Naomi Klein: Obama Is Beginning to Sound Like a Climate Leader, When Will He Act Like One?

StoryAugust 04, 2015
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Naomi Klein

journalist and best-selling author. Her most recent book is called This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, out in paperback today. A documentary film directed by Avi Lewis based on This Changes Everything will be released in the fall. Her past books are No Logo and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

As scientists warn 2015 is on pace to become the Earth’s hottest year on record, President Obama has unveiled his long-awaited plan to slash carbon emissions from U.S. power plants. Under new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, U.S. power plants will be required to cut emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. In addition, new power plants will be required to be far cleaner, which could effectively prevent any new coal plants from opening. But does the plan go far enough? We speak to Naomi Klein, author of the best-selling book, "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate," which is out in paperback today.

NEXTNaomi Klein on Visiting the Vatican & the Radical Economic Message Behind Papal Climate Encyclical
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As scientists warn 2015 is on pace to become the Earth’s hottest year on record, President Obama has unveiled his long-awaited plan to slash carbon emissions from U.S. power plants. During a speech at the White House, Obama said no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than a changing climate.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Climate change is no longer just about the future that we’re predicting for our children or our grandchildren; it’s about the reality that we’re living with every day, right now. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. While we can’t say any single weather event is entirely caused by climate change, we’ve seen stronger storms, deeper droughts, longer wildfire seasons. Charleston and Miami now flood at high tide. Shrinking ice caps forced National Geographic to make the biggest change in its atlas since the Soviet Union broke apart. Over the past three decades, nationwide asthma rates have more than doubled, and climate change puts those Americans at greater risk of landing in the hospital. As one of America’s governors has said, we’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.

AMY GOODMAN: Under new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, U.S. power plants will be required to cut emissions by 32 percent from the 2005 levels by 2030. In addition, new power plants will be required to be far cleaner, which could effectively prevent any new coal plants from opening. President Obama defended the regulations, which are expected to be challenged in court.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right now our power plants are the source of about a third of America’s carbon pollution. That’s more pollution than our cars, our airplanes and our homes generate combined. That pollution contributes to climate change, which degrades the air our kids breathe. But there have never been federal limits on the amount of carbon that power plants can dump into the air. Think about that. We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water, and we’re better off for it. But existing power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of harmful carbon pollution into the air. For the sake of our kids and the health and safety of all Americans, that has to change. For the sake of the planet, that has to change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As President Obama spoke, the impacts of extreme weather could be seen across the globe. In California, more than 9,000 firefighters are battling more than 21 active wildfires. In Japan, temperatures topped 95 degrees on Monday for a record fourth day in a row. Heat records are also being broken across the Middle East. In one Iranian city, the heat index reached 164 degrees last week. Temperatures have been regularly topping 120 degrees in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

Meanwhile, a group of scientists, including former NASA scientist James Hansen, have warned that sea levels could rise as much as 10 feet before the end of the century unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced. The rise would make cities such as London, New York and Shanghai uninhabitable.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about climate change and President Obama’s plan to cut emissions, we’re joined by Naomi Klein, author of the best-selling book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, which is out in paperback today. She recently spoke at a Vatican climate change summit organized by Pope Francis. Naomi Klein joins us from Washington, D.C.

Naomi, welcome. Your assessment first of President Obama’s plan that he unveiled yesterday at the White House?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, good morning, Amy. It’s great to be with you, and Nermeen.

So I think that what we’re seeing from Obama is a really good example of what a climate leader sounds like. You know, everything he’s saying is absolutely true about the level of threat, about the fact that this is not a threat for future generations, it is a threat unfolding right now around the world, including in the United States. It’s a threat that is about people’s daily health, with asthma levels, and also about the safety of entire cities, huge coastal cities. So he’s doing a very good job of showing us what a climate leader sounds like. But I’m afraid we’ve got a long way to go before we see what a climate leader acts like, because there is a huge gap between what Obama is saying about this threat, about it being the greatest threat of our time, and indeed this being our last window in which we can take action to prevent truly catastrophic climate change, but the measures that have been unveiled are simply inadequate.

I mean, if we look at what kind of emission reductions this is going to deliver, we’re—you know, when you talk about emission reductions, we don’t look at just one sector, just at electricity generation; you have to look at the economy as a whole. And what climate scientists are telling us is that relatively wealthy countries, like the United States, if we are going to stay within our carbon budget and give ourselves a chance of keeping warming below two degrees Celsius, which is already very dangerous but is what the United States negotiated, under Obama—when they went to Copenhagen in 2009, they agreed to keep temperatures below two degrees warming, and, in fact, we’re still on track for more like four degrees warming—if we were to stay below two degrees, we would need to be cutting emissions by around 8 to 10 percent a year. Those are numbers from the Tyndall Centre on Climate Research in Manchester. And this plan would lower emissions in the United States by around 6 percent overall—I’m not just talking about the power sector, but overall emissions by 6 percent by 2030. So compare what we should be doing—8 to 10 percent a year—with 6 percent by 2030. That’s the carbon gap, and it’s huge.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, Naomi Klein, in your view, why did President Obama choose to focus so much on the power sector and not on other equally important sectors?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, look, it is an incredibly important sector, as he says. It’s just that we have to do it all. And I think that this should be seen as a victory for the grassroots social movements that have been fighting dirty coal plants in their backyards, and the clean coal—the campaign that the Sierra Club has led over years now to shut down hundreds of coal plants. So this should be claimed, I think, as a grassroots victory. This phase of the plan is better than the last draft, in some ways, in that it’s less of a gift to the natural gas sector and has more supports for renewables. It also has more supports for low-income communities for energy efficiency. It’s inadequate, but it’s still better than the last draft. There are parts of the plan that are worse than the last draft, because of pressure from industry and from states that are very reliant on coal.

But that’s at—you know, the problem is not that this plan itself is bad. If this was announced in Obama’s first year in office, I would be the first to celebrate this and say, "OK, great. So now let’s bring on a carbon tax. Let’s prevent leasing of new oil and gas and coal on public lands. You know, let’s do the rest of the package. Let’s have huge investments in public transit, and we’ll really be on our way." But at the end of his two terms in office, or coming near the end, you know, frankly, this does not buy a climate legacy. It’s not enough, because it isn’t in line with science, and it also isn’t in line with technology. I mean, the team at Stanford University under Mark Jacobson is telling us that we could get to 100 percent renewables, powering our entire economy with renewables, in two decades. So, if the scientists are telling us we need to do it, and the engineers are telling us we can do it, then all that’s missing are the politicians willing to introduce the bold policies that will make it happen. And that’s what we’re missing still.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, during his speech Monday, President Obama also talked about his visit to the Arctic at the end of the month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ll also be the first American president to visit the Alaskan Arctic, where our fellow Americans have already seen their communities devastated by melting ice and rising oceans, the impact on marine life. We’re going to talk about what the world needs to do together to prevent the worst impacts of climate change before it’s too late.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s President Obama. Can you talk about what’s happening in the Arctic and the activism that’s going on, from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, to prevent what President Obama has allowed—drilling in the Arctic?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, it’s extraordinary, actually, that he would be announcing this now, because what the world needs to do to save the Arctic, for starters, is to declare a moratorium on Arctic drilling. And the U.S. could be leading that effort, bringing together all Arctic nations to agree that this is untouchable, this is a no-go zone. And because that leadership is not there, and because indeed Obama has—is opening up the Arctic to drilling for the first time—we know that Shell has drilling rigs there right now, that they began the very preliminary stages of drilling on Thursday—and because his administration has failed to provide leadership on such a basic issue, I mean, Amy, it is the definition of insanity, it would seem to me, to be drilling in the Arctic for oil that is only available because Arctic ice is melting and it’s now passable and ships are able to go there and do this.

The CEO of Shell, a few days ago, talked about how they are expecting to find oil underneath that melting ice that is an even bigger deposit than there is off the Gulf of Mexico. He described it as a huge play, but more significantly, he described it as a long-term play. It’s unfortunate that the oil and gas industry describes all of this, you know, in the language of games, because obviously it’s not a game, but they call it a play. And he says that they don’t expect this to be in production until 2030. I mean, that is really striking, because by 2030 we should be really winding down our reliance on existing oil and gas infrastructure, not ramping up and opening up whole new fossil fuel frontiers.

And so this is what I mean about how 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, you know, 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.

AMY GOODMAN: This issue of the activists who have been trying to stop the drilling—


AMY GOODMAN: —that the Obama administration has provided license for—I mean, what was it? Forty people—

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, in Portland.

AMY GOODMAN: Forty people were—40 people were hanging from the bridge. You had all these kayaktivists outside. Can you talk about how it is he can announce—as they are all being taken away, as activists are charged for doing the activism they do, he’s announcing he’s going to the Arctic.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, you know, frankly, if we want to look for climate leaders, climate leaders are the people who rappelled down from that bridge in Portland. Climate leaders are the people who have been taking to their kayaks in Portland, in Seattle, you know, 21-year-olds who have been trying to stop Arctic drilling with their bodies, they feel so passionately about this. People stayed on that bridge, hanging from that bridge, in order to block Shell’s icebreaker, for 40 hours, and they did so despite the fact that Shell had gone to the courts and got an injunction and they were being threatened with huge fines. That is real leadership. That is real, moral action, standing up in the face of huge amounts of money and power and might-makes-right logic.

And we’ve seen this all over the Pacific Northwest. It’s one of the ironies of the extreme energy era that we’ve been living in this past decade or so, where North America has been in the midst of this extreme energy frenzy, with fracking, mountaintop removal and tar sands oil. In order to get this stuff out, it’s required that the oil and gas and coal companies build all kinds of new infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest, which is the part of the United States that is probably most environmentally aware, even militant. It’s where a lot of the tree sits began. You know, you think about Portland and the history of anti-logging activism, tree sits. In that part of the world, there are a lot of people with deep history in this kind of activism. And Shell, I think, you know, just in order—just logistically, in order to get to the Arctic, they needed to use various ports in the Pacific Northwest as a parking lot for their machinery and also to get repairs done. And, you know, the Pacific Northwest has given them a very, very, very hostile welcome and made it clear that they don’t want to be a gateway to this, frankly, suicidal action of drilling in the Arctic.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to be clear, to clarify this point, explaining what the activists were doing, the Greenpeace activists spending 40 hours suspending from a bridge in order to block the icebreaking ship commissioned by Shell from leaving for the Arctic, hundreds of activists gathering on the bridge in kayaks in efforts to stop Shell’s plans to drill in the remote Chukchi Sea. They did temporarily stop the ship—


AMY GOODMAN: —but then, ultimately, the ship made its way and is now making its way to the Arctic.

NAOMI KLEIN: They stopped the ship for 40 hours. And, you know, I think sometimes this can be seen as a sort of a stunt or a token action, but it really isn’t. You know, I was speaking with Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace, yesterday, and the really significant part of this is that there is a very small window when it is possible to do this drilling for Shell, because the period where the Arctic is sufficiently ice-free is just a few months. They have until late September to do this. So every day that they’re delayed is one less day when they’re able to look for this deposit that they claim is going to be a game-changing play. So this is more than token activism. Anything that slows them down is really significant. And these really are heroes.

AMY GOODMAN: And Hillary Clinton and President Obama’s position on Keystone XL?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, Hillary, first of all, she was asked about drilling in the Arctic, and she said she was skeptical of it, which some people claimed as, you know, it was Hillary coming out against Arctic drilling. I think it’s Hillary understanding that this is a very unpopular position. But just saying that you’re skeptical or have doubts, which is another phrase she used, is not anything that she can be held accountable to. That’s language that is slippery enough to get a glacier through, Amy. It’s not a straight-up "no." She’s also refused to comment, as you mentioned, on the Keystone XL pipeline.

And let me say, you know, Hillary Clinton’s plan, green energy plan, that she unveiled a few days ago—we’re going to get more details soon—is surprisingly bold. There’s parts of this that the plan really gets right, in terms of the speed with which she’s promising to roll out renewable energy. She’s getting the yes part of this equation pretty close to right, in the sense that we need supports for renewable energy. But it’s not enough, because if you look at a country like Germany, they have introduced a bold plan to support renewable energy, and in fact Germany now has what Hillary Clinton is promising she would do in the U.S., which is it has 30 percent of its electricity coming from renewables, but Germany’s emissions are not going down fast enough, and in some years they’ve even gone up. And that’s because in Germany that yes to renewable energy hasn’t been accompanied by a no to fossil fuels. They’ve allowed a continued mining at very high rates of dirty coal, of lignite coal, the dirtiest coal on the market, and they just export it, if they don’t have a market for it in the U.S.

And, you know, this is the problem with Hillary. She is willing to say yes to green technology, green jobs, but she is showing no signs of being willing to say no to the oil and gas lobby, which we know is funding her campaign significantly. So, as secretary of state, we know that there was quite a revolving door between the oil and gas lobby and her people at State and on her previous campaign staff. And I think there’s real reason for concern about whether or not she would be willing to stand up to the oil and gas lobby on Keystone, on Arctic drilling, on any of these other issues.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, we want to ask you, Naomi, about what happened at the Vatican. You were there over July 4th weekend, one of the people—keynoters of this conference led by Pope Francis. This is Democracy Now! We’re speaking with Naomi Klein. Her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, is out in paperback today. Back with her in a moment.

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Naomi Klein on Visiting the Vatican & the Radical Economic Message Behind Papal Climate Encyclical

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