A Presidential Speech Won't Solve Climate Change -- It's Going to Take Major Demonstrations and Activism by the Public
Before we get teary eyed with joy or scoff with derision, we should take a closer look at President Obama’s June 25 speech on climate change, and set it within the context of his five years in power. This is a position he himself argued for during his speech when he said that we need to “be more concerned with the judgment of posterity” than short–term political considerations.
The Pentagon knows that environmental, economic and other crises could provoke widespread public anger toward government and corporations in coming years. The revelations on the NSA’s global surveillance programs are just the latest indication that as business as usual creates instability at home and abroad, and as disillusionment with the status quo escalates, Western publics are being increasingly viewed as potential enemies that must be policed by the state.
There is, therefore, the overriding requirement that we continue to build the movement independent of the limitations imposed by the Democratic Party, until we achieve the kind of changes that are actually necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change, by stitching together all forces aimed at this objective.
The fact that Obama is using executive authority to attempt to push through some changes to U.S. energy and climate policy, most significantly new rules on existing power plants, is a reflection not of strength, but of his preceding weakness on the issue, turning it from a positive into a negative, as the right wing has made all the running. Notwithstanding the catastrophic climate change that levels above 350 ppm of carbon portend and have already initiated—as droughts, floods, crop failures, super–storms and wildfires become the “new normal” across the globe from Australia to India, from the U.S. to Pakistan—politicians across the political spectrum greeted the news of 400 ppm of carbon earlier in May with a giant shrug of collective indifference.
While on the one hand Obama’s action plan doesn’t require Congressional approval, and that can be seen as encouraging in the face of an utterly recalcitrant Congress, it is also a flaw. The new rules will be vigorously challenged in the courts, and as and when the other corporate party manages to work out how to win an election again, they can be overturned just as easily, assuming they have even been implemented.
It needs to be highlighted that, in contrast to how Democrats and Obama like to portray the issue, it is not a solidly partisan one. While elected Republicans are certainly more likely to be climate–change denialists, the reality is that things are much more regional and dependent on which state a political representative is from. A much more reliable indicator of whether a state’s Representative is pro– or anti– climate change policy and clean energy, is whether the state’s economy is directly connected to fossil fuels or ethanol production, than whether they are Democrats or Republicans.
And on the ground, where people are forced to deal with the growing ramifications of climate change and the disruption and cost to their lives, the picture is very different. As reported in a recent survey of self–described Republicans and Republican–leaning independents, 62 percent said the U.S. should address climate change, and 77 percent said that the U.S. should use more renewable energy sources. This is all the more remarkable given that virtually no political representative from either party has been arguing for these things, and they have certainly not appeared on the TV screens or in the newspapers of the mainstream media.
In contrast to Obama’s glib reference to work being undertaken to prevent Miami from sinking below the waves, Jeff Goodell writing in Rolling Stone, paints a very different picture, underlining the calamitous reality of climate change in an article cheerily titled “Goodbye Miami.” On our present course, it is not a question of if, but when, the city of Miami—which vies with Las Vegas as the citadel to capitalist non–conformity with nature, along with most of southern Florida—will be underwater:
South Florida has two big problems. The first is its remarkably flat topography. Half the area that surrounds Miami is less than five feet above sea level. Its highest natural elevation, a limestone ridge that runs from Palm Beach to just south of the city, averages a scant 12 feet. With just three feet of sea–level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will vanish; at six feet, more than half will be gone; if the seas rise 12 feet, South Florida will be little more than an isolated archipelago surrounded by abandoned buildings and crumbling overpasses. And the waters won’t just come in from the East—because the region is so flat, rising seas will come in nearly as fast from the West, too, through the Everglades.
Quoting Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami, Goodell writes, “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed…It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when."
Into this context stepped the most powerful man on the planet, President Barack Obama. Promising to “halt the rise of the oceans,” his swirling rhetoric is a match for the fiercest hurricane. It was impossible not to be moved by Obama’s opening remarks, forcefully detailing the perilous condition of our planet, atmospheric pollution and the changes already wrought by global warming from the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels and the resultant increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.
But just as importantly, it also raised the question: Where has he been for the last five, wasted years? And if he really believes all that, why is he still equivocating on Keystone XL and signing off on the need for an immense expansion of U.S. corporate and military might in the Arctic to facilitate fossil fuel and mineral extraction?
Obama’s actions over the last five years in power—during two of which, the Democrats had super–majorities in both houses of Congress—even to his most fervent supporters, have been a damp squib.
From boasting about laying enough pipeline to circle the earth “and then some,” to presiding over the massive expansion of coal exports and giving the presidential seal of approval to the further exploitation and development of the Arctic in competition with Russia and other nations, Obama, despite some much–belated moves on fuel economy standards, has quite clearly sided with the fossil fuel industry. His call for the Department of Defense to be run on renewable energy is hardly the way to preserve the planet.
As climate blogger Joseph Romm has pointed out, Obama’s lack of action on climate was not primarily a result of Republican denial or corporate meddling, but a direct outcome of the policies enacted by the White House:
Team Obama’s catastrophic climate silence—a silence his White House inanely imposed on much of the progressive and environmental establishment back in 2009 (see here)—coupled with his utter failure to push hard for a Senate vote, has turned a winning political “wedge” issue into something that is mistakenly perceived to be a political loser by much of the political establishment. His embrace of an “all of the above” energy strategy, which is to say no strategy at all, has legitimized a massive expansion of fossil fuel production—and export.
His lack of action in the face of increasingly obvious climate change–related weather events, which legitimizes the continued expansion of fossil fuel production, fracking and exploitation of the Arctic and offshore drilling, and the fact that the U.S. continues to fall behind other countries in the adoption of clean energy systems as a result of Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy helps explain why many environmentalists have become increasingly disillusioned with Obama.
Since the re–election of Obama, the environmental movement is the only social movement to date to pull off a national demonstration in the tens of thousands—in Washington, D.C., in February, and it has put hundreds of people on the streets to bird–dog Obama wherever he turns up, in order to voice their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. A new movement for campus divestment from fossil fuels has sprung up on hundreds of campuses in a matter of months, and the anti–fracking movement continues to grow all across the country.
Thousands of people have pledged mass civil disobedience should Obama, as expected, sign off on the construction of the rest of the Keystone XL pipeline, in the same manner he already assented to building the southern portion. As White House spokesperson Jay Carney commented at the time, the Keystone XL pipeline is needed because of the ramped–up supply of U.S. oil: "We support the company’s interest in proceeding with this project, which will help address the bottleneck of oil in Cushing that has resulted in large part from increased domestic oil production…We look forward to working with TransCanada to ensure that it is built in a safe, responsible and timely manner, and we commit to taking every step possible to expedite the necessary federal permits.”
The reason Keystone XL has not already been permitted, therefore, and why the Obama administration has repeatedly delayed its decision, despite its self–declared approval, must be put down to the force of protest by newly invigorated environmentalists. To quote Romm once more, “If Obama truly were the ‘environmental president,’ then Keystone would be a very, very easy decision for him,” and would make protesting him unnecessary.
The change in the political dynamic has created the space for more radical and left–wing arguments to gain traction, with wide layers of activists around the slogan of the new group System Change, Not Climate Change: The Ecosocialist Coalition, which argues for complete independence from the Democratic Party and an emphasis on the systemic nature of the ecological crisis—and thereby the need, ultimately, for a completely different kind of society not driven by profit, warfare, racism and continual expansion.
In reference to this, contrary to preceding reports and in a surprise turn of events, Obama, in a set of remarks quite clearly directed at the environmental movement that has so far refused to back down on Keystone XL, said in his speech that the project would only receive the go–ahead from him if the pipeline “does not significantly affect carbon pollution.”
Given that tar sands are widely recognized to be far more polluting than even regular oil extraction and processing; that the ripping apart of Indigenous lands and boreal forest large enough to be seen from space; and that the deposits are as large as Saudi Arabia and if developed represent “game over” for the planet, according to climate scientist Dr. James Hansen; the immediate next words from Obama’s lips should have inevitably consisted of: “and that’s why I’m not approving Keystone XL.” Instead, a deafening silence ensued.
Obama ended his speech by saying that he was “open to all sorts of new ideas.” Here’s some new ideas, then, for his consideration:
In reality, we’re not going to get anything remotely like the points above without the growth and development of a massive social and ecological movement for change. We must take heart from the results of our efforts so far to more vigorously challenge the Obama presidency, and build on them without illusions that Obama has finally come to his senses.
not disappointed because I didn’t expect anything. It’s not about the individual; it’s not about the race he came from. It’s about the class he represents. It’s like he’s the gatekeeper for white monopoly capital. He promised things we knew he wouldn’t be able to do.
These are words we would do well to learn from in the U.S., as we redouble our efforts, build on our successes and fight the entrenched corporate interests that Obama so faithfully represents.