Mass Protest, Not A Speech, Is Needed To Address Climate Change

Before we get teary eyed with joy or scoff with derision, we should take a closer look at President Obama's June 25 speech on climate change, and set it within the context of his five years in power. This is a position he himself argued for during his speech when he said that we need to "be more concerned with the judgment of posterity" than short-term political considerations.

Before we get teary eyed with joy or scoff with derision, we should take a closer look at President Obama's June 25 speech on climate change, and set it within the context of his five years in power. This is a position he himself argued for during his speech when he said that we need to "be more concerned with the judgment of posterity" than short-term political considerations.

So is Obama, in the words of World Resource Institute President Andrew Steer, really "resetting the climate agenda" and can we honestly say that "it's a wonderful thing to see that he is really reclaiming this issue"?

While many other environmentalists, including Bill McKibben of, are fervently hoping that this is true, history and facts demonstrate otherwise. Obama's dismal domestic and international track record on environmental issues--it was, after all, he who was the lead protagonist in wrecking the international climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009--and his commitment to U.S. imperial power as a representative of American corporate interests surely point toward the need for a greater and more thoroughgoing critique than a character assessment of the man himself allows for.

Furthermore, it's hard to take someone seriously when that person has presided over the biggest expansion of the security state in U.S. history and relentlessly pursued government whistleblowers with unprecedented ferocity, when they say simultaneously in a climate speech that they are directing the EPA to generate new standards for the regulation of existing power plants in "an open and transparent way."

With a more systematic, broader analytical framework, unimpeded by misty visions of an Obama rebirth as a climate champion, one immediately recognizes the inadequacy of his Action Plan On Climate Change to keep the planet below the critical threshold of 2 degrees Celsius of average warming.

This needs to be acknowledged, even as we welcome the fact that--after a five-year hiatus, including a re-election campaign where he never even mentioned climate change--Obama has been forced to re-engage with the central issue of our time by the power of grassroots protest, even to the extent of referencing the divestment movement and the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Rather than celebrating Obama's renewed "commitment" to environmental action, we should recognize it for what it is: After five years of doing all he can to promote fossil fuel production, it's the first, timid, grudging response of the U.S. state to the growing environmental movement against Obama and all that he represents: the economic, political and military priorities of U.S. imperial power.

The growth of the environmental movement and its threat to U.S. imperial and corporate interests has been well catalogued, tracked and, as we now know, extensively spied upon by the U.S. security apparatus. After reporting on a raft of documentary evidence to this effect, Dr. Nafeez Ahmed writes:

The Pentagon knows that environmental, economic and other crises could provoke widespread public anger toward government and corporations in coming years. The revelations on the NSA's global surveillance programs are just the latest indication that as business as usual creates instability at home and abroad, and as disillusionment with the status quo escalates, Western publics are being increasingly viewed as potential enemies that must be policed by the state.

There is, therefore, the overriding requirement that we continue to build the movement independent of the limitations imposed by the Democratic Party, until we achieve the kind of changes that are actually necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change, by stitching together all forces aimed at this objective.

The biosphere of which humans are a part cannot afford half measures or rely on dubious "friends" in high places. Nor can we set our sights any lower than the swift dismantling of the fossil-fuel infrastructure of death and its replacement with publicly owned and democratically controlled clean energy systems. As many studies have shown, this is eminently doable with current technology and will create millions of worthwhile jobs through the generation of genuinely renewable energy from sources such as wind and solar power, alongside massive energy efficiency and conservation measures.

Such a transformation is far less utopian than believing that capitalism can solve the problem that it created. Such a transition cannot mean a continuation or expansion of the criminal agro-fuel production, still less the increase in natural gas production through fracking, the continuation of nuclear power and the entirely ridiculous concepts of "clean coal" and carbon capture and storage, all of which Obama includes as part of his planned solution--his "all of the above" strategy.

The fact that Obama is using executive authority to attempt to push through some changes to U.S. energy and climate policy, most significantly new rules on existing power plants, is a reflection not of strength, but of his preceding weakness on the issue, turning it from a positive into a negative, as the right wing has made all the running. Notwithstanding the catastrophic climate change that levels above 350 ppm of carbon portend and have already initiated--as droughts, floods, crop failures, super-storms and wildfires become the "new normal" across the globe from Australia to India, from the U.S. to Pakistan--politicians across the political spectrum greeted the news of 400 ppm of carbon earlier in May with a giant shrug of collective indifference.

While on the one hand Obama's action plan doesn't require Congressional approval, and that can be seen as encouraging in the face of an utterly recalcitrant Congress, it is also a flaw. The new rules will be vigorously challenged in the courts, and as and when the other corporate party manages to work out how to win an election again, they can be overturned just as easily, assuming they have even been implemented.

It needs to be highlighted that, in contrast to how Democrats and Obama like to portray the issue, it is not a solidly partisan one. While elected Republicans are certainly more likely to be climate-change denialists, the reality is that things are much more regional and dependent on which state a political representative is from. A much more reliable indicator of whether a state's Representative is pro- or anti- climate change policy and clean energy, is whether the state's economy is directly connected to fossil fuels or ethanol production, than whether they are Democrats or Republicans.

And on the ground, where people are forced to deal with the growing ramifications of climate change and the disruption and cost to their lives, the picture is very different. As reported in a recent survey of self-described Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 62 percent said the U.S. should address climate change, and 77 percent said that the U.S. should use more renewable energy sources. This is all the more remarkable given that virtually no political representative from either party has been arguing for these things, and they have certainly not appeared on the TV screens or in the newspapers of the mainstream media.

In contrast to Obama's glib reference to work being undertaken to prevent Miami from sinking below the waves, Jeff Goodell writing in Rolling Stone, paints a very different picture, underlining the calamitous reality of climate change in an article cheerily titled "Goodbye Miami." On our present course, it is not a question of if, but when, the city of Miami--which vies with Las Vegas as the citadel to capitalist non-conformity with nature, along with most of southern Florida--will be underwater:

South Florida has two big problems. The first is its remarkably flat topography. Half the area that surrounds Miami is less than five feet above sea level. Its highest natural elevation, a limestone ridge that runs from Palm Beach to just south of the city, averages a scant 12 feet. With just three feet of sea-level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will vanish; at six feet, more than half will be gone; if the seas rise 12 feet, South Florida will be little more than an isolated archipelago surrounded by abandoned buildings and crumbling overpasses. And the waters won't just come in from the East--because the region is so flat, rising seas will come in nearly as fast from the West, too, through the Everglades.

Quoting Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami, Goodell writes, "Miami, as we know it today, is doomed...It's not a question of if. It's a question of when."

Well before that happens, however, Miami faces critical problems with fresh water supply; the treatment and removal of sewage from antiquated sewage treatment facilities, which are already threatened with being overrun during storms; and the highly exposed 40-year-old Turkey Point nuclear plant, described by Philip Stoddard, the mayor of South Miami, as "impossible to imagine a stupider place to build a nuclear plant."

Of course, the other very "big problem" Florida has is that it is the epicenter of climate change denial, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Rick Scott and assorted other representatives unmoved by the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change nor on the reality of their sinking state.

The fact that southern Florida, including unique ecosystems like the Florida Everglades, is on track to become a giant underwater theme park is not an isolated phenomenon; many of the world's largest cities are low-lying ports, and 100 million Americans live within 3 feet of (current) high-tide markers. New York City is still recovering from the climate change-enhanced Superstorm Sandy, which, apart from poor or nonexistent planning, was all the more devastating because, as Obama finally noted, sea levels are already 12 inches above where they were 100 years ago--and the process is accelerating.

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