For Obama, No Opportunity Too Big To Blow
By Naomi Klein
December 21, 2009
There's plenty of blame to go around, but there was one country that possessed unique power to change the game. It didn't use it. If Barack Obama had come to Copenhagen with a transformative and inspiring commitment to getting the U.S. economy off fossil fuels, all the other major emitters would have stepped up. The EU, Japan, China and India had all indicated that they were willing to increase their levels of commitment, but only if the U.S. took the lead. Instead of leading, Obama arrived with embarrassingly low targets and the heavy emitters of the world took their cue from him.
(The "deal" that was ultimately rammed through was nothing more than a grubby pact between the world's biggest emitters: I'll pretend that you are doing something about climate change if you pretend that I am too. Deal? Deal.)
I understand all the arguments about not promising what he can't deliver, about the dysfunction of the U.S. Senate, about the art of the possible. But spare me the lecture about how little power poor Obama has. No President since FDR has been handed as many opportunities to transform the U.S. into something that doesn't threaten the stability of life on this planet. He has refused to use each and every one of them. Let's look at the big three.
Blown Opportunity Number 1: The Stimulus Package
When Obama came to office he had a free hand and a blank check to design a spending package to stimulate the economy. He could have used that power to fashion what many were calling a "Green New Deal"—to build the best public transit systems and smart grids in the world. Instead, he experimented disastrously with reaching across the aisle to Republicans, low-balling the size of the stimulus and blowing much of it on tax cuts. Sure, he spent some money on weatherization, but public transit was inexplicably short changed while highways that perpetuate car culture won big.
Blown Opportunity Number 2: The Auto Bailouts
Speaking of the car culture, when Obama took office he also found himself in charge of two of the big three automakers, and all of the emissions for which they are responsible. A visionary leader committed to the fight against climate chaos would obviously have used that power to dramatically reengineer the failing industry so that its factories could build the infrastructure of the green economy the world desperately needs. Instead Obama saw his role as uninspiring down-sizer in chief, leaving the fundamentals of the industry unchanged.
Blown Opportunity Number 3: The Bank Bailouts
Obama, it's worth remembering, also came to office with the big banks on their knees -- it took real effort not to nationalize them. Once again, if Obama had dared to use the power that was handed to him by history, he could have mandated the banks to provide the loans for factories to be retrofitted and new green infrastructure to be built. Instead he declared that the government shouldn't tell the failed banks how to run their businesses. Green businesses report that it's harder than ever to get a loan.
Imagine if these three huge economic engines—the banks, the auto companies, the stimulus bill—had been harnessed to a common green vision. If that had happened, demand for a complementary energy bill would have been part of a coherent transformative agenda.
Whether the bill had passed or not, by the time Copenhagen had rolled around, the U.S. would already have been well on its way to dramatically cutting emissions, poised to inspire, rather than disappoint, the rest of the world.
There are very few U.S. Presidents who have squandered as many once-in-a-generation opportunities as Barack Obama. More than anyone else, the Copenhagen failure belongs to him.
Watch Naomi and Bill McKibben react to President Obama's Copenhagen speeches. Naomi says that Obama "could have come to the table with inspiring emissions cuts and we would be in a very, very different mood today. He didn't do it. It's time to stop making excuses for him and get mad."
Catch Naomi in New York City and Washington DC this January
January 13, New York City. Naomi in conversation with Raj Patel, author of The Value of Nothing, moderated by Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now and New York Times bestselling author of Breaking the Sound Barrier. See event details here.
January 15, Washington, DC. Discussion on climate debt. Co-sponsored by ActionAid and Busboys & Poets. See event details here.
No Logo 10th Anniversary Edition in Stores Now!
Don't forget to pick up your copy of the 10th Anniversary edition of No Logo, complete with a new introduction by Naomi.
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The Courage to Say No
By Naomi Klein
December 16, 2009
On the ninth day of the Copenhagen climate summit, Africa was sacrificed. The position of the G-77 negotiating bloc, including African states, had been clear: a 2 degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures translates into a 3-3.5 degree increase in Africa.
That means, according to the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, "an additional 55 million people could be at risk from hunger" and "water stress could affect between 350 and 600 million more people." Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts the stakes like this: "We are facing impending disaster on a monstrous scale.... A global goal of about 2 degrees C is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development."
And yet that is precisely what Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, proposed to do when he stopped off in Paris on his way to Copenhagen: standing with President Nicolas Sarkozy, and claiming to speak on behalf of all of Africa (he is the head of the African climate-negotiating group), he unveiled a plan that includes the dreaded 2 degree increase and offers developing countries just $10 billion a year to help pay for everything climate related, from sea walls to malaria treatment to fighting deforestation.
It's hard to believe this is the same man who only three months ago was saying this: "We will use our numbers to delegitimize any agreement that is not consistent with our minimal position.... If need be, we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent.... What we are not prepared to live with is global warming above the minimum avoidable level."
And this: "We will participate in the upcoming negotiations not as supplicants pleading for our case but as negotiators defending our views and interests."
We don't yet know what Zenawi got in exchange for so radically changing his tune or how, exactly, you go from a position calling for $400 billion a year in financing (the Africa group's position) to a mere $10 billion. Similarly, we do not know what happened when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Philippine President Gloria Arroyo just weeks before the summit and all of a sudden the toughest Filipino negotiators were kicked off their delegation and the country, which had been demanding deep cuts from the rich world, suddenly fell in line.
We do know, from witnessing a series of these jarring about-faces, that the G-8 powers are willing to do just about anything to get a deal in Copenhagen. The urgency clearly does not flow from a burning desire to avert cataclysmic climate change, since the negotiators know full well that the paltry emissions cuts they are proposing are a guarantee that temperatures will rise a "Dantesque" 3.9 degrees, as Bill McKibben puts it.
Matthew Stilwell of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development—one of the most influential advisers in these talks—says the negotiations are not really about averting climate change but are a pitched battle over a profoundly valuable resource: the right to the sky. There is a limited amount of carbon that can be emitted into the atmosphere. If the rich countries fail to radically cut their emissions, then they are actively gobbling up the already insufficient share available to the South. What is at stake, Stilwell argues, is nothing less than "the importance of sharing the sky."
Europe, he says, fully understands how much money will be made from carbon trading, since it has been using the mechanism for years. Developing countries, on the other hand, have never dealt with carbon restrictions, so many governments don't really grasp what they are losing. Contrasting the value of the carbon market—$1.2 trillion a year, according to leading British economist Nicholas Stern—with the paltry $10 billion on the table for developing countries, Stilwell says that rich countries are trying to exchange "beads and blankets for Manhattan." He adds: "This is a colonial moment. That's why no stone has been left unturned in getting heads of state here to sign off on this kind of deal.... Then there's no going back. You've carved up the last remaining unowned resource and allocated it to the wealthy."
For months now NGOs have gotten behind a message that the goal of Copenhagen is to "seal the deal." Everywhere we look in the Bella Center, clocks are going "tck tck tck." But any old deal isn't good enough, especially because the only deal on offer won't solve the climate crisis and might make things much worse, taking current inequalities between North and South and locking them in indefinitely. Augustine Njamnshi of Pan African Climate Justice Alliance puts the 2 degree proposal in harsh terms: "You cannot say you are proposing a 'solution' to climate change if your solution will see millions of Africans die and if the poor not the polluters keep paying for climate change."
Stilwell says that the wrong kind of deal would "lock in the wrong approach all the way to 2020"—well past the deadline for peak emissions. But he insists that it's not too late to avert this worst-case scenario. "I'd rather wait six months or a year and get it right because the science is growing, the political will is growing, the understanding of civil society and affected communities is growing, and they'll be ready to hold their leaders to account to the right kind of a deal."
At the start of these negotiations the mere notion of delay was environmental heresy. But now many are seeing the value of slowing down and getting it right. Most significant, after describing what 2 degrees would mean for Africa, Archbishop Tutu pronounced that it is "better to have no deal than to have a bad deal." That may well be the best we can hope for in Copenhagen. It would be a political disaster for some heads of state—but it could be one last chance to avert the real disaster for everyone else.
Climate Structural Adjustment: We’ll Save Your Life On Our Terms
By Naomi Klein
December 17, 2009
It's the second to last day of the climate conference and I have the worst case of laryngitis of my life. I open my mouth and nothing comes out.
It's frustrating because I was just at Hillary Clinton's press conference and desperately wanted to ask her a question – or six. She said that the U.S. would contribute its "share" to a $100-billion financing package for developing countries by 2020 – but only if all countries agreed to the terms of the climate deal that the U.S. has slammed on the table here, which include killing Kyoto, replacing legally binding measures with the fuzzy concept of "transparency," and nixing universal emissions targets in favor of vague "national plans" that are mashed together. Oh, and abandoning the whole concept (which the U.S. agreed to by signing the UN climate convention) that the rich countries that created the climate crisis have to take the lead in solving it.
Unless every country here agrees to the U.S. terms, the Secretary explained, "there will not be that kind of a commitment, at least from the United States."
It was naked blackmail – forcing developing countries to choose between a strong fair deal that stands a chance of averting climate chaos and the funds they need to cope with the droughts and floods that have already arrived. I wanted to ask Clinton: Is this not climate structural adjustment, on a global scale? We'll give you cash, but only with our draconian conditions?
And who is the U.S. to call the shots when it carries the heaviest responsibility for emitting the gasses that are already wreaking havoc on the climates of the global south – what happened to the principle that the polluter pays?
But…no point raising my hand, no voice.
I feel a bit like a walking metaphor because this is the day that pretty much all the NGOs have been locked out of the Bella Center, making this a much less interesting place. Almost all the side events have been canceled and people are scrambling to find alternative spaces around the city in which to meet. Some youth groups staged a sit-in last night to protest their expulsion.
As the big shots arrive and civil society is expelled, it may well turn out that months of activism and negotiations don't matter much in the face of raw power plays like the one Clinton launched this morning: sign on our terms or get nothing.
Bolivia's Ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solon put it best: "It seems negotiators are living in the Matrix, while the real negotiation is taking place in the ‘Green room,' in small stealth dinners with selective guests."
The image from the Bella Center that will forever stay with me is seeing security guards refuse entry to Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, who has been fighting Shell and other oil giants in the Niger Delta for decades, losing friends like Ken Saro Wiwa to the struggle and being jailed himself. Meanwhile, the oil execs walk the halls of the Bella Center with impunity.
Even if I could talk I'd be speechless.
Research support for Naomi Klein's reporting from Copenhagen was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Secretary Clinton's proposal "a naked form of blackmail"
On Democracy Now, Naomi reacted to Hillary Clinton's proposal at Copenhagen, telling Amy Goodman: "You know, I just blogged about this, and the headline I put on is 'Climate Structural Adjustment,' because this is what the International Monetary Fund was so famous for doing. You need help? Your country is collapsing? Here’s our list of demands: privatize your water, lay off your people. But this is on a massive, massive scale. So, yeah, I would call it blackmail. And I think that, unfortunately, countries are so desperate for aid that they may well accept this terrible deal. And those are the stakes here." Watch the program here.
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the New York Times and #1 international bestseller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Published worldwide in September 2007, The Shock Doctrine is being translated in 27 languages. It was a finalist for several prizes including the 2007 LA Times Book Award, New York Public Library Bernstein Award for Journalism, and the National Business Book Award (Canada). In 2008 it won the Canadian Booksellers Association’s Libris Award for Non-Fiction Book of the Year and is longlisted for the inaugural 2009 Warwick Prize for Writing (UK). The six minute companion film, created by Alfonso Cuaron, director of Children of Men, was an Official Selection of the 2007 Venice Biennale and Toronto International Film Festivals and was a viral phenomenon, downloaded over a million times.
Her first book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies was also an international bestseller, translated into over 28 languages with more than a million copies in print. A collection of her work, Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate was published in 2002.
Naomi Klein writes a regular column for The Nation and The Guardian that is syndicated internationally by The New York Times Syndicate. In 2004, her reporting from Iraq for Harper’s Magazine won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. Also in 2004, she co-produced The Take with director Avi Lewis, a feature documentary about Argentina’s occupied factories. The film was an Official Selection of the Venice Biennale and won the Best Documentary Jury Prize at the American Film Institute’s Film Festival in Los Angeles.
She is a former Miliband Fellow at the London School of Economics and holds an honorary Doctor of Civil Laws from the University of King’s College, Nova Scotia.