Bill McKibben is no Martin Luther King

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Is climate change the civil rights issue of our day? Bill McKibben and the 1,251 other environmental protesters arrested (as of September 4) at the White House gate seem to think so. Having failed to get meaningful action from Congress, while watching their efforts in the courts flounder, the proponents of significant restraints on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are resorting to civil disobedience.

The protesters are upset about the proposed 1,700-mile-long Keystone XL oil pipeline, which, if approved by the Obama administration, will run from Alberta, Canada, to Texas. The pipeline, which has been under review by the United States since 2008, will cross six states and have the capacity to deliver 1 million barrels of oil a day.

A just-released State Department report concludes that the project poses no significant environmental threats. The State Department has yet to issue its report on economic, energy-security and foreign policy effects. But even positive findings on those issues (which are likely) will not end the government’s review of the pipeline. EPA has yet to weigh in, and Administrator Lisa Jackson’s track record gives reason for pipeline opponents to remain optimistic that they might still be able to stop the project. But then there is the president, whose recent retraction of planned EPA ozone regulations is giving environmentalists heartburn. Hence, protests at the White House.

Environmentalists argue that risks of harmful spills along the 1,700-mile corridor are too high, that mining of the tar sands will result in the destruction of Canadian wilderness and that the ultimate use of the oil will increase GHG emissions and thus exacerbate climate change. It is the latter concern that brought Mr. McKibben and his fellow protesters to the White House. For them, this is no ordinary environmental issue where compliance with NEPA will assure that environmental impacts have been considered. Rather it is a moral issue of the highest order that justifies civil disobedience.

It is not unusual for environmentalists to claim the moral high ground when they’re opposing economic activities affecting the natural environment. Protesters have chained themselves to trees and self-described eco-terrorists have destroyed valuable private property in the name of environmental protection. In his book “The New Holy Wars,” Robert Nelson argues that environmentalism has replaced economics as a new secular religion of American public policy. But the Tar Sands protesters, as they call themselves, have taken the moral claims to a new level.

It is not just that a majority of Americans might be persuaded that environmental values should trump economic, cost/benefit assessments. Rather the claim justifying civil disobedience is that morality trumps not only private economic liberties but also the democratic political process. Here are the moral claims from a few of the celebrity protesters:

  • Before being arrested, James E. Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, borrowed from Martin Luther King (though without attribution) in saying, “We have a dream that the new president would understand the intergenerational injustice of human-made climate change.” Hansen went on to say that no law or regulation would stand in the way of protests that will continue until “we have someone worthy of our dreams” in the White House.
  • After being arrested, filmmaker Josh Fox said: “I felt that standing against it, shoulder to shoulder with climate justice activists and fracktivists, was a moral imperative. If not for civil disobedience, women would not have the vote, children would still be working in factories, there would be no unions, India would still be ruled by the British and people of color would still be second-class citizens in the United States.”
  • Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said: “The Canadian tar sands, the proposed Keystone XL and all the other current and proposed pipelines and heavy hauls are weapons of mass destruction leading the path to triggering the final overheating of Mother Earth.”

It is not difficult to understand why climate activists have turned to cribbing from Martin Luther King, asserting moral imperatives and analogizing to weapons of mass destruction. They have failed to persuade Congress to enact emissions-limiting legislation. Indeed, back in the Clinton administration the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 against ratifying the Kyoto Protocol to curtail carbon emissions. Environmentalists have failed to persuade the Supreme Court that GHG emissions are a nuisance under federal common law.

From the moral high ground they have claimed for themselves, it won’t really matter if three years of intensive review in conformance with existing environmental laws lead to the conclusion that the project does not pose significant environmental risks. Whatever the outcome of environmental impact assessments, the president must stop the pipeline or the Tar Sands protesters will abandon him for “someone worthy of their dreams.”

The problem is that the human contribution to climate change is not the moral equivalent of denying women the vote, child labor, imperialism or racial discrimination. Though we do not always succeed, humans have the capacity to treat our fellows with equal respect. That is the essence of moral behavior. But we do not have the capacity to avoid all impacts on the natural environment, and choosing among those that we will have involves tradeoffs in the form of costs and benefits for other humans, including for future generations. Unlike race or sex discrimination, or the exploitation of children, there are no moral certainties establishing acceptable and unacceptable human impacts on the natural environment of which we are a part.

If the Keystone XL pipeline is built, a million barrels of oil will flow each day to Texas refineries. With it will come jobs and cheaper energy, both of which will benefit ordinary Americans and provide resources for investment in the development of alternative sources of energy. To be sure, there are tradeoffs in the form of environmental risks, but most of those risks will not be avoided if the pipeline is vetoed. The oil will be extracted and transported by other means to other markets. Thus, there will be no reduction in GHC emissions, and the other environmental risks will be exported to be borne by others.

No doubt the Tar Sands protesters are feeling virtuous about being arrested, but they flatter themselves in claiming to stand on the same moral ground as Martin Luther King and others who have resorted to civil disobedience in pursuit of justice and freedom.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.