Human beings are a species that uses symbols to express ideas and feelings – and, often, to influence events.
One sad recent example: Since the murderous terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday, people emblazoned their Facebook profile pictures with the tricolor French flag to demonstrate sympathy and support. Important buildings around the world, from Houston’s City Hall and to the Eiffel Tower, have been illuminated with the French banner’s blue, white and red bars. Mourners have placed thousands of candles and flowers at the attack sites themselves.
Symbolic expression can unquestionably affect behavior – throughout history, national flags have inspired patriotic effort in peacetime and wartime alike. On the other hand, when someone says an action is “only symbolic” – or applies some similar description – it suggests doubt about any genuine, tangible impact.
With a major international conference on climate change in Paris just a few weeks away, President Obama’s recent rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was to carry crude oil from Canada’s tar sands region to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas, presents a test case in the impactful potential of an action whose symbolism was variously seen as both inconsequential and possibly potent.
Beginning seven years ago, proponents of the pipeline project boasted of its job-creating promise and opponents complained about its worrisome contribution to climate change, but federal analyses concluded it would create only a tiny number of permanent jobs and would not significantly boost greenhouse-gas emissions.
Then there was the evaporating rationale for the project. As early as 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported that with railroads and existing pipelines carrying Canadian crude to American refineries, U.S. companies no longer “particularly cared” whether Keystone was ever built.
Increased U.S. crude production and plummeting oil prices further demonstrated that there was no compelling need for the Keystone project, analysts declared when Obama finally nixed it after years of study by his administration.
Michael Webber, deputy director of the University of Texas Energy Institute among other UT positions, tweeted: “After 7 years of deliberation, Obama makes decision that the markets had already decided: Keystone is done.”
In his statement announcing his decision against granting federal permission to complete the partly-finished Keystone project, Obama agreed with those who had said its significance as a creator of jobs or climate-altering pollution was overstated:
Now, for years, the Keystone Pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter. And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.
Then he framed the rejection clearly as a different sort of symbolic act – one that he hoped, by underscoring U.S. willingness to act independently against climate change, will help secure a momentous, history-changing agreement at the Paris conference to reduce climate-disrupting emissions:
America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership. And that’s the biggest risk we face – not acting.
While insisting that the Keystone project would have brought a meaningful increase in greenhouse pollution, environmentalists nonetheless also stressed the possibility for its rejection to assume symbolic, influential force in shaping events in their broader effort to wean the world from fossil fuels.
Talking about Keystone, Bill McKibben, a founder of the international climate-action group 350.org and perhaps the world’s best-known climate activist, told TCN in a lengthy interview last year that his movement needed to achieve “some examples of bold leadership so that we can go to the rest of the world and say, look, we don’t build projects anymore that add to the carbon burden of the planet.”
Reporting Obama’s decision, Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, reflected Keystone opponents’ success in elevating and framing the pipeline issue beyond North America. The newspaper declared that Obama had “buried a symbol of global warming” at the same time he announced his attendance at the Paris conference.
After Obama’s Keystone decision, the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney saw a potential for it to add momentum to the Paris talks, noting that the State Department had advised that Keystone approval would discourage other nations from agreeing to a strong accord there:
Thus, despite all the endless fights about the potential climate impact of Keystone XL, it turns out that in the end, it was the symbol and not the possible emissions that really counted. And that’s why rejecting Keystone — and especially in this way, at this time — says something very potent about how other countries assembling in Paris can trust the seriousness of President Obama as a leader willing to pull out all the stops on climate change.
Seeking another view, TCN asked Kate Larsen, a former State Department climate negotiator, to reflect on whether the Keystone decision – particularly, its symbolism – may make a difference at the Paris conference.
Larsen, an official in the State Department’s Office of Climate Change from 2007-13, is now a director at Rhodium Group, a New York-based economic research firm. She delivered a talk this month at the UT Energy Symposium in Austin, entitled on “The Road to Paris: Paved with Domestic Climate Policy.”
In her emailed response to Texas Climate News, she noted that her UT address was not about Keystone, but rather “how national-level commitments (like the U.S. goal of 26-28 percent reductions [in greenhouse-gas emissions] by 2025) form the foundation of the Paris agreement and the international climate infrastructure moving forward.”
Larsen’s allusion to Kyoto in the following comments to TCN was a reference to the emission-reduction treaty that emerged from an international climate conference in that Japanese city in 1997, but was never ratified by the U.S. Senate:
American leverage in Paris is derived almost entirely from our ability to convince the rest of the world that we’ve turned the page on climate denialism and are serious about being a leader – in words and in action. The Obama administration has made serious progress closing the post-Kyoto credibility gap by tackling greenhouse gases using executive authority in the absence of congressional action. President Obama’s joint announcement with Chinese President Xi Jinping laying out ambitious new goals and a commitment to work together was arguably the most single important step toward a successful Paris outcome.
The symbolism of the Keystone decision was not lost on the rest of the world. However, the international community is arguably more focused on the upcoming U.S. election and the potential for a climate-denier in chief to wipe out any promises Obama makes in Paris. So if you believe that Keystone is the beginning of a broad new clean energy movement across the US, one that will help elect a president that takes forward Obama’s climate agenda, then perhaps that does give us more leverage in Paris.
In an effort to reduce or eliminate that leverage, Republicans in Congress are planning to send a symbolic message of their own to the climate negotiators in Paris – that there may, in fact, be no lasting movement of the sort Larsen mentioned after Obama leaves office in 2017.
Toward that end, the Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday approved two resolutions. One would overturn the administration’s Clean Power Plan, its signature climate achievement, which will reduce greenhouse emissions from old, coal-fired power plants. The second resolution would block an earlier set of regulations to limit emissions from new power plants.
Since Obama has vowed to veto the measures, the Washington Post called them “largely symbolic,” in terms of their impact on the regulations themselves, but went on to note their intended purpose on the international stage:
The twin votes were unlikely to actually hobble the Clean Power Plan or other power plant regulations — the White House promptly announced Tuesday Obama would veto the resolutions. But they sent a strong message of resistance at a time when Obama, having just rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline, is trying to project climate leadership just weeks before a crucial summit in Paris.
Politico reported, shortly before the votes, that the measures’ “expected passage lets Republicans send the world a message: When you talk to Obama at the climate talks in Paris, know he does not have the backing of Congress for the centerpiece of his climate change agenda.”
A House committee was expected to begin action on companion resolutions this week, though they aren’t scheduled to come to a full House vote until after the climate talks begin on Nov. 30, Politico added.
Bill Dawson is the founding editor of Texas Climate News.