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“We Are Running Out of Time”: Obama Urged to Match Rhetoric to Action on Climate Deal

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Most major issues remain unresolved at the U.N. climate summit in Doha as negotiators enter the final stretch of the two-week summit. While the Doha talks involve nations working toward a pact to limit greenhouse gases starting in 2020, many say the world cannot wait that long. The United States has come under intense criticism at the summit from environmentalists and smaller nations who say President Obama has failed to meet his stated commitments to tackle global warming. We’re joined by Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, and Samantha Smith, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Doha, Qatar, the site of the 18th United Nations climate change summit. Most major issues remain unresolved here as climate negotiators enter the final stretch of the two-week summit. The talks are taking place as the death toll continues to rise in the Philippines after Tuesday’s typhoon. At least 477 people have died, and a quarter of a million have been left homeless. For years, scientists have warned of a link between climate change and stronger typhoons. On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for world leaders to gather in 2014 to address climate change.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: This climate change issue is not the only one related to environment ministers. This needs the political leadership of presidents, prime ministers or kings. In close consultation with the member states of the United Nations, I am considering convening world leaders in 2014 to mobilize the political will for a final agreement in 2015. My message today to everyone here is embrace ambition in the negotiations and in the solutions, and let us all reap the benefits of a cleaner, more secure and more sustainable future.

AMY GOODMAN: While the talks in Doha involve nations working toward a pact to limit greenhouse gases starting in 2020, many at the talks say the world can’t wait that long. Connie Hedegaard is the European Union commissioner for climate change.

CONNIE HEDEGAARD: The climate system simply can’t wait for further action until after 2020. So, in Doha, we have the opportunity to raise ambition across each track of our negotiations. This includes that those without Kyoto targets, developed and developing countries, must implement their pledges transparently and accountably. Those who haven’t pledged anything yet should do so. I think it’s really high time. And new partnerships of those willing to accelerate beyond their pledges should be encouraged and tracked.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by two guests here in Doha, Qatar, at the Qatar National Convention Centre, where, well, they’re saying something like 10,000 people have gathered over this last two weeks, though I have to say it seems so much smaller than the summits over the last three years. Democracy Now! has covered three of them: in Cancun, in Copenhagen and in Durban last year.

Durban is where Kumi Naidoo is from, executive director of Greenpeace International. Samantha Smith is also with us, leader of the WWF, the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative. Kumi Naidoo, also author of Development Dialogue: Boiling Point/Can Citizen Action Save the World?, a very good question today.

Kumi Naidoo, the two of you held a news conference along with others two nights ago that has gotten a lot of attention. You’re calling for the U.S. climate negotiators, climate negotiators, to step down. Why?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, when President Obama made his election victory speech, he broke his silence on climate change and warned about a warming planet and what it would do to America’s children. He then subsequently said that he wants to be a global leader on climate change. But the position that has been taken by the United States in these talks has been business as usual, has not reflected the urgency of what has just happened in the United States through Hurricane Sandy, the fact that there’s massive drought in many parts of the United States itself, and huge climate impacts happening elsewhere in the world. The bottom line is, the politics of these negotiations is out of touch with what the scientists are saying, and President Obama and other political leaders have to now recognize nature doesn’t negotiate, we can’t change the science, and we have to change the politics. And sadly, his negotiators are not reflecting that urgency and the ambition of the kind of change that we need to see.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn for a moment to my questioning of Jonathan Pershing. He was part of a news conference yesterday, along with other climate negotiators from around the world. I think the news conference was called “Meet the Negotiators.” This is what the U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing—how he responded.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! Civil society groups are extremely frustrated here. President Obama, in his first speech after he was elected, said that he didn’t want his—he didn’t want our children to live in an America that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet. Yesterday, a number of civil society groups held a news conference, and they said at that news conference—Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International said, “Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing have come to Doha with their needles stuck in the groove of obstructing the U.N. process, an art they have perfected.” And he said that it is “disrespectful of President Obama to inflict on us two negative negotiators who act as if the comments he made after his election were never made. Obama should pick up the phone and tell his delegates to follow his lead, or, alternatively, call them back to Washington.” That’s what Kumi Naidoo said. Jonathan Pershing, are you following President Obama’s wishes? And how do you respond to civil society groups who are saying that the U.S. is the lead obstructor to any kind of negotiated deal here in Doha?

JONATHAN PERSHING: I have no comment on the first part of that. On the second piece, I think the United States’s role is very much one of engaging actively and constructively in the discussion. We are one of the significant contributors to the intellectual thinking in the process. We have been. We will continue to try to do that. It doesn’t mean that we will agree with everyone on everything. This is, after all, a negotiation. We’re looking to participate in an outcome that will lead to a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. We’re looking at an outcome that will be acceptable to all parties. We’re looking at an outcome that will be effective in the time frame that we’ve set for ourselves to move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing responding to, well, what you said at your news conference, Kumi Naidoo, and I just put that question to him. And today, you wrote an open letter to President Obama. Who joined you, and what did you say?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, in the letter to President Obama, we are saying that he either must choose to be a global climate champion, and that means—and we want him to be, the world needs the U.S. to actually be a leader here—and then he needs to ensure that what his delegates do in the final days of these negotiations actually reflects it. The United States has been obstructionist on a range of issues, not putting anything on the table in terms of finance.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “finance”?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, basically, the logic is—and the U.S. has accepted, the Bush administration accepted it years ago—that in fact rich countries carry a bigger proportion of the historical accumulation of greenhouse gases, and therefore, they should help poor countries now, for two reasons: one, to pay back a climate debt, or carbon debt, if you want, but more importantly, in the self-interest of rich countries, because if China, India and so on, and the big developing countries try to grow their economies exactly how the U.S. and Europe did, for example, then we are guaranteed a 6-degree world. And essentially, it was urging him to step up to the words that he says, that he wants to be a climate champion, to back it up by deeds in the final days of this conference.

And we’ve spoken to—we’ve just had a press conference now where the leaders of the Least Developed Countries, the head of the Africa Group and small island states stood with civil society and shared exactly our concerns. They were—in fact, to be honest, their voices were breaking when they spoke to us about how desperate they are about how the negotiations are going, and they’re very clearly putting the blame on rich countries, and particularly the United States as one of the culprits here.

AMY GOODMAN: Samantha Smith, you’re one of the leaders of WWF, World Wildlife Fund. Is that—is that what it’s still called?

SAMANTHA SMITH: That’s what it’s called in the United States, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s what we call it in the United States. And you can’t help but think, there is a—the logo of this conference is a C within another C, for “climate change.” If they just turned the C around, it looks very much like Comedy Central, the actual logo. And that’s painful, given the seriousness of this issue. But if you could talk about your making your way to this conference in Doha and the news you were reading about environmentalists and the dangers they face.

SAMANTHA SMITH: So, as I was preparing to come here to Doha, first I heard about Christiana Figueres’s comments saying that civil society must do more and that we’re one of the culprits for the way these negotiations are going. And I thought, all right. And I opened the newspaper, and I saw a clip about a Mexican environmental activist who was gunned down together with her son. I flipped the page, and I see something else about a Russian environmental activist who was beaten into permanent disability, and they finally convicted the guy who did it. And I just—it’s very easy—it’s easy for me, too; it’s easy for folks in the U.N. Secretariat—to say that civil society must do more. But if we did more here in Qatar, we would be arrested. We have a tiny civil society space. The things we’re allowed to do have virtually no impact.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, you’d be arrested?

SAMANTHA SMITH: I mean that there are incredibly strict rules about what kinds of actions and demonstrations we can take, about whether we can hand out fliers to delegates and so forth. And we’ve been told you have to follow these rules, or you’re going to be ejected and maybe worse. But I think the bigger point is, outside of the parallel universe of these negotiations, there’s a world out there where people get locked up or worse for working on environmental issues. And that’s also true for people in WWF. So we just want to say that civil society, we can always do better. We know we need to do more, but that when we do more, we take real risks, and one shouldn’t be—one shouldn’t underestimate those risks.

One other thing that I thought about as I was coming here, this summer, from the United States, this summer I was visiting my mother, who lives out in the country in Virginia. It was a record warm July. My mom is old. She’s in poor health. She couldn’t go outside. And then the area all around her is an area where they grow corn. And the crops looked as if they had been scorched. It’s where I grew up. I know what it’s supposed to look like. And it just brought it home to me that this is the year when people in the U.S., too, started to experience the roughest impacts of climate change. Eighty percent of agricultural land in the U.S. was affected. I think we all can and should expect more, not only from the negotiators here, but from the administration. It’s time to stop saying that Congress is holding us back and we can’t get an ambitious deal through. We have to see more leadership from the president. It is his legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what do you say the United States—you, as a U.S. citizen—what does the president need to do? What do his climate negotiators here, Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing, need to do?

SAMANTHA SMITH: Well, first of all, it would be great if they stopped saying that they were following the same consistent policy that they’ve followed for the last four years, because that’s brought us to where we are today, where we’re on the verge of an incredibly weak deal, so weak that this morning civil society organizations, yesterday social movements, also developing countries, gathered together and said, “This is unacceptable.” The science, but also the reality of what people are experiencing, is just too far away from what delegates are about to agree, on cutting emissions and on money to help developing countries cut those emissions.

So the first thing would be for the U.S. to explain, these negotiators to explain, “Yes, we’ve agreed to cut emissions by 17 percent. This is how we’re going to do it. This is how it adds up to 17 percent,” because the math on that is not at all clear. The second thing for the U.S. to do would be to put forward a road map for showing how it is going to do its fair share of the $100 billion U.S. to which Secretary Clinton committed—she was a foremost advocate of it at the Copenhagen climate conference. So where’s the money? Where is it going to come from? If you want developing countries to transition their economies and to cut emissions, also to help citizens in the U.S., they can’t do it if they don’t know where the money is going to come from from year to year. They have to have some line of sight.

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Obama’s second term. What does that mean to you?

SAMANTHA SMITH: It means that he has the chance to leave a really huge legacy. In his first term, he got healthcare through. That was big. He now has not only a second term, but he also has a majority of the American people now saying to him, “Look, we care about climate change. We saw what it did with Hurricane Sandy, with the drought, with the warmest year in the U.S. ever.” And so, it is his chance to make a mark and to make sure, not only at this conference, but also in 2015, that his legacy is not that he presided over the failure that was Copenhagen and the coming failure in 2015, but that this was the time when the United States stepped forward on climate change. They must. They’re the world’s second-biggest polluter.

AMY GOODMAN: Kumi Naidoo, you are a well-known anti-apartheid activist for years. You’re from Durban. They’re talking about the Durban Platform here. What did you want to add?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, I would say that President Obama needs to understand that his legacy, as Sam says, will not only be about climate change. How he acts on climate change will also send a message about what his legacy in terms of what kind of democracy the United States is, because today, when we look at the United States, we see—from the outside, see the United States as the best democracy money can buy. And that money, when you interrogate it, it’s oil, coal, gas, nuclear, military. And leadership here must be to remind people what democracy about. Democracy was supposed to balance the wallets, the power of rich people, with the ballots, the voices of ordinary people. And the reality is, the policy decisions that are being made in Washington serve the interest of the polluting industries. For every member of Congress, the fossil fuel industry—oil, coal and gas—funds a minimum of three full-time lobbyists and up to eight full-time lobbyists to ensure there’s no climate legislation that passed in the United States.

So part of the legacy is also to stand up for the voices of ordinary people. I feel it’s not only a betrayal of poor people in developing countries not to; actually, it’s a betrayal of the people who lost their lives in New Orleans and lost their homes, people who are suffering drought and so on. So, right now, we can turn this crisis into an opportunity, because we either we get this right, as rich and poor countries acting together, and we secure the climate for all of our children and their children’s future, or if we continue to bicker in the way that we do, and we don’t show the right kind of political will, ultimately, rich and poor nations will go down. And it’s not as if now, after Hurricane Sandy, that people cannot see a visual image of the fact that rich nations are also vulnerable. And the power of Mother Nature, which is screaming out at us, “Act now! Act now!” has to be listened to.

AMY GOODMAN: There were tens of thousands of people in Copenhagen. There were many in Cancun and in Durban. You led the major protests in the streets. Where are they in Doha? And is that why this conference, the summit, came to Doha? I remember soon after the Battle of Seattle in 1999, where hundreds of people were arrested in mass protests in the streets, the next big meetings were in Doha—

KUMI NAIDOO: Development—trade—trade meetings.

AMY GOODMAN: Trade meetings, were here in Doha. It was very expensive for people to get to, and also they knew that dissent was not welcome. I mean, today we are not far from the central prison where a poet named Mohammad al-Ajami has been sentenced to life in prison for a poem inspired by the Arab Spring.

KUMI NAIDOO: I think that’s a question that must be put squarely at the United Nations Secretariat for running—because they played a role in facilitating that decision. I think that it is unfortunate that we are in this place at a time where especially young people are desperate to add their voices, to participate. You were in Durban and Cancun. You saw the energy, the vibrancy that young people brought to it. It’s been prohibitively expensive to get here. And the numbers, as you can see, is much less.

But still, I think that we, as civil society, must also be critical of ourselves at this point. We have to ask ourselves, why is it that, while we are here, we do not have large numbers of people outside the White House, outside, you know, different capitals of the world, because at the end of the day, the U.N. process can be as good or as bad as the individual positions that national governments bring from the different capitals to these negotiations. So, I think, moving forward, one of the questions we have to ask ourselves is, how much of energy do we continue to actually put into this negotiating process, and how much of energy we put on the street in the national capitals, in communities where people are actually feeling the impacts already?

AMY GOODMAN: How do you move from the anti-apartheid movement to the climate change, the anti-global-warming movement? What was your trajectory?

KUMI NAIDOO: I mean, it’s very easy. I mean, the struggle for human rights and the struggle for—to end global poverty and the struggle to avert catastrophic climate change are two—are two sides of the same coin. I mean, in some ways, if you take the civil rights battle in the United States, the right of women to vote, slavery, colonialism and so on, if you add up all of these different struggles, all of them together, climate change, I would say, dwarfs them, even when you put them together, because what we are fighting for here is—by the way, is not the survival of the planet. The planet will survive, right? However we mess it up, however we destroy it, itself, it will survive. What we are fighting for here is the right of humanity to continue to exist on this planet. And in this sense, this struggle is about securing our children and their children’s future, and therefore, the failure to act, right, is a betrayal of our children’s futures. It’s a betrayal of history. It’s a betrayal of common decency.

And right now, I think the challenge we will—we also have to throw to the world is that there are certain voices that we need to hear much more louder. I think we need to hear the voices of our religious leaders, because every religious text, you pick it up, you’ll find some environmental gem of wisdom in it. And we need—and one exciting thing is we’re working closer with the trade union movement globally now. And building stronger alliances on our—you know, within ourselves is also critically important to move the agenda forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Samantha Smith, $100 billion was announced by Hillary Clinton, who could run for president in the United States in the next presidential election, in Copenhagen. It caused a huge stir. There was tremendous hope, especially in the developing world. Where has—where is that money right now? And compare it to New York and New Jersey alone after Superstorm Sandy, what, are asking for something like $68 billion from FEMA to deal with one storm.

SAMANTHA SMITH: Secretary Clinton, as I said, was on the front foot in Copenhagen. She was the one who announced this $100 billion, at least, commitment a year from developed countries by 2020. And what we’re hearing from the U.S. is, “Look, you know, we’ve put some money on the table to start things up, but we can’t tell you when the rest of the money is coming and how much it’s going to be and how much of that $100 billion will come from us.”

Now, it’s easy to say that it’s all about the budget process. But let’s just remind ourselves that during the financial crisis, the money to save the banks was very quickly forthcoming. Depending on who you ask, it was either $700 billion or $12 trillion. So that just shows that when you have the political will, that you can find the money.

Again, what we would like to see from the United States, we would like to see the U.S. be a leader on that finance, because it’s not about giving a present to poor countries. It’s actually insurance for people living in the United States that we are going to have, as the president said, a world that is free from the destructive power of a warming climate. We’re about to get a change at the top in the State Department. This is a tremendous opportunity to reset climate policy. The president is in office with a second term. He’s got a mandate on climate change. You’re going to have a new secretary of state. You’ve got this 2015 landmark coming up. This is really a chance to have a new shot at it.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Rice has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Hillary Clinton, John Kerry of Massachusetts. What are their records on climate change? The big controversy now around Susan Rice is her investments of up to $600,000 in TransCanada, which is the oil pipeline, the Keystone—which is building the Keystone XL oil pipeline from the Alberta tar sands down to the Gulf of Mexico.

SAMANTHA SMITH: So, whichever of them becomes secretary of state, regardless of their pasts, although Senator Kerry certainly has been very active on the climate change file, this is what WWF hopes from them. We hope that the new secretary of state changes the policies that have brought the U.S. to the point where it is putting an emissions reduction commitment on the table here in the international negotiations without explaining how they’re going to get to it. We hope that we will not have comments from the negotiators where they say that, in 2015, we will be negotiating an agreement that will apply in the 2020s. Scientists tell us right now every year counts. We can’t wait until 2025 to start cutting emissions. And so, we hope that whoever is our new secretary of state, that we’re going to see complete change in these policies, because as long as the U.S. does what it’s doing in these negotiations, other countries can easily hide behind it. And that’s exactly what they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: The Kyoto Protocol, very simply, if one of you can explain simply, for people who—I mean, there’s so little coverage of this in the United States. They hear the Kyoto Protocol is—some people hear it’s supposed to sunset, it’s supposed to end, and there’s a second commitment period. But what does it mean? The U.S. didn’t even sign onto it. What does it matter?

KUMI NAIDOO: I’ll let Sam answer, but I just wanted to add one thing, to say that, on this finance issue, if the climate—others have said this: If the climate was a bank, we would have saved it a long time ago.

SAMANTHA SMITH: So, I’m going to try to explain this very complicated issue in an easy way. So let’s just say that the Kyoto Protocol covers all of the CO2 and other emissions from countries in the EU and some other countries also, including, in the past, Australia, Japan, Canada. And I’d just like to have a special call out for Canada, which has said that it’s not going to meet the commitments that it agreed to meet, that it’s going to break its promises to reduce its emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. We think that this is shameful, and we think other countries at these negotiations should be calling out Canada, as well.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, these countries agreed to reduce their emissions across their economies by a certain percentage by 2012. The European Union is well on the way to meet its commitments. It’s agreed to a second set of commitments that are going to last probably eight years. Now, what’s happening now is that although you have—you’re going to have a second period of the Kyoto Protocol, you could think of it as life insurance or as term insurance. It goes for a period, and then you have a new period. The second period, what the EU is agreeing to is a 20 percent cut by 2020. And this, they’re already well on track to do. They could do this with their eyes closed. So it’s not really a cut at all; it’s a business-as-usual proposition.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Samantha Smith, with World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, heads back to Oslo, Norway. We’ll also be there Saturday. I’ll be speaking at the Literature House at 4.


AMY GOODMAN: And Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International. And we’ll get—talk about the results of this climate summit, and we’ll be here tomorrow in Doha, Qatar. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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