On Wednesday, President Obama was in town for a fundraiser, and I headed down to the Hilton Chicago on South Michigan to cover the Keystone protest.

A couple things:

1) It’s telling that despite the supposed scandals engulfing the president, I saw not one person with a sign that said anything about Benghazi, the IRS, the AP, or James Rosen. The conservative echo chamber is hard at work trying to get traction on any of these issues, but the President’s poll numbers have not budged and outside of a hard core of Obama-haters, no one cares. It’s also telling that some in the media have begun referring to this potpourri of scandals as “ObamaGate”—as in no one can really identify with any clarity what the President supposedly did that deserves a “gate.” Rather the objection is simply built in to the man himself.

2) The three protests with people in significant numbers were anti-abortion activists, immigration reform advocates, and protestors against the Keystone XL pipeline. Obviously, my interest lay with the latter, but this worked as a microcosm of what people outside of the DC Kool-Aid club are actually concerned about.

The anti-abortion protestors represented the bedrock political identifier of the rural conservative coalition. For all the sturm und drang against taxes, Obamacare and big government, the heart of conservatism remains embedded in a big government battle cry to topple legal abortion. It remains the lifeblood of the movement. They flanked the two larger protests, carrying enormous billboards with photographs of bloody, crippled fetus remains and a tiny skull torn in half at the eye socket. Other signs said things like “Obama=abortion” and the classic “It’s a child, not a choice.” For the most part, though they were a subdued group, happy to let their grotesque signage speak for them.

The rowdiest protest came from the immigration reformers, who actually had the most vitriol for the revolving doors of the Hilton, which served as Obama’s avatar for the crowd. They chanted loudly, passionately, and displayed signs that said “Deporter in Chief” or one enormous, jury-rigged cardboard monstrosity that claimed the immigration reform bill currently making its way through congress was “militaristic,” “anti-family,” “anti-poor,” and “anti-human rights.” This crowd, comprised largely of Hispanics and Native Americans, had more energy but side-by-side, it was probably just a few dozen people smaller than the Keystone group. Either way, I was reminded that the worst part of democracy is people chanting. Chants are universally sillier than a rabbit in a tuxedo no matter how much you agree with them.

KXL

Since I first wrote about the Keystone pipeline a few years ago, Obama has delayed and delayed his decision on its approval. Everywhere he’s gone protestors hoping to stop the pipeline that will carry the tar sands of Canada to refineries in the Gulf have followed.

Many of the people I spoke to pointed out all the well-known reasons to oppose the pipeline.

• The number of jobs it will create is wildly inflated. The pipeline company, Trans Canada, claims it will create 100,000. In reality, the State Department thinks it will create less than 5,000 jobs, most of which will disappear once it’s built.

• Most of the oil will be exported, not benefit the U.S. economically, and actually raise gas prices in the Midwest. Trans Canada itself had this in writing in a publically available report.

• Even in the absence of climate change the pipeline is incredibly dangerous to water sources. It will run through the Ogallala Aquifer, the major source of water for most farming irrigation across the Great Plains. As we’ve seen, these pipelines leak without fail and very, very often burst and wreck ecological and economic havoc. We’ve now seen two tar sands oil pipeline disasters in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Arkansas. The 2010 Michigan spill is arguably a bigger disaster than the 2010 BP oil spill that riveted America for the summer.

• The State Department hired an outside corporation called Environmental Resources Management to write large portions of its report (many of which the EPA called bullshit on). ERM, it turns out, is a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute and once had TransCanada as a client. This is a hilariously enormous scandal that no doubt will be totally ignored by the mainstream media in favor of the usual faux-"gates."

In short, the Keystone XL is a terrible idea, endangering the country in many ways with virtually no economic benefit that couldn’t be matched by throwing up a handful of wind turbines. As Shirley Weese Young, 64, told me, “This is a moment when we need leadership. This is a way Obama can show leadership on this issue. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road on climate change.”

Obviously I agree with this assessment, but I do think there’s another angle to explore on Keystone. The pipeline has become a symbol to the struggling climate movement, which is very different in proportion to it’s actual impact on climate change. 

If Keystone is approved it will add somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 to 21 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. Even at the high end, that’s still a small fraction of the overall U.S. GHG footprint. In other words, it’s not the end of the world, and proponents of the pipeline will point this out, along with the capital-T Truth that Canada will try to develop their tar sands no matter what happens with KXL.

A quick aside about Canada

Canada is turning into one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. Their economy is heavily reliant on fossil fuel extraction, and they’re sitting on the second biggest pool of carbon in the world next to Saudi Arabia. The tar sands produce 20% more carbon than regular oil, and if they unearth even a decent fraction of it that does mean the end of the world. Let me repeat that: The. End. Of. The. World. To even be thinking of tapping the tar sands is patently insane, and the climate movement, which is already fighting on fifty different fronts against the richest, most powerful corporations in the history of money, is not saying the Keystone has to stop. It’s saying Canada has stop digging up its Tar Sands, period.

Jason Duba, 30, had actually been up to Alberta to see the havoc being wrecked on pristine Canadian wilderness. The tar sands companies come through, clear cut the forest, blow the earth off the Earth, and leave behind what Duba describes as, “Worse than the surface of the Moon. It doesn’t even look like the planet. It’s worse than hell.” (Click here for an idea of what he’s talking about).

The Totem