Yes, Obama Is Gutless on the Keystone Pipeline

Last Friday, the Obama administration quietly announced that it would be delaying making a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until at least after the midterm elections. Pipeline advocates called the decision "shameful," "irresponsible," and "gutless." They're right!

Of course, they're right for the wrong reasons. The advocates of the pipeline—which would bring oil from the tar sands of Canada down to the ports of Texas—want it built for one reason: money. Besides the potential windfall for energy companies, the construction of the pipeline would provide a lot of new jobs. Jobs are politically popular. Therefore, politicians and labor union leaders would like the pipeline to be built. They want those jobs right now. There is little doubt that the Keystone XL pipeline would be an economic boon, in the short to medium term.

Nothing wrong with jobs. But there is something wrong with a program that provides jobs now in exchange for hastening the potential demise of human civilization as we know it. James Hansen, the NASA scientist and prominent environmental activist, famously said that the construction of the pipeline would be "Game over for the climate." In other words, approval and construction of the pipeline would enable oil companies to unlock and ultimately emit such a vast store of carbon that even our slim remaining hopes of putting the brakes on global warming would disappear. The UN climate report released earlier this month said that "Global greenhouse gas emissions would have to be lowered between 40 percent and 70 percent by mid-century from 2010 levels, and to 'near-zero' by the end of the century" in order to limit warming to just 2 degrees Celsius. They warn that "only an intensive push over the next 15 years to bring those emissions under control can achieve the goal." Building the Keystone XL pipeline is tantamount to giving up on that goal. It is—in case this is not obvious—a very purposeful step in the other direction.

Barack Obama is worried about the midterms. He would do better to worry about irreversible damage to humankind. The administration wants to delay a decision on the pipeline in order to put off the political damage that they think might ensue as a result of denying (or approving) the pipeline. They would do better to not only deny the pipeline, but also pour resources into terrifying the public about climate change to the very best of their abilities. Labor leaders want the pipeline approved now, because they want jobs now. The economic benefits of the pipeline will pale in comparison to the economic devastation of serious and unchecked global warming. What is one pipe compared to, say, the entire city of Miami slipping into the rising sea? Supporters of the pipeline will tell you that they are looking at "the big picture"—energy policy, corporate investment, the vagaries of political elections. They're wrong. This is the big picture: human survival. If you are a human, the picture does not get any bigger than that.

It is hard to put our own immediate interests aside in favor of long term interests that may only be visible long after we are gone. It goes against something basic in human nature. It is hard for politicians to see past the next election. It is hard for companies to see past the next quarter's earnings. It is hard for people living paycheck to paycheck to see past the next paycheck. But in this case, it does not matter how hard it is, because it is a necessity. The president of the United States should be screaming about the need to cut carbon emissions and devise better energy sources every single day. He should be casting climate change as an issue no less existential than a war. He should be trying to scare us. Because the reality is scary. And fear is going to the only motivation strong enough to force us all to act, rather than to wait until it is (even more) too late.

So yes, Barack Obama is "gutless" on this issue. He is "shameful" and "irresponsible." Not because he is neglecting our nation's economic needs, but because he is meekly hiding behind procedural excuses in order to delay the pain of making a hard decision. He is wasting time that we don't have. And everyone's grandchildren will be paying the price.

[Photo via Getty]