Staring Over the Brink: Obama, Brown, and High Stakes Climate Politics

by on August 10, 2015 · 0 comments

in California, Culture, Environment, History, Under the Perfect Sun

on the brink 2By Jim Miller

President Obama made big news last week when he unveiled his plan to significantly reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants as part of his strategy to address the climate crisis. His speech was urgent, moving in fact, and showed that, at least rhetorically, he is committed to making this part of his legacy:

[W]e’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it. And that’s why I committed the United States to leading the world on this challenge, because I believe there is such a thing as being too late.

He noted that our time is short and the stakes are high. He evoked the future of our grandchildren and the fate of the poor and powerless around the world at this very moment. For this we should applaud him.

The response from the right was as predictable and generally ridiculous as one would expect, mixing climate change denial with economic doomsday predictions and various other nonsense. It really isn’t worthy of serious debate.

What matters much more is that even if Obama’s plan succeeds and all other international pledges and local plans are put in place, it is still not enough.

As Brad Plumer notes at Vox, our best efforts thus far as well as those of the international community as a whole are not enough to address the crisis. “The International Energy Agency recently estimated that even if you take every nation’s current climate pledges seriously, we’re still on pace for around 3°C of warming by 2100 — well above the 2°C limit that most countries have set as a goal. Everyone needs to do more.” Indeed some of the nightmare scenarios of climate change are already here and the news keeps getting scarier every day.

Thus while we all should vigorously support the President’s plan against efforts by the fossil fuel-funded right to kill any measure to fight climate change, it is a shame that the frame in the corporate media is almost exclusively shaped by the din of our dismal domestic politics.

A far more relevant critique of Obama’s efforts comes from Naomi Klein who, in a recent Truthout interview, argues that:

Obama does not deserve to be called a climate leader simply because he has introduced what is a pretty good plan for cutting emissions from coal-fired power plants. I’m not saying that’s not important. It’s a step in the right direction. But simultaneously, he’s taking some significant steps in the wrong direction with Arctic drilling, with—you know, he’s overseen an explosion of fracking for gas. He’s still waffling on the Keystone XL pipeline. You know, he’s opened up new offshore oil and gas leases. So [. . .] when you take one step in the right direction and five steps in the wrong direction, you’re going in the wrong direction. You’re not going in the right direction. And we have to be honest about this, despite the fact that he’s under huge fire from the coal lobby right now.

And Klein is right. Just as Obama’s stirring words about economic inequality are squarely contradicted by his aggressive pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), his urgent call to action on climate is undercut by his refusal to say no to the fossil fuel industry on several important fronts.

So, as with our own Governor of California who ominously warns that “we are talking about extinction” during a Vatican event on climate change, but refuses to take on big oil here at home, there remains a chasm between creed and deed.

But, perhaps, precisely because of the fierce urgency of now that the President evokes, we can push them to find the will to bridge that gap.

Along those lines, the Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change is even more to the point than the President’s pontification. As Klein notes in the same interview:

[I]f you read the document, it’s very clear in calling for a different economic model, and it’s a challenge to what Pope Francis calls our throwaway culture. So [global activists] want to make sure that the parts of the encyclical that really do represent the deepest challenge to our current economic system and represent the most hope for the people who are excluded from the benefits of that economic system are really highlighted . . . the major theme of the encyclical is the theme of interdependence.

Hence if we are really going to save the planet, we need a movement that unites economic and environmental justice and offers both a strong moral case for bold environmental action and a future that doesn’t further deepen already historic levels of economic inequality, protecting the interests of the affluent while leaving the poor behind.

Unfortunately, this is not a problem designed for gradualist political “realism” and/or poll tested talking points. And by the time the 2’x4’ of environmental reality knocks us over the head, it will be too late. Business as usual politics just won’t suffice.

This means abandoning market fundamentalism and reimagining the future in a visionary fashion on all fronts before the drift toward ever-more dystopian outcomes becomes inevitable.

In “It’s Not Climate Change—It’s Everything Change,” Margaret Atwood ponders various futures, some humane and sustainable and others that are social Darwinist abominations, and then ends by musing:

Can we change our energy system? Can we change it fast enough to avoid being destroyed by it? Are we clever enough to come up with some viable plans? Do we have the political will to carry out such plans? Are we capable of thinking about longer-term issues, or, like the lobster in a pot full of water that’s being brought slowly to the boil, will we fail to realize the danger we’re in until it’s too late?

Not that the lobster can do anything about it, once in the pot. But we might. We’re supposed to be smarter than lobsters. We’ve committed some very stupid acts over the course of our history, but our stupidity isn’t inevitable.

It would be utterly reasonable to argue against Atwood that we aren’t up to the task–but love of the larger self dictates otherwise. Can we seize the day?

Time’s wingèd chariot is at our backs.

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