WASHINGTON -- The world is divided into two sets of people -- those who are kept up at night panicking about the existential threat that is climate change, and everybody else. Secretary of State John Kerry is not everybody else.
The former Massachusetts senator spent the better part of 2009 and 2010 tucked away in a host of Senate offices, proselytizing on climate change. People who were in the rooms remember Kerry lecturing, haranguing, hectoring, pounding the table, his voice rising as he desperately tried to convey a deep sense of genuine emergency. As a legislative tactic, it failed miserably. Senators have no interest in lectures. Climate change legislation never came close to passage and Kerry left the Senate without a single major legislative achievement in his nearly 30 years in the chamber.
He now has the chance to make his mark.
President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that he would approve the Keystone XL pipeline if the State Department certified it would not lead to a net increase in global carbon emissions. Congressional Republicans were quick to presume victory, noting that a previous State Department analysis had said just that.
But that analysis, which has been heavily criticized, was done before Kerry was named secretary of state. And what Obama has effectively done is hand the Keystone decision to one of Washington's fiercest backers of strong climate change action.
Michael Brune, the head of the Sierra Club, told HuffPost that elevating Kerry's role, and basing the decision on science, makes him hopeful about the outcome. "The case that KXL would be a significant contributor to climate change is strong and compelling," Brune said. "With Obama laying down the standard that a pipeline that exacerbates climate change is not in our national interest, it's pretty clear KXL is not long for this world."
Making the decision about climate, rather than jobs or energy independence, puts it squarely in Kerry's wheelhouse. "I think [Obama] did what was appropriate, which was to clarify the basis of his decision-making," said Van Jones, Obama's former green jobs czar who now heads Rebuild the Dream, a political group that aims to counter tea party groups. "Keystone has been sold to the American people as primarily about jobs and he made the conversation be about climate. That is incredibly helpful to environmentalists, and should be alarming to opponents of this pipeline."
Among the most prominent Keystone myths is that the pipeline will not increase carbon emissions because Canada's tar sands oil will be extracted regardless of whether the pipeline is approved. That viewpoint has been argued by have Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer and Washington Examiner editorial writer Sean Higgens.
A recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service details how the pipeline would increase carbon emissions. The research service found that because refining tar sands oil is more carbon-intensive than refining conventional crude oil, the pipeline would increase greenhouse gas emissions by 3 million metric tons to 21 million metric tons. That's the equivalent of "approximately 558,000 to 4,061,000 passenger vehicles annually," according to the report.
An analysis by the Canadian environmental think tank Pembina Institute supports the notion that tar sands production is not inevitable. Alternative pipeline paths -- such as the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would run west across the inhospitable Canadian Rockies, and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which would run north to British Columbia -- face considerable opposition from environmentalists and local groups, as well as major logistical challenges. The Pembina Institute concluded Keystone XL would be a "key driver for oilsands growth," spurring production by 36 percent.
Carbon emissions are deeply important from a scientific perspective, as the globe's warming triggers feedback mechanisms that accelerate further warming. "Tar sands may get to market without [Keystone], but at a slower rate and a much greater cost," said leading climate scientist James E. Hansen. Buying time matters, especially where climate change is concerned.
John Kerry knows that well.