Tag Archives: Bill McKibben

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
21 May 2018

Looking back from today, we can now see the mid to late 2000s marked a high point in activism, media interest and government action regarding climate change in the UK.

Increasingly large and prominent Climate Camps, drawing attention to climate endangering infrastructure, were organised every year between 2006 and 2010; the direct group Plane Stupid occupied runways and the roof of parliament to highlight the danger of airport expansion; and Climate Rush, inspired by the Suffragette’s campaign for the women’s vote, carried out media-friendly actions including a picnic at Heathrow departures and dumping a pile of horse manure on Jeremy Clarkson’s driveway.

With documentaries like 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth and 2009’s The Age of Stupid attracting huge audiences, David Cameron’s Tories sensed the shift in public opinion and rebranded themselves as an environmentally-friendly party. The slogan “vote blue, go green” was adopted and famously the old Etonian hugged a husky.

Ridiculous and shameless as this PR campaign was, the political arms race created by Cameron’s supposed green shift both proved the power of the green movement, and produced the political landscape it needed to win several important victories for the climate. Driven forward by a huge Friends of the Earth campaign, the 2008 Climate Change Act legally bound the UK to making 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. The Coalition government scrapped the expansion of Heathrow after the 2010 general election, and, following actions and campaigning by a coalition of groups on coal, analysis by Imperial College London showed the dirtiest fossil fuel dropped from generating 40 percent of the UK’s electricity in 2012 to just 2 percent in the first half of 2017.

Zoom forward to today and the climate crisis that green activists devoted their lives to averting in the late noughties has only become more urgent.

For example, whilst senior climate scientists have repeatedly explained carbon admissions need to fall immediately and rapidly to avert climate catastrophe, the International Energy Agency reported that carbon emissions hit a record high last year, increasing by 1.4 percent. The New Yorker’s David Wallace-Wells provides some much need reality to the 2015 United Nations Paris climate agreement, which committed the 195 signatories to keeping the global temperature increase to below two degrees, and ideally under 1.5 degrees.  “Not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, Wallace-Wells notes, citing a November 2017 New York Times report based on data from Climate Action Tracker. “To keep the planet under two degrees of warming – a level that was, not all that long ago, defined as the threshold of climate catastrophe – all signatory nations have to match or better those commitments.”

Speaking to the Morning Star after the Paris Agreement, Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said it was “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that” – by 2100, if not before. The corporate world has already come to terms with this likely future, with an internal Shell planning document predicting a 4oC increase in the short term. Similarly in 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers told businesses and governments that they “need to plan for a warming world – not just 2C, but 4C or even 6C.”

“What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term”, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, recently noted in an Environmental Justice Foundation report. “In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.” Speaking in 2011 about the risks climate change poses to Australia, Professor John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, was even more direct: “the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization.”

As these warnings highlight, the importance of the looming climate chaos is hard to overestimate. “Every single day, climate change is the most important thing happening on the planet—there’s nothing even remotely close”, argues US climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, writing in the New Yorker magazine.

In contrast to this urgency, with a few important exceptions (e.g. the nationwide anti-fracking movement) the green movement in the UK seems to have been in a serious rut since 2009/10. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations climate summit was a massive blow to the green movement’s morale, while the Coalition Government’s austerity programme led many activists to move from climate-specific work to campaigns such as UK Uncut and housing battles. In addition, since 2015 it is clear many activists on the Left who are concerned about climate change have put their time and energy into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, many joining Momentum.

Indeed, Corbyn’s environmental policies have broadly been positive. Friends of the Earth graded Labour’s 2017 election manifesto 34 points out of 48, behind the Green Party on 46 but above the Liberal Democrats (32) and Conservatives (11). That Morning Star columnist Alan Simpson is advising Corbyn on environmental issues is welcome, as is Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s recent announcement that Clive Lewis MP had joined his team to “drive the climate change issue into the heart of Treasury policy making, and therefore into the centre of government policy making”. However, there are still huge problems within the Labour Party when it comes to creating and pursuing effective policies on climate change. Many Labour MPs are still wedded to the ideal of a corporate-dominated neoliberal economy. The GMB union supports fracking. And, most importantly, Labour under Corbyn is still a pro-economic growth party – the word “growth” is mentioned 15 times in the election manifesto – despite this economic dogma being exactly the thing that is driving the planet over the climate cliff.

Rather than this old, 20th century thinking we desperately need new, radical ideas and action. We need, as Sir David King notes above, a wholesale transformation of our economies, which will only be possible with a profound shift in our politics and societal values. “Has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history?”, worries Canadian writer Naomi Klein in her essential book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. She cites the historical examples of the Civil Rights Movement, the campaign against Apartheid, the abolition of slavery and the New Deal to give an idea of the scale and influence of the mass movement that is now needed to defend the climate. Others have suggested the societal mobilisation that occurred during World War Two is closer to the level of change that we need to aim for.

This, then, is why a reinvigorated green movement is needed now more than ever – to pressure the current Tory government and Corbyn’s Labour Party to take proactive and effective steps to deal directly with the threat of climate change.

And we need to act now. As McKibben notes in his New Yorker article: though “it feels as if we have time to deal with global warming… In fact, climate change is the one problem that the planet has ever faced that comes with an absolute time limit; past a certain point, it won’t be a problem anymore, because it won’t have a solution.”

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 January 2017

What grade does President Obama deserve for his environmental policies? According to the BBC the Obama Administration should be awarded an “A-” for negotiating the 2016 Paris climate agreement, introducing new regulations governing pollution from US power plants and designating 548 million acres of US territory as protected areas.

The Guardian anticipated this positive assessment of Obama’s actions on the environment, with a 2014 leader column asserting that “President Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change has not been in doubt”.

This support for Obama was taken to extraordinary lengths by last year’s BBC documentary series Inside Obama’s White House. With the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen heralded as the final chance to save the planet from dangerous levels of climate change, the BBC’s one-sided account explains Obama worked to solve the climate crisis in the face of Chinese intransigence (the Chinese – and not the US, apparently – “were afraid of the impact on their economy”). With India, Brazil and South African joining China in a supposedly secret meeting “to stop the climate deal”, the film excitedly tells a story of Obama crashing the party to force an agreement on China in a sincere attempt to save the planet.

There is, of course, more to the story. As the US historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data.”

In contrast to the BBC’s hagiography, George Monbiot, arguably the most knowledgeable environmental commentator in the UK, noted at the time that “The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama.” Bill McKibben, a leading US environmentalist, concurred, arguing Obama “has wrecked the UN and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.” Missing from the BBC’s account, Canadian author Naomi Klein highlighted a key reason behind Monbiot’s and McKibben’s conclusions: “Obama arrived with embarrassingly low targets and the heavy emitters of the world took their cue from him.”

How low? The European Union went into the talks promising to cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama – whose commitment to fighting climate change, remember, “has not been in doubt” – offered a measly four percent cuts below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama was “the conservative voice among world leaders” when it came to climate change, “supporting the least-aggressive steps”, noted Peter Brown, the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in the Wall Street Journal.

The attempt to block significant action on the international stage broadly mirrors the Democratic president’s (in)action domestically during his first term. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg uncovered an important spring 2009 meeting at the White House between the Obama Administration and leaders of the US green movement in which, incredibly, the environmentalists were told not to talk about climate change. With the Obama team apparently concerned about attacks from industry and conservative groups, Goldenberg noted the meeting “marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change – avoiding the very word”, which in turn produced a near total absence of the issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Goldenberg reports that “environmental groups, taking their cue from the White House… downplayed climate change” after the meeting. McKibben, who attended the summit, was one of the few people to speak out against the strategy: “All I said was sooner or later you are going to have to talk about this in terms of climate change. Because if you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary, and why it’s such a huge problem”.

While the liberal media was dazzled by Obama’s Christ-like campaign rhetoric about slowing “the rise of the oceans” and healing the planet, in office the first Black president pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. This, according to environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard, “made the United States the world’s leading producer of oil and gas by the end of his first term.” Writing in 2013, McKibben provided clarification: “We are… a global-warming machine. At the moment when physics tells us we should be jamming on the carbon breaks, America is revving the engine.”

What about the Environmental Protection Agency rules Obama introduced in 2014 to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent? These are certainly a step in the right direction but, as Kevin Bundy from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute noted, the proposals are “like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose – we’re glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it’s just not enough to get the job done.”

Internationally, the ongoing UN climate talks continued to be a fiasco in the years after Copenhagen, with the Guardian’s chief environmental correspondent John Vidal laying the blame in 2012 “squarely on the US in particular and the rich countries in general.” Vidal continued: “For three years now, they have bullied the poor into accepting a new agreement. They have delayed making commitments, withheld money and played a cynical game of power politics to avoid their legal obligations.”

Troublingly, the widely heralded Paris Agreement – for which the liberal media have repeatedly congratulated Obama for realising – is looking increasingly like a red herring. Though the text of the accord agrees to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C, and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, a recent survey of a number of leading climate scientists and analysts by author Andrew Simms found that not one thought the 2°C target would likely be met. Speaking last year to the Morning Star top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson said the pledges made by nations at Paris would likely lead to a catastrophic 3-4°C rise in global temperatures (“and probably the upper end of that”).

Asked by Hertsgaard in 2014 how history will judge the 44th president on climate change, senior Obama adviser John Podesta replied that while his boss “tried to address the challenge… fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough? I think the answer to that is going to be no.” Writing in The Nation earlier this month, Hertsgaard reconfirmed Podesta’s conclusion: “Obama did more in his second term, but nowhere near enough. The climate emergency is still advancing faster than the world’s response, not least because of the United States’ inadequate actions.”

Two lessons about climate change can be taken from the eight years of the Obama Administration. First, it is clear the liberal media such as the BBC and the Guardian cannot be trusted to give an accurate picture of what Obama actually did in office – what George Orwell called the “power of facing unpleasant facts”. Second, many of the positive steps Obama took on climate change were arguably down to grassroots pressure. For example, the Obama Administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline which was going to transport oil from the deadly Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico was, as McKibben and Hertsgaard have argued, a victory for the indigenous-led grassroots resistance movement.

With the climate change-denying President Donald Trump and his powerful supporters threatening a bonfire of US environmental regulation and international climate agreements, it is essential the US and global green movements grow substantially and become more active and effective. Terrifying though it is to contemplate, it is no exaggeration to say that the very future of humanity rests on the outcome of this struggle.

Obama’s Insanity on Climate Change

Obama’s Insanity on Climate Change
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
December 2012

Observing the US presidential race from the UK, on election night Joss Garman, Greenpeace UK’s Policy Director, tweeted “Fingers crossed America votes for enlightenment values/sanity #fourmoreyears #Obama2012”. A Twitter-addict, I challenged Garman on Obama’s environmental record, to which he replied: “Relative to the unhinged leadership of the US Republican Party, Obama is pretty much the definition of sanity”.

Obama, of course, has long been making the right noises about climate change. “This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet”, the then Democratic presidential candidate warned the world when he spoke in Berlin in 2008. “Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands.”

However, as US dissident Noam Chomsky wryly notes about Brand Obama, “It is wise to attend to deeds, not rhetoric” because “deeds commonly tell a different story.” So what exactly is Obama’s record on climate change?

Although forgotten by most people today, it is important to remember that in 2010 the US President reversed his campaign promise to retain a ban on offshore exploration. His decision to open up over 500,000 square miles of US coastal waters to the oil and gas industry was “cosmic bad timing”, according to author Naomi Klein. Three weeks later the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, releasing around 4.9m barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico before it was capped in July.

Since then Obama has certainly angered the fossil fuel industry by pushing renewable energy but, as CNN reported in the summer, “there is no evidence that he is trying to ‘shut down’ traditional energy.”

Infact, Obama’s inability or unwillingness to take climate change seriously was already clear from the way he approached the December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference. For UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown the meeting in Copenhagen was “the most important conference since the second world war.” Not so for Obama, who only confirmed he would be attending the summit two weeks before the start of the talks (just two months before he had enthusiastically travelled to Denmark to support Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games). The President further compounded the negative feelings directed at the US by turning up with a paltry offer to make 17 percent reductions in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2020. In comparison the European Union pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent on 1990 levels by 2020. For Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University polling institute, this obstructionism was further proof Obama was “a conservative voice among world leaders” on climate change. Predictably, the talks were a failure, with 350.org’s Bill McKibben explaining Obama “has wrecked the UN and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.”

The increasingly terrifying backdrop to all of this inaction is a hardening of the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. Furthermore, a new report by the US National Center for Atmospheric Research found it has been the more extreme predictions about global warming that appear to be the most accurate. It is frightening facts like these that led PricewaterhouseCoopers to recently note “Governments’ ambition to limit warming to 2°C appear highly unrealistic.” According to the accountancy firm the glacial level of global action on climate change means that even doubling the world’s “current rate of decarbonisation, would still lead to emissions consistent with six degrees of warming by the century end.” If temperatures soar by six degrees by 2100, climate change expert Mark Lynas warns we will “face nothing less than a global wipe out.”

Following the precautionary principle, in 2009 the American Nobel Peace Prize economist Paul Krugman wrote “In a rational world… the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern”. But US politics are very far from the rational world. Accordingly, climate change was virtually invisible in the 2012 Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. There were certainly differences between the candidates – Romney ridiculed the idea of man-made climate change, while Obama accepts it as scientific fact – but, as Chomsky noted, in practice the differences were “about how enthusiastically the lemmings should march toward the cliff.”

And herein lies the problem for those, like Garman, who frame Obama’s politics solely in terms of how they compare to his GOP challenger: if you view US politics through the prism of this simplistic, media-driven binary opposition you will fail to see that both Democrats and Republicans pursue policies that are clearly insane for the future of the planet.

Turning to the future, the first major climate change test of Obama’s second term will be his decision on the proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s hugely polluting tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate”, argues James Hansen, the Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science. “If this sounds apocalyptic, it is”, added Hansen. “Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilisation would be at risk.” According to a Financial Times report earlier this month “oil executives and analysts expect the president to give the plan… the go-ahead in the first half of next year.”

Only a large and boisterous social movement exerting huge amounts of pressure on Obama will be able to stop the pipeline and force him to support effective policies to combat climate change. As the great, late left-wing historian Howard Zinn wrote during the 2008 US Presidential Election: “Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House”. And to be most effective this resistance needs to be informed by an accurate analysis of the Obama Administration record, rather than what we all wished the record was. Zinn himself, like Garman, supported the better candidate on election day but warned “Even when there is a ‘better’ candidate, that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.”