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Bill McKibben, the firebrand leader of the crusade to kill the Keystone XL oil pipeline, is losing the battle for hearts and minds. Perhaps that’s why he sounds so depressed. One of the most environmentally friendly presidents is in the White House, and he still might not kill it off. “Go past a certain point,” warned Mr. McKibben in The Guardian, “and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit.”
Mr. McKibben knows as well as anyone that Keystone is merely a symbol in a larger battle. Whether or not it’s built will make no difference to the climate. One way or another, the oil will flow. The volume of crude oil transported from Canada by rail has been exploding – a net loss for the environment, by the way, because rail transport is far less safe than pipelines.
The McKibbenists face defeat at every turn. The Democrats are deeply split on Keystone, as they are on the desirability of hydrofracking. The Environmental Protection Agency has postponed new laws on carbon dioxide emissions. Worst of all is the growing number of people in the environmental movement itself who flatly disagree on tactics, strategy and goals.
Call them the pragmatists – the greens willing to settle for progress, not utopia. In January, the scientific journal Nature endorsed the Keystone pipeline on the grounds that there were bigger environmental fish to fry. Some environmentalists have even come out in favour of fracking, on the grounds that clean natural gas is better than dirty oil. Some are pro-nuclear. Environmentalists are even divided on renewables: Some are fans of wind power, while others think it’s an expensive folly that devastates rural environments and transfers taxpayer money to international corporations.
As Jason Mark writes in his article It’s Not Easy Being Green in the Washington-based magazine The American Prospect, “The biggest divide may be between those who would do anything to cut carbon emissions and slow climate change – going so far as to support natural gas and nuclear fuel, or even supporting geo-engineering and other controversial ideas – and conservationists who don’t want to trade one earth-damaging practice for another.”
But the biggest divide is really between the purists and the pragmatists, the pessimists and the optimists – between the McKibbenists, who believe we’re on the brink of global catastrophe, and those who think human beings are more resourceful and the Earth is more resilient than the doom-mongers say they are.
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