Trudeau approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline among others today, and of course the ongoing fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline keeps making the news for the brutal treatment of protestors by police. These are fights that I think activism can and should fight. I want to explain why I think so.
I’m usually pretty critical of “voluntourism” ventures which are quite often scams to take advantage of the gullible, or to give good feelings to the Western participants while not actually doing any good for the local population. Instead, there is GiveWell, which is a charity evaluation organization, and the charities that it favours: giving to malaria prevention (AMF) and de-worming (SCI). These are things that I think are the best causes for donating money.
Dad pointed out the inconsistency between this stance, and my belief in environmental activism. After all, if we care whether what we’re doing is good and effective in the area of charity, we should be even more concerned in the environmental realm, where our impact can be much greater and more catastrophic. And we don’t have randomized controlled trials of various environmental interventions to figure out what does good and what does harm. So therefore, are we not better off doing something else, lest we do harm? I want to explain why I think environmental activism is still important, and in particular why efforts like stopping particular pipelines are worthwhile.
The short answer is that we rely on controlled trials in charity evaluation because they are available. If they weren’t available, that would not be a good reason to not donate to charity. Randomized controlled trials in changing the global environment will not be available for as long as we have only one Earth (as a sticker on the door of one of my professors at UBC read, “земля у нас одна — мы за ценой не постоим”). So we have to use the best available evidence. In terms of the mechanism for burning fossil fuels leading to warming, there is nothing to disagree about as far as I can see. There is of course a large and important debate over just how serious the effects will be. To me, it seems that a large amount of warming leading to large scale refugee crises, famine and property loss seem extremely likely. We are not particularly confident in our models, perhaps. But if we are not particularly confident in our models, but think an extremely severe outcome is possible, it’s only more imperative to try to act. This is a crucial point that I think people often miss.
But even if we accept that anti-global warming causes are important, is anti-pipeline activism really the thing to do? Isn’t it much better to try to work on passing carbon taxes? I admit that I used to think so, but I don’t any more. And the reason is basically that what makes a difference in emissions is what works politically. It turns out that carbon taxes as they are passed often end up being pretty toothless because carbon is priced very low. And it can’t be priced higher because it’s not politically feasible. Instead, what has a much bigger impact on reducing emissions is stricter regulation and outright bans on dirty fuels. You can say that it’s a shame that this method is not the one that is most economically elegant. In a perfect Econ 101 world, we would have a growing carbon tax that priced the externalities of carbon correctly. That’s not the world we live in. And our actions have to recognize that. The way to reduce emissions, which we are pretty sure is something we need to do, is to make regulations of and bans on dirty fuels more politically advantageous. And I think anti-pipeline activism is a good way to do that.