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Trump Leaks the Blueprints for the Climate Death Star

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The fight against climate change is such a vast undertaking—crossing continents and decades—that it’s hard sometimes to know when you’re striking an effective blow. But last Wednesday Donald Trump helped clear the smoke of battle for a moment, issuing a pair of executive orders that let many of us know precisely where we’d done damage, and precisely where we should push even harder in the months and years ahead.

The White House issued the two executive orders to help ram through pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, even when the cities and states through which they pass oppose them, and to slow down the rush of pension funds now divesting their holdings from the fossil fuel industry. These steps of course make a mockery of conservative claims to federalism and local decision-making—they are either one more sop to the most powerful industry on earth, or a nihilist effort to speed up climate change. Or both.

And while they will make the fight more difficult, they are also a backhanded tribute to the dogged effectiveness of millions of activists, who by trial and error have figured out some of the flaws in the fossil fuel death star.

The battle over fossil fuel infrastructure, for instance, kicked into a higher gear with the Keystone XL pipeline. In 2011 climate activists joined indigenous groups and Midwest ranchers who had launched the battle, in an attempt to nationalize the fight. I wrote the letter asking people to come to Washington and get arrested; at the time it seemed folly to many, since the oil industry had never been blocked from building something it wanted. When the National Journal polled its DC “energy insiders,” more than 90 percent said TransCanada Corp would soon have its permit.

But then more people ended up in handcuffs than at any protest about anything in years—and soon KXL was a national cause. It’s still not built, which means 800,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest oil on earth has stayed safely in the ground. But more to the point, the protest showed that Big Energy was not bulletproof—now every single pipeline, frack well, coal mine, and LNG port gets fought and fought hard. Often we win—plans for five big coal ports in the Pacific Northwest were defeated one after another by brilliant activists, meaning that there’s no easy way to take the massive deposits of the Powder River Basin off to Asia.

But even when we lose—the Dakota Access pipeline, for instance, which Trump okayed after the oil industry sicced German shepherds on nonviolent indigenous protesters—activists take a toll. Don’t believe me. Listen instead to Marty Durbin, who as head of the American Natural Gas Alliance told an industry conference in 2016: “We’ve seen a change in the debate. I hesitate to put it this way, but call it the Keystone-ization of every pipeline project that’s out there, that if you can stop one permit, you can stop the development of fossil fuels.”

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