2015 was an important year for climate action – and one of the most significant climate achievements was the defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline. After seven years of wrangling with the oil industry and politicians, Americans won an important climate victory when President Obama vetoed the Keystone pipeline this year. What lessons can we learn from this campaign, and how can we carry them forward in to 2016 as we start working on the agreements set forth by the Paris climate agreement?
The successful campaign against Keystone was rooted in a coalition of different interests with local roots. National green groups such as the National Resources Defense Council worked to educate federal agencies about pipeline’s environmental dangers. The Sierra Club and 350.org orchestrated protests that thousands of people participated in. Equally importantly, grassroots organizers worked with ranchers, residents, and community leaders – regardless of political backgrounds – to rally support against the pipeline, focusing on environmental dangers in their own backyards. Student groups, religious leaders, and labor unions weighed in against the pipeline. Through these collaborative efforts, Keystone was defeated.
The successful campaign to “keep it in the ground” embodies three important lessons we must keep in mind to meet our climate challenges in 2016 and beyond.
1. Focus on what is going on in peoples’ backyards. When taking climate action, it’s important to find ways for people to get involved locally. When climate change becomes too far-removed, either spatially or temporally, it’s easy to forget the urgency of our climate challenge.
2. Set specific goals. When it comes to climate action, it is important for people to have a specific goal they are working towards (defeating the Keystone pipeline, or increasing composting facilities on-campus, for example). Climate goals are most effective when they are actionable and relatable.
3. Include as many different constituencies as possible. As Keystone grassroots leader Jane Kleeb notes, the environmental movement has historically ignored those who disagree with their tenets and goals. In the Keystone campaign, different communities (national organizations, grassroots groups, indigenous leaders, students, religious leaders) came together to effect change. In order to truly transform our world we need to continuously collaborate with a diversity of people, and learn to work with conflict and disagreement.
Keystone was a triumphant climate victory in 2015. By keeping in mind the lessons we learned from this successful climate campaign, we can continue this momentum in 2016.
This was the year that environmental groups won a seven-year battle against the Keystone XL pipeline, representing a major comeback for a movement that had lagged in influence and mass appeal for years. Defeating such a major project also marked the first time activists have been able to draw a line in the sand against an oil industry that had been seemingly immune to such campaigns.
Heading into 2016, it’s a movement enlarged and revitalized, one with new power in Washington, D.C. and the ability to mobilize thousands of people worldwide.
The nadir had come in 2010 with the death of cap-and-trade legislation that the mainstream movement had poured years of high-stakes Congressional bargaining into, as well as $229 million. That followed international climate treaty talks in Copenhagen that had unraveled spectacularly in 2009. At the same time, Americans' acceptance of climate change nosedived, dropping from 72 percent in 2008 to 52 percent in 2010, according to a Brookings Institute poll.
"The environmental movement was in a dismal place following years of failed inside-the-beltway strategy," said Bob Wilson, a geographer at Syracuse University who studies the modern environmental movement. "The fight against the Keystone XL pipeline revitalized the movement to an extent that we haven't seen since the 1970s. It has been very difficult to organize around climate change because it is so abstract, so seemingly far in the future. Here was a concrete, solid thing to focus on, something to rally the grassroots around. It worked."