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Pity the poor president, the February 17 New York Times headline suggested. He must choose between alienating environmentalists or alienating Canada, one of the nation?s chief allies, when he decides whether or not to allow the Keystone Pipeline to pass through the United States on its way to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
The decision on the $7 billion project is being weighed by the State Department and not the Environmental Protection Agency, which does not bode well for environmental interests. Compounded with the resignation of EPA chief Lisa Jackson, a pipeline opponent, it might seem like a done deal.
But environmentalists did not walk away. The Sierra Club, granddaddy of all environmentalist groups, broke its 120 year ban on civil disobedience. About 40,000 Americans protested the pipeline in Washington on February 17, and four dozen high-profile environmentalists were arrested. Known in the environmentalist community for its propensity to compromise, the Sierra Club?s decision towards action signals an important political turn.
And although newly-confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry has reassured the Canadians that Washington will make up its mind promptly, no decision has been announced. That the president even mentioned climate change as a danger in his State of the Union Address was seen by some as hopeful.
Sierra Club President Michael Brune characterized the dilemma this way: ?Whatever damage the President?s decision (to approve the pipeline) would do to the environmental movement pales in comparison to what it would do to his legacy.?
I wish he?d said ?damage to the Earth,? rather than tangle himself up in Obama?s legacy. That assumes that decades or centuries from now people will be able look back upon our neglect of our home, the Earth, and wonder why we did not act with more conviction. Let?s hope history will remember that Obama took decisive measures on this and other matters in which he might take executive action, but the judgment will be shared, I think.
What if this is not just another Washington contest between competing interests? What if the Keystone Pipeline is just a huge piece of the machinery that could help render our planet uninhabitable? What if the tar sands that are being fracked to fill that pipeline are leaving behind poison that will damage their native soil and the water beneath it? What if attempts to get last drops at the bottom of the bottle of an addictive substance is going to put the planet on the path to irreversible toxicity? In New York state, the government has at least demanded further investigation of fracking practices proposed to yield gas from the earth?s crust. But that decision as well is still not taken.
In a piece called ?The Five Stages of Environmental Grief? Richard Schiffman suggests that the human predicament is much like that of well-heeled passengers on the Titanic. They felt the jolt when the ship hit an iceberg but they brushed off their concerns and went back to the dance floor. The ship, says Schiffman, is still afloat, but there?s a huge gash below the water line. It?s not just the fact of global warming but the diminishing of rain forests, the heating up and acidification of the oceans, the reduction in arable land due to erosion and desertification, the loss of habitat to various species and their subsequent extinction.
The ship, Schiffman insists, is sinking and there?s lots we must do.
In Washington, there?s always the temptation to buy off ones opponents while rationalizing that direct confrontation could lead to absolute defeat. Anyone who expected an about face from the Bush-Cheney regime has been sorely disappointed by events of the last two years. It?s our job to press the urgency of issues around climate change.
Since Earth Day 1970, the League of Conservation Voters has kept close tabs on Congress, from the most progressive members to the obdurate head-in-the-sanders with its scorecard. This year, the League expressed thanks to the White House and the Senate for at least making sure that established environmental legislation was supported. (A bill mocked as the War on Lungs that would have gutted the Clean Air Act and another dubbed Oil Above All that would have supported more drilling at all costs were defeated.)
But the League was scathing about the House of Representatives.
?Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the last session of the 112th Congress is that it?s over,? says the preface to the League?s new scorecard. Nevertheless, House members in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were singled out for praise. And those in Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Montana North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming were ranked worst of the worst.
One bright note was the League?s observation that many newly elected Members of Congress support positive environmental legislation. To see how your representative and your senators stack up, check out the League?s scorecard, and so you know whom to praise and whom to pressure.
I?m not feeling sorry for any of our elected officials. They asked for these jobs, and if the decisions have become tougher, it makes them more, not less, important. But it?s our duty to pay attention to what?s up for a vote and support them when they take difficult positions. Unless you prefer ?Nearer My God to Thee.?