Citizen Action Monitor

Bill McKibben takes aim at Obama’s lack of political will and failures to take on global warming

Looks to a “Big Movement” to provide “Big Boost” to political will this September in New York

No 1131 Posted by fw, August 28, 2014

“As international climate scientists warn runaway greenhouse gas emissions could cause ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts,’ the Obama administration is abandoning attempts to have Congress agree to a legally binding international climate deal. The New York Times reports U.S. negotiators are crafting a proposal that would not require congressional approval and instead would seek pledges from countries to cut emissions on a voluntary basis. This comes as a new U.N. report warns climate change could become ‘irreversible’ if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked. If global warming is to be adequately contained, it says, at least three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground. founder Bill McKibben [talks] about why his hopes for taking on global warming lie not in President Obama’s approach, but rather in events like the upcoming People’s Climate March in New York City, which could mark the largest rally for climate action ever. ‘The Obama administration, which likes to poke fun at recalcitrant congressmen, hasn’t been willing to really endure much in the way of political pain itself in order to slow things down,’ McKibben says. ‘The rest of the world can see that. The only way we’ll change any of these equations here or elsewhere is by building a big movement — that’s why September 21 in New York is such an important day.’”Democracy Now

Watch the complete interview and access a full transcript by clicking on the following linked title. Or, below, watch a 9:35-minute embedded version of the video and read an abridged version of the transcript, featuring added subheadings and highlighted text.

As Obama Settles on Nonbinding Treaty, “Only a Big Movement” Can Take on Global Warming with Bill McKibben interviewed on Democracy Now, August 28, 2014


Obama seeks “nonbinding climate accord” as way to bypass Congress that “refuses to accept reality of climate change”

INTRODUCTION — President Obama is reportedly seeking a nonbinding climate accord in lieu of a binding global treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The New York Times reports U.S. negotiators are crafting a proposal that would not require congressional approval and instead would seek pledges from countries to cut emissions on a voluntary basis. Earlier this year, Obama voiced his frustration with members of Congress who refuse to accept the reality of climate change.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (video clip)  In some parts of the country, weather-related disasters like droughts and fires and storms and floods are going to get harsher, and they’re going to get costlier. Today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change. They will tell you it is a hoax or a fad. One member of Congress actually says the world is cooling.

Leaked UN report is “telling us what they’ve been telling us for two decades” – global warming is the biggest threat we’ve ever faced

The new U.N. report* is more of the same. In a sense, it’s the scientific community, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, telling us what they’ve been telling us now for two decades, that global warming is out of control and the biggest threat that human beings have ever faced. They’re using what was described as blunter, more forceful language. At this point, you know, short of self-immolation in Times Square, there’s really not much more that the scientific community could be doing to warn us. Our early warning systems have functioned, you know? The alarm has gone off. All our satellites and sensors and supercomputers have produced the information that we need to know. The question is: Will we act on it? [*See report summary at Climate Scientists Spell out Stark Danger and Immorality of Inaction in New Leaked Report by Joe Romm, Climate Progress, August 27, 2014]

“Will we act on it?” Not with this congress, that’s for sure

And the answer so far is no. It’s been no in Congress, that’s for sure. Nothing is going to move through Congress, and there’s no hope of a treaty that would get ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. That’s the complication at the moment in international negotiations. We can’t reach any kind of binding treaty. Everyone’s known this. The Times story about the new Obama approach is pretty much old news. Everybody’s known for years that there’s not going to be a treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate. And everyone’s been looking for some kind of workaround.

Obama’s proposed workaround — voluntary, public commitments by countries — sounds dubious

The workaround would involve some kind of different, voluntary commitments by different countries, but done publicly so one could keep track of them. If this all sounds a little dubious to you, it will sound even more dubious to all the countries that are, you know, watching themselves disappear beneath the waves, so on and so forth, as global warming accelerates.

If Obama is serious, he’s going to have to put forward far more ambitious proposals than he’s offered so far

The real question, though, is less the form of the agreement than the content. And here’s where we’ll find out, in the next few months, whether the Obama administration is actually serious or not. If we’re going to do anything about the problem on the scale that the scientists describe it, then we’re going to need far, far more ambitious attempts than the Obama administration has put forward so far.

Obama hasn’t been willing to take the necessary political risks to slow down harmful emissions

Yes, they’ve put a cap on coal-fired power plants. That’s good. At the same time, they’ve helped expedite the rise of the United States to become the biggest coal and gas producer in the world, passing the Saudis and the Russians, and they’ve watched coal exports steadily grow. That’s not compatible with what the scientists tell us, that we need to keep 75 or 80 percent of the fossil fuel that we know about underground. So the Obama administration, which likes to poke fun at recalcitrant congressmen, hasn’t been willing to really endure much in the way of political pain itself in order to slow things down. The rest of the world can see that.

Only by building a big movement can we hope to turn things around

The only way we’ll change any of these equations, here or elsewhere, is by building a big movement. That’s why September 21st in New York,* which all these groups are coordinating, is such an important day. [For more information on September 21, see United by climate crisis, massive “Movement of Movements” set to target UN, Obama, and corporate power in Sept.]

Obama could have sent a signal to the world 4 years ago by rejecting Keystone XL, instead he repeatedly delayed his decision

President Obama could have said forthrightly four years ago or three years ago, “We’re not going to build the Keystone pipeline.” That would have been a signal to the rest of the world, because it would have been the first time that a world leader had said, “Here’s a massive project that we’re not building because of its effect on the climate.” Instead, he’s just sort of delayed and passed it along from one election to the next and tried to avoid any political pain.

Obama could have pushed hard for a serious price on carbon, but he hasn’t

There are many other things he could be doing, including pushing hard for a serious price on carbon, which is not necessarily a political impossibility. There’s a good editorial in today’s Washington Post about the so-called cap-and-dividend proposals that would put a big tax on carbon but then rebate the money directly to citizens. It’s the kind of thing that might strike a chord if pushed hard. But the president hasn’t expended much political capital in this direction.

Obama sent exactly the wrong message by expediting the permit process for Keystone south

The president made a big point of how he was expediting the federal permitting process to do things like build the southern half of the Keystone pipeline across Texas and Oklahoma.

Obama has failed to expedite deployment of renewable energy

We also should be working hard figuring out how at every turn to expedite and speed up the deployment of renewable energy. There hasn’t been the same kind of work to speed up, say, the Cape Wind project off the Massachusetts coast. We need to be doing what the Germans have done. There were days this summer when the Germans were getting 75 percent of their power from solar panels within their borders. That’s the kind of effort that we need. We’re not, I think, yet at 1 percent in this country.

Obama’s unwillingness to take on the fossil fuel industry is reflected in his failure to get serious about climate change

I think, actually, it’s probably continuing the trend we saw in Copenhagen. They’re not willing to provide the kind of powerful, galvanizing leadership that might really shake things up, but they are determined to avoid another face-costing embarrassment like there was in Copenhagen. The next Copenhagen meeting is in Paris next December, December 2015. If it’s the same kind of PR disaster that Copenhagen was, the president will leave with a stain on his legacy. I think he wants to try and keep some kind of climate legacy. He knows it’s how history will judge him. But so far they’re not willing to take the kind of political hit in this country from the fossil fuel industry that would go hand in hand with doing something serious. So they’re kind of trying to have it both ways, not for the first time on some issue in the Obama administration.

In sharp contrast with Obama’s political unwillingness, Germany renewable energy progress shows it has political will in abundance

Look, the thing that’s changed in the 25 years since I wrote the first book about all this was that we now know that the answers are technologically available. As I said, the Germans have done a fantastic job of deploying renewable energy. But it’s not because Germany has so much wind and so much sun. I mean, in fact, it’s at a far northern latitude. Munich is north of Montreal. It’s because, instead, they have the more important natural resource of political will.

The people will have an opportunity to demonstrate their political will in the streets of New York this September 21

The good news is, political will is something we can create. And that’s why we’ll all be in the streets of New York on September 21st. That’s going to be an amazing day. That march is going to be led by environmental justice advocates, especially from New York City, but from around the country and around the world, the people who are on the front lines of this fight and have borne the brunt of it. It will be joined by the entire progressive spectrum, including, really for the first time, the labor movement in a big way. It’s an attempt to show that there’s powerful demand for change around climate. If people out there have long thought to themselves, “I wish I could do something about global warming, but it seems so overwhelming. What can one individual do?” in one sense, that’s true. Changing your light bulb isn’t going to do it at this point. But changing the system still could. And that means that your body is badly needed in the streets of New York on September 21st for a peaceful, festive, but ultimately very powerful, I think, demonstration of political will.


Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of, author of many books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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