Editor’s note: Today InsideClimate News is publishing a new e-book, Keystone and Beyond: Tar Sands and the National Interest in the Era of Climate Change. A year in the making, the book was written by John H. Cushman, Jr. who worked in the Washington bureau of the New York Times for 27 years before joining the ICN staff.
More than a year ago, when the publisher and editors of InsideClimate News asked me to write about President Obama’s looming decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, my evening reading happened to be Neustadt and May’s political science classic, “Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.”
The 1986 book by two Harvard scholars, required reading for presidents and their advisers, uses case studies to show how presidents ought to approach important decisions. In brief, it should be done not with a short list of options already in hand, but with a timeline of events retracing the history that brought them to the brink of decision.
Presidents should ask, “What’s the story?” Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May wrote. “When did it start?”
In particular, they advised that “putting all presumptions on the table and then testing them is one defense of laymen against experts.”
As a layman besieged by experts weighing in on the Keystone XL debate, I saw before me a mountain of contradictory analysis and heard a cacophony of firmly voiced assertions from all sides.
For a start, there were the thousands of pages of official review and commentary the Obama administration published during years of studying the project. There were also hundreds of news articles published by InsideClimate News and other news outlets.
But in our e-book, “Keystone and Beyond: Tar Sands and the National Interest in the Era of Climate Change,” I sought to understand Obama’s decision in its historical context, to turn this story into the type of case study Neustadt and May might have recommended.
“Go back to the beginning,” they advised presidents. Understanding the story will show you what has changed to make today different from the past, and will help you avoid the mistakes of the past.
I began by going back to the turn of the 21st century, when George W. Bush was a new president and the United States’ involvement with the Canadian oil sands expansion was in its infancy. From there I began examining the Keystone debate, on two parallel tracks—energy and climate change—pushing forward to the present, with Barack Obama now the decider.
Bush assumed that energy demand would continue to increase and U.S. oil production would continue to fall, increasing America’s energy insecurity. He argued that the science of climate change was too uncertain and its risks too distant to demand a fundamental change of course.
Obama presides over booming domestic oil production and declining demand. For him, the problem of climate change is so readily apparent that the science cannot responsibly be doubted. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other major institutions now agree that carbon dioxide emissions must be contained at levels that avoid the most severe climate risks—and that in order to achieve this outcome, most of the world’s available fossil fuel reserves, especially the dirtiest of them, must be left in the ground.
The Keystone story has been told by many others, from various vantage points. Our telling, while informed by theirs, omits many facets of the debate. It does not examine important environmental issues in Canada, such as the tailings ponds associated with bitumen production, or the possible health effects of water pollution and toxic deposition. It does not reflect the intense concern over pipelines among Native Americans and First Nations. It does not give full attention to all the individuals and organizations that have engaged in the fight over this pipeline or paint a full picture of the hazards of oil pipeline spills, or the feasibility and safety of moving oil by rail.
What I have done, however, is try to “think in time,” as Neustadt and May recommended, using the past to illuminate a decision.
Thinking in time also involves seeing clearly what objective a president hopes to achieve with any decision—not just the change that brought a leader to this moment, but also the change he intends to inspire.
That is especially important when making a decision about climate change, which is already upon us, and which will remain a problem for generations to come.
Our intention here is both to describe what is at stake in this one decision, and to look at one of the president’s tools—the timeline, the story.