben said. “It clearly helps open up this huge pool of carbon to further exploitation.”
As far as national impact on climate, using that discourse does not rule out Keystone XL at all. The refineries in the southern coast already handle bitumen from Venezuela, or have the capacity to do so and have for a long time. Replacing the bitumen from Venezuela with Canadian bitumen will not harm the national US CO2 output. The actual statement is ambiguous, does it include the entire concentration of CO2 in the entire atmosphere, or just American total emissions?
According to Obama, the pipe gets approved if “doing so would be in our nation’s interests. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
If Lucy never lets us kick the ball but we continue to line up to try, we will never move onto any other target. We can chase this phantom campaign for quite awhile, keep talking about resistance to climate change and get little to nothing out of our efforts. Those in Texas and elsewhere who have used direct action and blockades have gone further in the direction of winning than anyone else. They only got a murmur of support from McKibben after the police violently began attacking the blockaders in September of last year. He blogged his “support” in October.
Meanwhile, since the Keystone XL campaigns began? Massive fracking expansion, speeding up climate change, and likely providing energy to build tar sands infrastructure.
Harper and Obama have been colluding towards this hot potato approach to the Keystone XL. Lac Megantic in Québec saw a human tragedy in July that killed over 40 people and wiped out a huge segment of their town, after a massive train derailment involving dozens of fuel tankers loaded with bitumen from Alberta slammed into their town. This, sadly, is what is took to at least temporarily notice the other way that energy companies are getting around the Keystone XL delays– bitumen by rail.
And now, on top of all of this, we have the Energy East pipeline concept. This pipe would incorporate not only existing pipelines, but also allow for the export of tar sands to Europe much faster.
We have new means to deliver bitumen on a large scale (proposed new pipes as well as oil delivery on the rail lines), a massive new oil and gas industry in various parts of Canada and the United States (through fracking), C02 concentrations that have expanded to over 400 parts per million and more countries around the planet taking up tar sands across Africa, kerogen based oil shale in Israel, China and elsewhere as well as the separate, mad rush to extract fracked gas from Russia, Argentina and many, many other places.
The very few, limited victories that resistance has garnered have been in the streets and through blockades. To have even a chance at all will mean going not only beyond that, but into a systemic challenge that redefines and takes apart the existing power structures. We don’t need to influence power, we need to confront and dismantle it.
Yes, it’s that daunting, but to survive in this world means dealing in fact, because the earth doesn’t understand realpolitik. It only understands carbon concentration, that’s it. Not carbon offsets, nor carbon sequestration. Not national carbon limits. The non-release of carbon, anywhere. Period.
Despite where we are at, the largest, most well funded NGO’s will now happily chase their tail for a few more months, wagging the KXL single issue that we are supposed to believe can turn around not only the climate fight, but win over the Obama administration to an outlook that needs an anti-capitalist framework. Keystone XL is already a massive victory for the energy corporations and capitalism itself: It keeps us talking about a single issue when humanity and the planet have a total system crisis.
So the funding and fundraising appeals, the trading in of real resistance for photo ops with Robert Kennedy Jr, making nice with administration officials and more continues. NGO’s can act their character in the play a little longer. And the climate yawns, before the next hurricane screams.
McKibben and his pro-administration 350.org organizing is already back at it. There is now yet another anti-Keystone XL “day of action” people are asked to participate in for September 21, 2013. It will be in several larger venues across the US, appealing to and not in defiance of the Obama administration– targeting in particular John Kerry, as he is Secretary of State and apparently has been given the reins for the KXL decision. Meanwhile, John Kerry is trying to get a Saudi-backed war going in Syria. Since war is the greatest environmental catastrophe possible, and ramps up oil use massively (in particular bitumen and other “really heavy” types of crude make jet fuel better than they create gasoline for your car), while further deepening imperial designs in the primary oil producing region of the world.
Yet, a few hours ago as of this writing, McKibben was praising John Kerry for stating that the climate threat is real to islanders in the Pacific whose entire nations are disappearing. No mention of his war mongering in the case of Syria, even though that’s 98% of the media coverage of this great statesman at the moment.
What will happen to those who carry signs denouncing John Kerry and US war crimes to the 350.org demonstrations? Will they be told “Kerry is our friend on climate, ignore the war crimes?” and then asked to remove them from visibility? The foundation money says yes.
And now that the big NGO crowd are in bed with these war criminals and this US administration, where do we take real resistance in the little time there may be left? Can we set a peoples agenda, one that is not wedded to the Democratic Party in the US?
Macdonald Stainsby is an anti-tar sands and social justice activist, freelance writer and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org