The environmental movement's focus on the Keystone XL pipeline issue really used to baffle me. The pipeline's construction or nonconstruction is going to have only a marginal impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, and unlike EPA use of Clean Air Act authority to curb climate pollution, it's a total nothing in terms of getting international political talks back underway.
But as I spoke to more environmentalists about it, it became clear to me that the key difference here is between policy analysis and political organizing. The Keystone issue has been a huge organizing success:
The seven-year-old email list of 350.org, an organization that focuses on climate change, has more than doubled to 530,000 people since the group began fighting the pipeline in August 2011. In addition, about 76,000 people have signed a “pledge of resistance” sponsored by seven liberal advocacy groups in which they promise to risk arrest in civil disobedience if a State Department environmental analysis, expected this year, points toward approval of the pipeline.
The Keystone XL project has also raised the profile of a diverse generation of environmental leaders, like the activist Bill McKibben, a former writer for The New Yorker and founder of 350.org, and the billionaire venture capitalist Thomas F. Steyer, who is estimated to have contributed at least $1 million to the movement and has starred in four 90-second ads opposing the pipeline. Not least, it has united national and local environmental groups that usually fight for attention and resources.
A big virtue of Keystone as an organizing focal point is that it's relatively clear cut. The thing either gets built or it doesn't. There's a clear ask, it's easy to understand, and you're either winning or you're losing. The EPA issue is very different—a complex strategic bargaining environment with a whole bunch of stakeholders in play, and a lot of different highly technical ins-and-outs.
Obviously political movements always face a danger with these kind of organizing issues. Spend too much time on them, and you can end up in a situation where you're missing the forest for the trees—building your mailing lists and small donor base without moving the ball on what matters most. But at the same time, you can't move the ball unless you have demonstrated organizing capacity. And to do that, you sometimes need to focus on slightly eccentric issues that happen to have good organizing attributes.