Forty-five years ago today, green activists incensed over a hulking piece of oil-industry infrastructure staged the first Earth Day and spawned the modern environmental movement. On April 22, 1970, following a massive spill the prior year at an oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., they organized a one-day series of nationwide protests. Their goal: to parrot the grassroots tactics of the student antiwar movement in an effort to whip up popular indignation about an issue that at the time was a sleeper: the environment.
Now, at middle age, Earth Day and the environmental movement face a fundamentally tougher foe than they did in the spring of ’70: climate change. Over the past decade and a half, environmental stalwarts have tried various tactics to fight global warming, and they’ve largely failed. Now, though they don’t say so explicitly, they’re essentially reverting to the same principle that characterized that first Earth Day: “Think globally, act locally,” which subsequently became an environmentalist mantra. The fundamental question the environmental movement faces as it nears its silver anniversary is whether, in the face of this modern nemesis, the familiar playbook will succeed better than it did the first time around.
Today, as on the inaugural Earth Day, the main object of American environmentalists’ ire is a piece of oil-industry infrastructure. In this case it’s the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, would carry crude oil from Canada’s oil sands down to Texas’s oil refineries. From there, the petroleum would be processed into gasoline and other products, which would be distributed to corner gas stations around the country.
But the oil-industry nexus is where the similarities between Santa Barbara and Keystone—and, more fundamentally, between yesterday’s environmental target and today’s—end. The difference is starker. Santa Barbara was easy for people to hate. Keystone is harder.
The Santa Barbara oil accident in January 1969 was a gut-punch to the national psyche: a massive, ugly blowout of black goop that despoiled one of the nation’s most picturesque coastlines. It was in-your-face. There was nothing subtle about it.
Keystone, by contrast, is a disaster only potentially. To believe that Keystone is an environmental catastrophe, you must believe first that climate change is a catastrophic threat to the world; you must believe second that the pipeline will worsen climate change meaningfully. You may, indeed, believe those things. But polls suggest that most Americans support the pipeline.
That helps explain why, last week, the Obama administration—led by a president who has talked of climate change in increasingly worried tones—essentially punted on the pipeline. The administration announced it was postponing a decision on whether to let the Keystone be built. Officially, the administration cited two reasons for the postponement: a February decision by a Nebraska court raising questions about the pipeline’s proposed route, and a desire to give federal agencies time to pore over the millions of public comments that have been submitted both for and against the Keystone. Politically, the deferral all but ensures that a decision on Keystone—a decision that, yea or nay, is sure to infuriate partisans on one end of the political spectrum—won’t take place until after November’s midterm Congressional elections. The Keystone fight already has dragged on more than five years, and now it will last a good deal longer.
Because climate change is an inchoate, gradual threat—one that, unlike the Santa Barbara spill, isn’t visible in a snapshot or a TV frame—the debate over what to do about it plays out in symbols. Keystone has become, at least in the U.S., the biggest symbol of them all. Its likely effects on global emissions are both debated and debatable. President Obama has said he will approve the pipeline only if studies show it won’t significantly increase greenhouse-gas emissions. Many environmentalists argue it will; they note that producing oil from Canada’s oil sands is particularly energy intensive, which is to say that oil from Canada’s oil sands is a particularly dirty kind of oil. Others, including those in the petroleum industry, argue that crude from Canada’s oil sands will be produced and sold whether it’s sent through the Keystone or shipped by some other means. A controversial State Department study earlier this year concluded that Keystone wouldn’t significantly boost greenhouse-gas emissions.
How mind-numbingly complicated. How different from the days of Santa Barbara.
Back then, the environmental challenges were easy to see and hate, in large part because they were geographically defined. The green refrain of the day—“Think globally, act locally”—didn’t just fit well on a t-shirt. It fitted the in-your-face environmental challenges of the time. The environmental threats were clear: dirty air, dirty soil, dirty water. The environmental prescriptions were similarly direct: Don’t litter; don’t pour chemicals on your garden; press Congress to push the oil industry to work more smartly and safely. Presto: You will have changed the world.
That 1970s-era strategy did clean up dirty air, dirty soil and dirty water. But it didn’t change the world. It came to seem quaint and ineffectual by the mid-1990s, amid mounting concern over a different kind of environmental problem: climate change. Realizing this, environmentalists pivoted. They started agitating for sweeping international policy shifts, notably a carbon-emission cap. “Think globally, act globally,” that strategy might have been called.
But that strategy didn't change the world either. To be sure, environmentalists did achieve a measure of global action against global warming: the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that obligated the rich countries that ratified it to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions. But the U.S., then the world’s largest carbon emitter, didn’t ratify the treaty; and developing countries, namely China, which soon became the world’s largest carbon emitter, weren’t obligated under Kyoto to trim their emissions. The upshot: Today, global carbon emissions still are going up, not down.
What the past several years of environmental effort has revealed above all is that combating climate change will require a mind-numbingly complex patchwork of regional initiatives; it won’t happen through any global grand plan. And so the environmental movement is shifting again. In a sense, it’s now harkening back to its initial strategy—“Think globally, act locally”—though it’s doing so in postmodern form.
Environmentalists’ fundamental argument in opposing the Keystone pipeline is that stopping it will both curb global warming and speed a global energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources such as the wind and the sun. But the evidence suggests that what people care about environmentally today is pretty much what they cared about environmentally when Earth Day started four decades ago: local impacts that they can see, smell and touch. “Think globally, act locally" is inconvenient for environmentalists in 2014 for the same reason that it was convenient for them in 1970: People tend to support environmental action not to the extent they believe it helps the world, but only to the extent they believe it solves a palpable local threat.
Jeffrey Ball writes the biweekly Resources column at The New Republic and is scholar-in-residence at Stanford University's Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, a joint initiative of Stanford's law and business schools.