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As Obama Settles on Nonbinding Treaty, “Only a Big Movement” Can Take on Global Warming

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As international climate scientists warn runaway greenhouse gas emissions could cause “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts,” the Obama administration is abandoning attempts to have Congress agree to a legally binding international climate deal. The New York Times reports U.S. negotiators are crafting a proposal that would not require congressional approval and instead would seek pledges from countries to cut emissions on a voluntary basis. This comes as a new U.N. report warns climate change could become “irreversible” if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked. If global warming is to be adequately contained, it says, at least three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground. We speak to 350.org founder Bill McKibben about why his hopes for taking on global warming lie not in President Obama’s approach, but rather in events like the upcoming People’s Climate March in New York City, which could mark the largest rally for climate action ever. “The Obama administration, which likes to poke fun at recalcitrant congressmen, hasn’t been willing to really endure much in the way of political pain itself in order to slow things down,” McKibben says. “The rest of the world can see that. The only way we’ll change any of these equations here or elsewhere is by building a big movement — that’s why September 21 in New York is such an important day.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama is reportedly seeking a nonbinding climate accord in lieu of a binding global treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The New York Times reports U.S. negotiators are crafting a proposal that would not require congressional approval and instead would seek pledges from countries to cut emissions on a voluntary basis. Earlier this year, Obama voiced his frustration with members of Congress who refuse to accept the reality of climate change .

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In some parts of the country, weather-related disasters like droughts and fires and storms and floods are going to get harsher, and they’re going to get costlier. Today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change. They will tell you it is a hoax or a fad. One member of Congress actually says the world is cooling.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, a new draft of a United Nations report warns climate change could become “irreversible” if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked. The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, obtained by media outlets, says human-driven warming has already fueled extreme heat and torrential rains, as temperatures have risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times. While the report says it could still be possible to cap warming at the globally agreed-upon limit of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, it warns a continued rise in emissions could eventually cause an 8-degree Fahrenheit rise. That could prompt mass extinction of plants and animals and catastrophic floods. If global warming is to be adequately contained, the report says, at least three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The new report comes as activists are gearing up for what might be the largest rally for climate action ever, the People’s Climate March on September 21st. Organizers are hoping more than 100,000 people will take to the streets of New York City. More than 700 groups have endorsed the historic event, including 20 labor unions. The rally is scheduled to take place two days before global leaders convene at the Climate Summit at the United Nations headquarters.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for all that and more, we’re joined now by Democracy Now! video stream by Bill McKibben, co-founder, director of 350.org, author of many books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Bil, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the latest U.N. report and then what President Obama, at least according to The New York Times in this major front-page piece, is planning to do?

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. The new U.N. report is more of the same. In a sense, it’s the scientific community, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, telling us what they’ve been telling us now for two decades, that global warming is out of control and the biggest threat that human beings have ever faced. They’re using what was described as blunter, more forceful language. At this point, you know, short of self-immolation in Times Square, there’s really not much more that the scientific community could be doing to warn us. Our early warning systems have functioned, you know? The alarm has gone off. All our satellites and sensors and supercomputers have produced the information that we need to know. The question is: Will we act on it?

And the answer so far is no. It’s been no in Congress, that’s for sure. Nothing is going to move through Congress, and there’s no hope of a treaty that would get ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. That’s the complication at the moment in international negotiations. We can’t reach any kind of binding treaty. Everyone’s known this. The Times story about the new Obama approach is pretty much old news. Everybody’s known for years that there’s not going to be a treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate. And everyone’s been looking for some kind of workaround.

The workaround would involve some kind of different, voluntary commitments by different countries, but done publicly so one could keep track of them. If this all sounds a little dubious to you, it will sound even more dubious to all the countries that are, you know, watching themselves disappear beneath the waves, so on and so forth, as global warming accelerates. The real question, though, is less the form of the agreement than the content. And here’s where we’ll find out, in the next few months, whether the Obama administration is actually serious or not.

If we’re going to do anything about the problem on the scale that the scientists describe it, then we’re going to need far, far more ambitious attempts than the Obama administration has put forward so far. Yes, they’ve put a cap on coal-fired power plants. That’s good. At the same time, they’ve helped expedite the rise of the United States to become the biggest coal and gas producer in the world, passing the Saudis and the Russians, and they’ve watched coal exports steadily grow. That’s not compatible with what the scientists tell us, that we need to keep 75 or 80 percent of the fossil fuel that we know about underground. So the Obama administration, which likes to poke fun at recalcitrant congressmen, hasn’t been willing to really endure much in the way of political pain itself in order to slow things down. The rest of the world can see that.

The only way we’ll change any of these equations, here or elsewhere, is by building a big movement. That’s why September 21st in New York, which all these groups are coordinating, is such an important day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bill, given the failure of the United States Congress in any way to act, what do you think President Obama could do, some of the specifics of what a more progressive policy on climate change would be?

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. President Obama could have said forthrightly four years ago or three years ago, “We’re not going to build the Keystone pipeline.” That would have been a signal to the rest of the world, because it would have been the first time that a world leader had said, “Here’s a massive project that we’re not building because of its effect on the climate.” Instead, he’s just sort of delayed and passed it along from one election to the next and tried to avoid any political pain.

There are many other things he could be doing, including pushing hard for a serious price on carbon, which is not necessarily a political impossibility. There’s a good editorial in today’s Washington Post about the so-called cap-and-dividend proposals that would put a big tax on carbon but then rebate the money directly to citizens. It’s the kind of thing that might strike a chord if pushed hard. But the president hasn’t expended much political capital in this direction.

We also should be working hard figuring out how at every turn to expedite and speed up the deployment of renewable energy. The president made a big point of how he was expediting the federal permitting process to do things like build the southern half of the Keystone pipeline across Texas and Oklahoma. There hasn’t been the same kind of work to speed up, say, the Cape Wind project off the Massachusetts coast. We need to be doing what the Germans have done. There were days this summer when the Germans were getting 75 percent of their power from solar panels within their borders. That’s the kind of effort that we need. We’re not, I think, yet at 1 percent in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, when President Obama flew into Copenhagen, many there, the thousands of people who were there for the U.N. climate summit, felt he ultimately sort of blew up the possibility of real agreement there. Now, that was in 2009. Do you think he has made progress? Do you see this—what is being rolled out, politically binding, but not actually binding—as continuing that trend?

BILL McKIBBEN: I think, actually, it’s probably continuing the trend we saw in Copenhagen. They’re not willing to provide the kind of powerful, galvanizing leadership that might really shake things up, but they are determined to avoid another face-costing embarrassment like there was in Copenhagen. The next Copenhagen meeting is in Paris next December, December 2015. If it’s the same kind of PR disaster that Copenhagen was, the president will leave with a stain on his legacy. I think he wants to try and keep some kind of climate legacy. He knows it’s how history will judge him. But so far they’re not willing to take the kind of political hit in this country from the fossil fuel industry that would go hand in hand with doing something serious. So they’re kind of trying to have it both ways, not for the first time on some issue in the Obama administration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill McKibben, given the stark nature of this latest report, talking about a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures by 2050, as much as 6.7 degrees by the end of the century, do you see any—and that’s given the continued greenhouse gas emissions rates now—do you see any hope anywhere in the world for, in one particular nation or other, where the people have managed to get their governments to tackle this problem?

BILL McKIBBEN: Absolutely. Look, the thing that’s changed in the 25 years since I wrote the first book about all this was that we now know that the answers are technologically available. As I said, the Germans have done a fantastic job of deploying renewable energy. But it’s not because Germany has so much wind and so much sun. I mean, in fact, it’s at a far northern latitude. Munich is north of Montreal. It’s because, instead, they have the more important natural resource of political will.

The good news is, political will is something we can create. And that’s why we’ll all be in the streets of New York on September 21st. That’s going to be an amazing day. That march is going to be led by environmental justice advocates, especially from New York City, but from around the country and around the world, the people who are on the front lines of this fight and have borne the brunt of it. It will be joined by the entire progressive spectrum, including, really for the first time, the labor movement in a big way. It’s an attempt to show that there’s powerful demand for change around climate. If people out there have long thought to themselves, “I wish I could do something about global warming, but it seems so overwhelming. What can one individual do?” in one sense, that’s true. Changing your light bulb isn’t going to do it at this point. But changing the system still could. And that means that your body is badly needed in the streets of New York on September 21st for a peaceful, festive, but ultimately very powerful, I think, demonstration of political will.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, I wanted to turn to CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker, whose network has come under criticism for its lack of coverage of climate change. At the Deadline Club’s annual awards dinner in May, Zucker suggested American audiences just aren’t interested in climate change.

JEFF ZUCKER: Climate change is one of those stories that deserves more attention, but that we all talk about and we haven’t figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way, and that when we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience’s part.

AMY GOODMAN: That was CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker. Bill McKibben of 350.org, your response?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, first of all, makes one say, “Thank God for Democracy Now!” no? The second thing is, these guys aren’t trying. Look, people are actually interested in things like massive storms, huge droughts. I mean, they’re scary and powerful. These guys don’t try, because, among other things, the fossil fuel industry is the richest industry on Earth, and taking on climate change means taking on the fossil fuel industry. That’s difficult for people in those kind of positions to do. But at any rate, the notion that the only reason—the only way we figure out what we’re going to cover as reporters is what’s popular, well, it would yield pretty much the kind of journalism we see all around us at the moment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Bill, California is still suffering from a catastrophic drought, its worst in more than a century. Last week, the state’s third-largest city, San Jose, officially declared a water shortage and urged residents to reduce their usage of water. Last month, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that more than half of the state was experiencing the most severe drought possible. Your response in terms of these extreme weather conditions?

BILL McKIBBEN: California is experiencing a drought far deeper than anything since at least the 1500s, when there were not 38 million people living there. The scientists said last week that they think California has lost about 63 trillion gallons of groundwater in the course of this drought. That’s been enough to cause the Sierra Nevadas to—the pressure released by that disappearance of that water has caused the mountains of California to rise half an inch in the last year. Given that we’re now making change on that kind of scale, it would be appropriate for our leaders to actually make change on that kind of scale. Your point’s exactly the right one. These are massive changes. These are civilization-threatening kinds of changes. It’s hard to imagine, as Steven Chu, the former energy secretary, said some years ago, how on Earth you’re going to have agriculture in California by century’s end, much less have big cities there. That’s reality, unless our leaders get together and do far, far, far more than they’re doing at present.

AMY GOODMAN: And the student movement around the country to have their universities and colleges divest from oil companies, Yale just became the latest, joining with Harvard and Brown, to say no to divestment; of course, others have said yes. What is your assessment of that movement?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, Oxford University, in a study last year, said that it’s the fastest-growing such movement in history. We’re way ahead of where we thought we would be. Yeah, the Ivy Leagues are so far not divesting, but they will. It took them eight or nine years when the subject was apartheid in South Africa. Others are going at a blistering pace. The World Council of Churches, representing 580 million Christians, this summer, there’s now a drive underway—you can find out about it at 350.org—to persuade Pope Francis to have the Vatican divest. A big Roman Catholic research university, University of Dayton in Ohio, divested this summer. Yesterday, Sydney University in Australia, center of the Australian establishment in the biggest coal nation on Earth, announced that it was divesting from coal. This is an exciting fight. And the point is the point we’ve been making in it, that there’s—that the fossil fuel industry has four times as much carbon as we could possibly burn. It’s no longer just a point that I’m making in Rolling Stone or that university students are making. Now the World Bank is making it, now the International Energy Agency and, on Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Everybody’s doing that math. It’s only a matter of time before people at universities and other institutions begin to do it, too. I think we’ll see some powerful announcements about divestment out of the United Nations summit right after the big march on the 21st.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Bill McKibben, for joining us from your home in Vermont. Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org, author of many books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Of course, Democracy Now! will cover the major march here in New York, as well as we’ll be in Lima, Peru, for the next U.N. climate summit in December.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, is Burger King becoming a major tax dodger whopper? Stay with us.

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