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Amidst Uncertainty on US Role in Upcoming Climate Talks, 350.org Holds International Climate Action Day in 170 Nations

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Seven weeks before the UN Copenhagen Climate Conference, the group 350.org is organizing an International Climate Action Day. More than 4,500 events are scheduled to take place in 170 nations. We speak to two of the major thinkers and writers tackling climate change: the writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org, and Australian scientist Tim Flannery, chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council and author of the international bestseller The Weather Makers. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 23, 2007“We Are Now in the Danger Zone”: Leading Australian Scientist Tim Flannery on Climate Change and How to Save the Planet
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama is heading to Massachusetts today where he will urge the Senate to move forward on a climate change bill. The President’s speech comes just seven weeks before the start of the United Nations Copenhagen Climate Conference. Next week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold three days of hearings to discuss the climate change bill proposed by Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry.

While the Obama administration has acknowledged no bill will be passed before the Copenhagen talks, pressure is growing from grassroots organizations to take action. On Saturday the group 350.org is organizing an International Climate Action Day. More than 4,500 events are scheduled to take place in 170 nations.

350.org is named after what scientists have identified as a sustainable target for carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere: 350 parts per million. We are currently at 387 parts per million.

While most climate scientists say the effects of global warming are happening far sooner than initially projected, many Americans appear to be dismissing the threat of climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: A poll released on Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that just 57 percent of respondents believe there is solid evidence that the world is getting warmer, down 20 percentage points in just three years. The poll also found only 35 percent of Americans believe global warming is a very serious problem.

Well, today we’re joined by two of the major thinkers, writers, activists tackling climate change.

With us here in New York at our firehouse studio is writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org. Twenty years ago, he published The End of Nature, the first general audience book about global warming. Bill McKibben has described the talks in Copenhagan as, quote, “the most important diplomatic gathering in the world’s history.”

We’re also joined by the Australian scientist Tim Flannery. He is the author of the international bestseller The Weather Makers. His latest book is called Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future. Tim Flannery is chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council. He is a mammalogist and paleontologist by training. As a field zoologist, he discovered and named more than sixty species. In 2007 Tim Flannery was named Australian of the Year.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! And as we go to broadcast, Bill, the protests, rallies, actions around the country, in this largest day of global action in the history of the world, are already underway.

BILL McKIBBEN: People are jumping the gun a little bit, and we’re getting amazing pictures beginning to arrive from places like Addis Ababa, from all across the Pacific, from New Zealand and Australia.

It’s quite remarkable to think that the largest day of political action in the planet’s history will center around a fairly arcane scientific fact, a data point. You would have said that it was too complicated for people or too hard for them to assimilate, but this is the most important number in the world. People are realizing that. People are realizing that their future, in the starkest terms, depends on the world’s leaders understanding that this debate is not so much between the US and China and the EU, it’s mostly between human beings, on the one hand, and physics and chemistry, on the other. And today and tomorrow, in 177 nations, people are standing up for this science, saying, “Pay attention to the real situation.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet, there remains this huge disconnect between the American public and the public in the rest of the world. As we said, only about 35 percent of the American people believe this is a serious problem. Your understanding why there is this huge disconnect?

BILL McKIBBEN: Two things. One, we’re the most addicted country in the world, so it makes sense that we’d be deepest in denial, I suppose. The second is, we’ve never really had a popular movement about climate. We’ve left this to the experts, on the theory that if we keep repeating how bad the peril is, our leaders will take action.

Now we’re doing the work of building the kind of grassroots movement that changes hearts and minds, that moves people to understand what the problem is. And hopefully those images flooding in from around the world will really open people’s hearts, when they understand that people are protesting across Africa, across Asia, across Latin America, across places where people did nothing to cause this problem but are willing to take a real role in helping to solve it.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, you’ve been traveling the United States. Talk about the awareness in Australia and the awareness in the United States around global warming. What’s your sense?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, Amy, you know, they’re very different things. In Australia, it’s impossible to avoid an understanding of climate change, because it’s in our face every day. We have terrible problems with water security at the moment across southern Australia. Our fifth-largest city, Adelaide, may be out of drinking water next year. Our national water commissioner’s said that he can’t guarantee drinking water to that city as of the end of next year. We’ve had dust storms. We’ve had fires. We’ve had cyclones. We’ve had bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. And so, no matter where you live in Australia, you become aware of climate change.

Here in the US, I think you’ve been a little bit buffered from those changes. There’s certainly some impacts; particularly in the western forests here, you can see it. But Australia is a harbinger, I think, for what will happen in the United States.

But one of the big factors here that’s so very different is that the population’s views seem to be divided along political lines. It’s a tragedy that, in a way, you know, the Democrats represent the proactive side, and the Republicans seem to represent a side that wants to ignore the issue. Elsewhere in the world, that isn’t the case. In Britain, for example, the Conservative Party is a very green party.

So there’s something about the political mix here and the sort of the relative insulation of the population from some of these changes that have made levels of awareness here much lower than elsewhere in the world. And that is such a problem for us, because unless the US can move forward with its cap-and-trade bill to deal with this issue, I’m afraid many other countries are going to take a less-than-adequate stance during these negotiations in December.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tim Flannery, you mentioned the problems that you’ve had there. You recently had the wildfires that took about 170 lives there. And here in the United States, obviously, wildfires, especially in the Southwest, have grown dramatically in recent years. But again, there’s like no connection that the public is making between these calamities and the overall change in the earth’s climate.

TIM FLANNERY: That’s very strange to me. And maybe it’s just that in Australia the situation is so stark. You know, up until twelve years ago in southeastern Australia, we enjoyed a regular winter rainfall regime. And the rain still falls, incidentally; it just falls over the southern ocean, about 200 miles south of where it used to fall. And we can all see that. We all experience the impacts of it. And somehow or other, it’s become widely understood in the Australian public that this is the result of a changing climate. You really have to live in our country a little while, I think, to understand just how profound these impacts have been. There’s no getting away from them. It’s not just one phenomena; it’s a series of things that have changed. And everyone who takes an interest in this issue really does understand it.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim, in your book, Now or Never, you take the reader on a guided tour of the environmental challenges we face and the potential solutions, big and small. Take us on that tour right now.

TIM FLANNERY: Sure, I will. Look, you know, the thing is, as Bill said, 350 is the key figure. And that means the problem is a lot more pressing than we realized even five years ago. The science has moved forward. Our understanding of how CO2 impacts the earth’s climate system has grown. And so, we know that there is that very tight deadline. We need to both reduce our emissions, and we need to get some gas out of the air. Ideally, in terms of reducing emissions, we need to either close down or retrofit every conventional coal-fired power plant on the planet by 2030. Now, that is an enormous job. I mean, and retrofit it with carbon capture and storage, that’s the only other option. That’s a huge job.

And I don’t think we’ll get that, so we’re going to have to attack this issue from a series of different directions. We’re going to have to increase our efficiency of transport use and move to electric cars as soon as we can. We’re going to have to build as much new energy infrastructure as we can — wind, photovoltaics, and so forth. And we’re also going to have to use the power of the planet to draw some of the gas out of the air. And there, we have a great ally, which is plants and forests.

Plants draw out of earth’s atmosphere eight percent of all atmospheric carbon dioxide every year. They represent the world’s most wonderful carbon capture mechanism. And what we’ve got to do is build some capacity for storage among those plants, and that means protecting forests, improving agricultural practices, fighting desertification, which releases carbon from the soil, a series of things that will let us live more sustainably and represent win-wins. So there are just a few of the things we need to do as we move ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guests are Tim Flannery, voted Australian of the Year 2007, and Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org. Twenty years ago it was that he published The End of Nature. 350.org has organized, well, more than 4,000 actions in more than 170 countries around the world. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: If you’re involved in an action around the globe, as we broadcast around the globe, this weekend, we hope you will write to us and let us know what you’re doing, send us pictures. You can write to us at stories(at)democracynow.org. You can also send us video, as well.

I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Our guests: Tim Flannery, Australian scientist and writer, Australian of the Year 2007, new book out, Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future; and, well, Bill McKibben, who is co-founder and director of 350.org, behind the massive protests, rallies, actions that are taking place this weekend around the globe. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bill McKibben, I’d like to ask you — perhaps one of the most extraordinary of these protests is the president of the Maldives is leading 350 scuba divers to the coral reefs of his country to show the destruction there. Could you talk about the coral reefs and the oceans and the impact of global warming on our oceans?

BILL McKIBBEN: One of the things, twenty years ago, that we had no idea was going to happen as we poured carbon into the atmosphere was that the ocean would become steadily more acidic. In the last few years, scientists have identified that as a threat almost as enormous as the steady heating of the earth’s atmosphere.

There are countries, like the Maldives, like many small island nations, that may not make it through this century. I mean, the Maldives have been there for 4,000 years, people living on them, an intact working culture. They’re setting aside money each year in their budget now, though they’re a poor country, to buy a new homeland, God knows where, sometime in the future when their current one disappears. It’s not just that the ocean is rising; it’s that these acidifying seas are wrecking the coral reefs that guard — that fringe these islands and guard them.

That’s why ninety-two nations now have endorsed this 350 target. Now, they’re the poorest nations on earth, the victim nations, the first places that are going to go under, the African nations that are vulnerable to drought. But those are the people who are beginning finally to get aggressive and to understand that there’s not enough aid in the world to take care of the scale of problems that are coming at them, if we don’t reduce emissions fast.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And one of the points that you raise is that when you attended the Kyoto meetings back in 1997, the main battles there were between Europe and the United States over what kind of accords would be reached, but that increasingly now these poorer countries are taking center stage with their own demands.

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s right. And there’s a whole new set of players. China, for instance, which — though they their per capita emissions are quite small compared to, say, Americans, they’re increasing rapidly and will be an important part of this thing, which is a very — makes me very happy that we have 300 big rallies across China this weekend. China is not an easy place to do political organizing. This is the first thing like this that’s ever happened there. Two hundred and fifty or 300 rallies across India, which will be the other really powerful player. These places are starting to wake up and to understand.

There’s an area about the size of Italy in Tibet where there are glaciers that form the headwaters of the Mekong, the Salween, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. One human being in three lives downstream from these glaciers. We now think the one at the head of the Ganges may be gone by 2035. There’s no backup plan. There’s no Plan B for what you do across the Gangetic Plain once those glaciers disappear.

We’re not — we’re talking about by far the biggest challenge that human beings have ever faced. And so far, as effective as the scientific method has been in analyzing that problem, that’s how ineffective the political method has been in dealing with it. And one of the reasons is, there’s never been a movement to push. We need to build that movement fast.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged President Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jintao to join him and personally attend the Copenhagen talks.

    PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: And let me just say how important I believe your discussions today are. In every era, there are one or two moments when nations come together and reach agreements that make history, that change the course of history. And Copenhagen must be such a time. There are now fewer than fifty days to set the course for the next few decades. So, as we convene here, we carry great responsibilities, and the world is watching. If we do not reach a deal over the next few months, let us be in no doubt, since once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement in some future period can undo that choice. By then, it will be irretrievably too late. So we should never allow ourselves to lose sight of the catastrophe we face if present warming trends continue.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery, your response? It does look like President Obama will be going, because he’s going to be going to get the Nobel Peace Prize in the region anyway, so he would be right there. It would be more of a comment if he didn’t go than if he did.

TIM FLANNERY: I’m not sure, Amy, that President Obama is going to attend the meeting. All of that hangs in the balance at the moment. And really, the only hope we have now is for the heads of government to attend this meeting, because the traditional negotiating process has become completely bogged down. And we need the key decision makers there to at least agree as sort of a heads of agreement meeting, where we can, you know, lay out the main things we want to do and then, over the following months, fill out the detail of how all of that’s going to be allocated.

So, Gordon Brown is absolutely right. It’s critical that heads of state attend. But unfortunately, at the moment, we’re still in the position where that is far from certain. In fact, Todd Stern recently said it was unlikely that President Obama would be attending. So it all hangs in the balance. The next fifty days are incredibly important. What 350.org is doing is extraordinarily important.

But could I just say to you — the key block at the moment is the US Senate. You know, if the cap-and-trade bill passes, President Obama — or looks like it’s going to pass, President Obama can go to those meetings in good faith and say, “Here is what our nation is going to do. Here’s the cap.” And that’s what’s required of any international negotiation. Without that bill, I’m afraid that not only the US will fail to have a cap, but Australia and Canada will follow suit. And we were bound by the Kyoto Protocol, so that’s a major step backward. It is just so critically important in this country that the policy gets sorted out to give the President credibility and to lead, because that’s what we need right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can we play for you recent comments by Republican senators on the Boxer-Kerry climate bill?

    SEN. JAMES INHOFE: It can’t be denied that this would be the largest tax increase in the history of America.

    SEN. KIT BOND: The Kerry-Boxer bill is a giant new energy tax on families and workers.

    SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: And your electricity rates, your gasoline per gallon costs are going to go up. This is not the time to be adding costs.

    SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: What we know, that it is going to raise prices for American families. It’s going to make it much tougher for American families.

    SEN. JOHN THUNE: All we know is that everything is going to go up. Electricity is going to go up. Diesel fuel is going to go up. Natural gas is going to go up. Fertilizer is going to go up.

AMY GOODMAN: Just an example of some of the opposition, Tim Flannery. Your response?

TIM FLANNERY: Look, there is no doubt that there will be modest cost increases across some of those areas, most of which can be dealt with, incidentally, by just some efficiency gains in very, very simple ways.

But, you know, unless we invest in the future now in that regard, American manufacturing and American industry is going to suffer greatly over the next decade or two. And the reason for that is that countries like China are now moving ahead with their eye firmly on that market of five billion people around the planet who can’t get enough energy. We know that we can’t deliver that energy to those people using traditional means; we’ll pollute the planet out of existence. So the big gains to be had over the next decade or two or three are building a new energy economy, and America needs to invest in that, so its own manufacturers and its own chambers of commerce and businesses are in a good position to take a slice of that enormous market that’s emerging. So, unless we get the cap-and-trade bill through and unless the appropriate investments are made, this country is going to lose its place in the world, I’m afraid. We can see that already happening with China moving ahead so swiftly.

So, yes, there will be some increase now, a modest increase now. It’s not going to send anyone broke. We’ve seen that in Europe. We’ve seen their economy expand and prosper as they’ve taken on cap and trade. But the investment is critical.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet, there are some members of the environmental movement here in the United States who question the use of the cap and trade as a means of addressing the problem. Could you respond to those concerns?

TIM FLANNERY: Sure. Look, cap and trade, by itself, is not enough, but it is essential in terms of these international negotiations. And one way of showing that is to look at the alternatives. Just say the US went with a carbon tax. That would leave the President in a position where he’d be going to Copenhagen and saying, “Look, we’ve got a carbon tax, but we’ve got no idea really what it’s going to do in terms of our emissions profile.” So, countries would just say, “Well, what are you actually pledging to? What are you — how are you going to deal with your emissions?” You know, the only method, really, to allow countries to see transparently what other countries intend to do and then share the burden equally is through a cap-and-trade system. So it’s not enough to deal with emissions overall, but it is an essential prerequisite for any global deal on climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of cap and trade, many environmental and watchdog groups have opposed the system. This is Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen about cap and trade on Democracy Now!

    TYSON SLOCUM: Look, Public Citizen supports strong, effective climate legislation, and the fact is, is that this bill does not do that. We can talk about the aspirations of hoping to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but when you look at what this bill will do, it will not result in significant reductions.

    It creates a legal right to pollute for industries and gives away credits for free to allow companies to meet those targets without having to pay for them. And that is simply not going to spur the kind of investments we need. President Obama had it right when he announced in his budget in February that if you wanted to pollute, you would have to pay for the right to pollute. And by holding an auction, the government would raise hundreds of billions of dollars that could be reinvested back to the American people to offset the impacts of higher energy prices that a cap-and-trade program would bring and to spur billions of dollars in needed investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Flannery?

TIM FLANNERY: Look, cap and trade does work. It does do part of the job we need to do to get to where we need to go. We see that in Europe. They had a similar system of giving away permits. But the five percent reduction over 1990 levels that that cap-and-trade system was intended to generate have actually happened.

The US —- I know the bill isn’t perfect. I know there’s a lot of giveaways in it, and I know a lot of people aren’t happy about provisions for subsidies for nuclear power and so forth. But we just have to get moving on this. We have to empower the president of the most powerful nation on earth to be able to negotiate and lead. And cap and trade is really about that.

And besides, I really do have faith that that system will bring about the reductions of 14 or 17 percent below 2005 levels that it pledges. It’s a comprehensive bill. In the agricultural area, it is really good. It does things that no other nation has really looked at doing.

So, could I just make a personal plea to Americans to support this bill? Imperfect as it is, it is a first absolutely essential step for this country to engage and lead and empower others in other parts of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tim, as you head off to the airport to increase your carbon footprint, we’ll let you go, because I know you have to catch that flight. Tim Flannery, Australian -—

TIM FLANNERY: Thank you, Amy. I do offset.

AMY GOODMAN: Australian scientist and writer, Australian of the Year 2007, has a new book called Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future.

But Bill McKibben is with us. Not that he’s off the hook around increasing his carbon footprint, since I think he’s traveled the entire globe in the last thirty days, but Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, Bill, I’d like to ask you about these solutions in Congress, not only in the Senate, but also the Waxman-Markey bill in the House, and how you think that they are addressing the US role in terms of reducing its own carbon footprint.

BILL McKIBBEN: They’re clearly — the texts from which people are working now, they’ve got to be strengthened if they’re going to do what we need them to do. They’ve got to be strengthened a lot in a lot of ways.

One of the most — one of the things where they fall the shortest is, when we get to Copenhagen, part of the deal is going to be how much aid in terms of technology and resources will go north to south in order to let countries leapfrog over the fossil fuel era, and so on. The British government estimated recently that it would take about $100 billion of aid a year to help countries adapt in the poor parts of the world and to help them make this transition. That number, $100 billion, may be low, to begin with, but the two bills in Congress allocate about $750 million — with an “m” —- to this task. That’s derisory. It’s an insult, going to Copenhagen, considering the fact that the four percent of us who live here have produced 25 percent of the world’s CO2.

It’s why we’re so happy that this weekend there’ll be 1,800 events taking place in all fifty states across the US, not just the biggest day internationally, but the biggest day of climate action in US history. We need some pressure on Washington and on Copenhagen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, especially, isn’t it true, since much of the pollution created by industries in the third world is really a result of European— and American-based multinationals who have established their production facilities and their mining facilities and their operations in these third world countries?

BILL McKIBBEN: Juan, there’s that, and there’s also, probably even more powerfully, you know, we’re spreading quickly the notion of what modernity is supposed to look like. And if modernity only means riding around in your own automobile and having a big flat-screen TV and trying always to build a bigger house farther apart from your neighbors, which has been the American dream for half a century, then we don’t have a prayer. Our influence in this has been overwhelming, and we need to take real responsibility now.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, finally, on this issue of President Obama, he just went to Copenhagen to push for the Olympics taking place in Chicago. Is there really a question about whether he will go back there on this issue? You have called this meeting perhaps the most important meeting to take place in world history. Why do you say that?

BILL McKIBBEN: Here’s the thing about Obama and Copenhagen and everything else. We can’t blame our leaders yet, because we haven’t built the kind of movements that demand that they do things and that give them the political space to do it. If Copenhagen is a failure, that failure will be measured not in decades, but in geological time. President Obama can’t let it be a failure. None of us can let it be a failure.

Everybody who’s listening to this, there’s a rally or event happening within a few miles of their home tomorrow. If they go to 350.org, they can find out exactly where it is. Make some noise. We’ve got no right to complain about our leaders until we’ve given them the leadership they need. That’s how it works.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Bill McKibben, co-founder, director of 350.org. It was twenty years ago that he published The End of Nature. Democracy Now! will be in Copenhagen for the two weeks of the conference in December. We’ll be broadcasting to you every day and bringing you the reports of what’s happening in the streets, what’s happening in the meetings, and what’s happening around the world.

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