It might be an exaggeration to claim that opposing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has become a litmus test for contemporary progressives, but only a slight exaggeration. And for that reason alone, a lot of allies of the president are quietly cheering each fresh indicator that he’s probably going to kill the project and thus avoid an intraprogressive battle.

We know a fair amount about where in this country a Keystone veto would cause major political problems for Obama and Democrats. Less tangible are the opportunity costs associated with making this project so central to environmental activism, as opposed to, say, the upcoming mega-battle over EPA regulation of existing power plants.

Today, perhaps a bit late in the game, Jonathan Chait raises familiar questions about this prioritization of Keystone XL, and argues bluntly it was a mistake:

The Keystone movement developed in 2011, when environmentalists needed a cause to replace the failed cap-and-trade bill. It was only immediately following the 2012 election that the NRDC laid out a plan by which the EPA could effectively tackle existing power plants, the last big repository of unregulated emissions. The road map to solving climate change is far from certain: It involves writing a regulatory scheme to reign in existing power plants, surviving a legal challenge, and then, having credibly committed the U.S. to meeting Copenhagen standards, wrangling India, China, and others into a workable international treaty.

That plan is far from certain. But Keystone won’t affect the outcome much one way or the other. If Obama pulls off the EPA plan, then the U.S. can hit its emissions target even if it builds the pipeline. If he doesn’t, it won’t hit the target, even if it kills the pipeline.

This is undoubtedly true, but the question is whether the passion generated by the fight against Keystone XL was available for more salient but abstract battles, and was thus robbed from it. At Grist, Dave Roberts asked and answered that question back in February of 2012:

The most important thing to remember is that climate change is poorly suited to activism. It is huge, distant, and abstract, playing out on spatial and temporal scales beyond our daily experience, difficult to grasp intellectually and almost impossible to feel viscerally. The science is complex and, in the areas most relevant to us (e.g., regional impacts), devilishly uncertain. We evolved to prioritize risks with faces and fangs, but climate change confronts us with error bars and probability distributions. There are as yet few human faces, at least few faces familiar to wealthy Westerners, associated with it. The main harms are in the future, as are the main benefits of policy solutions, while the sacrifices required by policy are immediate. And finally, wonk-approved policy solutions are just as broad, abstract, and bloodless as the problem itself, apprehended via the intellect and not the gut. (Contrast cap-and-trade with, say, gay marriage.)

You’d have trouble creating a problem less suited to getting people passionate, off their asses and into the streets, risking arrest, pushing and nagging at politicians, creating iconic events, conflicts, symbols, and art, and generally agitating for social change. When it comes to climate change, advocates and activists start with huge, built-in disadvantages….

For now, climate activism involves a lot of left-brained groping toward right-brain resonance. It is not always pretty. 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. On Tuesday, anti-Keystoners got some 800,000 people to signal to Congress that they don’t want the pipeline. Have that many people ever done anything together on behalf of the climate?

From the perspective of activism and social change, such energy and enthusiasm is to be tended like a precious spark. Who knows if it will fade to embers after the Keystone fight is over. Maybe. All activists can do is fan it and hope it catches and spreads.

While Chait regards the opportunity costs of emphasizing Keystone XL to the exclusion of other environmental issues as huge, Roberts argued they are virtually non-existent, and indeed, a successful (or perhaps even unsuccessful) fight against the pipeline could create the foundation for future environmental activism.

It’s one of those arguments that we probably won’t be able to resolve without a great deal of hindsight, but Chait may just be warming up for a defense of Obama if he decides to let to pipeline go forward.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.