Bill McKibben being arrested in front of the White House

Ever since Bill McKibben (founder of and his allies first coalesced around a strategy of trying to block the Keystone XL pipeline, they’ve been repeatedly criticized by pundits for focusing on the wrong thing. The oil will get developed anyway, the messaging is wrong, we need to curb demand instead, and on and on. Last week Jonathan Chait submitted the latest entry:

“To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement,” environmental activist Bill McKibben writes in the Huffington Post, “Keystone looks like a last chance.” It may be a last chance for the movement McKibben has helped lead — he has spent several years organizing activists to single-mindedly fight against approval of the Keystone pipeline — but Keystone is at best marginally relevant to the cause of stopping global warming. The whole crusade increasingly looks like a bizarre misallocation of political attention.

This is a rare whiff from Chait. First of all, as Joe Romm points out, this whole frame is an egregious misreading of McKibben’s piece, which argued for Keystone’s symbolic value as a measure of whether Obama was willing to stand up to oil companies. McKibben knows Keystone is not a magic bullet, and said so in the piece: “Stopping the northern half of that pipeline from being built certainly won’t halt global warming by itself.”

Second, Chait is indeed correct that new EPA regulations which phase out coal-fired power plants would have a much larger impact on carbon dioxide emissions than stopping Keystone XL. (McKibben, incidentally, knows all about this.) But even that would make barely a dent in climate change by itself. It might be enough to get the US under our 2020 emissions target, but much further and more expensive cuts will be needed in the future. What’s more, it does nothing about China, India, or deforestation in Indonesia, which already dwarf any potential US action. He complains that Keystone represents a much smaller piece of climate policy than EPA regulations, but by his own standards anything short of an internationally binding treaty on all the major emitters is not worth of attention.

Third, Chait seems to view mass protests like some kind of committee meeting, where you push for a particular proposal, and if you don’t win the argument then you get nothing. But that’s not how it works at all. The point of mass politics is to put the issue on the elites’ radar. Little captures the attention of the press and the political class like hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating. It’s a strange, unpredictable effect, but it does work. The civil rights movement did not have an agreed-upon, five-point plan for ending Jim Crow, they had marches and sit-ins and mass rallies, and were beaten and firehosed and murdered for it. Sympathetic legislators, buttressed by the social power of the movement, eventually turned that into a workable policy.

Therefore, the most important thing when it comes to climate change and mass protests is to have some mass protests. Chait seems to think that McKibben could have gotten his huge demonstrations to come out on EPA regulations, but that is dubious in the extreme. Keystone XL has compelling local sovereignty and oil spill worries to energize people, and most importantly, it’s easy to understand and Obama alone can make the decision. To phrase it in a Chait-esque picture caption:

What do we want? “More stringent carbon dioxide emission regulations on extant coal-fired power plants!” When do we want it? “After the extraordinarily complicated rule-writing process over which the president has no direct control! But do it right, which will take years, or oil companies will take down the rule in court on a technicality! Also we should reform the filibuster, so we can get Democrats on the DC Circuit Court, because they handle the relevant federal agency lawsuits!”

I’d like to see Chait leading that march.

Of course, mass climate protests on something that was completely wrong wouldn’t be worth it. “We must reduce Snickers consumption, because climate change!” But blocking Keystone XL, while not precisely calibrated policy-wise, is easily good enough. It’s on the right issue and well worth stopping on the merits.

There’s also the flank effect to consider, where “fringe” proposals enable more moderate ones by seeming more reasonable. I would not be surprised if President Obama enables the pipeline, while eventually getting tougher rules through the EPA. We’d have McKibben to thank for that.

Finally, I think a bit of humility is in order. Organizing a mass movement is hard. I’ve done a bit of organizing myself—I started a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy in college, and I was extraordinarily terrible at it. Like many pundits (not necessarily Chait), I’m cynical, easily discouraged, lazy, and most importantly, an absolutely atrocious leader. By contrast, sitting in my chair writing blog posts, while not exactly easy, is compelling and interesting and satisfying in a way that makes it no problem to sit and work for hours.

Mass organizing is hundreds or thousands of times more difficult than that. You’ve got to inspire and manage thousands of volunteers, whose attachment to or knowledge of the issues varies wildly, and whose theoretical belief in your cause is probably far stronger than their actual determination to help you in tangible ways. You’ve got to keep these unpaid volunteers from getting discouraged and quitting. You’ve probably got little pay for yourself and less (if any) for your key assistants. Most difficult of all, you’ve got to keep yourself motivated and grinding away, when the vast weight of evidence suggests your cause is probably doomed.

And then you’ve got the pundit class, driven in part by the need to write something (preferably counterintuitive) to feed the voracious internet, questioning your every move.

So I’m willing to cut McKibben, James Hansen, and the other major climate organizers quite a lot of slack. Climate change is an incredibly difficult issue to organize large movements around. The benefits of carbon mining are enormous and highly concentrated, the costs are dispersed around the entire globe, and the chains of causality are found through highly technical scientific studies. Any mass climate protest is a hugely positive development, and I hope McKibben and company keep it up.

Ryan Cooper

Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanlcooper. Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.