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Nafeez Ahmed and David Roberts discuss and debate the question “Are Obama’s policies pushing things as far as politically possible or is he failing to alert Americans to the urgent danger of climate change?” pt.1

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

On June 25, President Obama made a speech announcing his new climate change policies. Was his strategy a guarantee of climate change disaster, or a reasonable, modest, measured approach, and in fact the only one that’s actually politically possible? Well, we’re going to debate that today. But first let’s see what President Obama said. Here’s a little clip.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that;s beyond fixing. And that’s why today I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader–a global leader–in the fight against climate change.

Now, this plan builds on progress that we’ve already made. Last year, I took office–or the year that I took office, my administration pledged to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent from their 2005 levels by the end of this decade. And we rolled up our sleeves and we got to work. We doubled the electricity we generated from wind and the sun. We doubled the mileage our cars will get on a gallon of gas by the middle of the next decade.


JAY: Now joining us to discuss/debate the Obama climate change strategy, first of all, from Seattle, is David Roberts. He’s a senior writer for, where he covers climate change and energy politics. His writing has appeared in Outside magazine, Scientific American, and many other publications, and he presented a TEDx talk called “Climate Change Is Simple”. It’s so simple I could say the sentence. But you can Google it. I’m sure if you put in “David Roberts” and “TEDx talk” you’ll find it.

And joining us from London, England, Nafeez Ahmed. He’s a best-selling author, investigative journalist, and international securities scholar. He’s executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in London, England. And he writes for The Guardian on geopolitics of the environment, energy, and economic crisis. And he also writes on his Earth Insight blog.

Thanks, you both, for joining us.


JAY: So, Nafeez, I’m going to start with you. But just as a baseline of this discussion, do we agree on how urgent the situation of–how urgent climate change is? You know, everyone seems to be–what I mean by everyone: the preponderance of scientists are suggesting we’re at least likely to hit two degrees Centigrade before the end of the century, and now we’re hearing it might be three or four. I mean, how urgent is the problem?

NAFEEZ AHMED, EXEC. DIR., INST. FOR POLICY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT: I think the problem is clearly very urgent. You know, we know that two degrees Celcius has been accepted by the policymakers as the kind of the safe limit of what we’re going to be allowed and what is going to avoid some of the most dangerous impacts. And, unfortunately, if we look at the emissions trajectories at the moment, the business-as-usual trajectories, we’re on path for most certainly three degrees Celcius to four degrees Celcius rise by the end of the century. It could well be as high as six to seven degrees Celcius if you’re looking at forecasts which look at the rate of increase of emissions and if that business-as-usual trajectory actually continues without any kind of mitigation. So that’s the kind of conservative kind of forecasting based on the United Nations IPCC models, which are widely accepted.

You know, if you also go deeper than that and look at some of the implications of amplifying feedbacks and the way in which climate change can actually push ecosystems to then push other ecosystems into a tailspin, where they end up affecting each other and creating further changes beyond the initial human impact, that could also push things a bit further. And there are various studies which have tried to model that, and they argue that it could actually be much worse.

So I think it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t look very good. There is a need for urgent action. And, unfortunately, if you look at the way we’re going now, we are headed for a dangerous world of climate change.

JAY: Okay. David, do you agree with that assessment, that the situation is urgent, it’s not–you know, we’re talking, you know, in some areas of the world virtually apocalyptic types of consequences and rather negative consequences for everybody?

ROBERTS: Yes. I think it’s fair to say that it is much more urgent than almost anyone in U.S. politics, at least, has acknowledged. And it’s–you know, people get dismissed as alarmists, but even the most hysterical people you see in the U.S. context are not grappling with the reality. So, yes, it’s incredibly urgent. The problem, of course, is that the apocalyptic–the really apocalyptic, scary stuff we’re talking about is 50 to 100 years out, and it’s very difficult for people to feel a sense of immediate urgency about effects that are so far away, thus the sort of essence of the problem.

JAY: At least in more northern countries. I mean, some places like Bangladesh and other places are already starting to get a taste of that.

ROBERTS: Sure. Well, if you’re a Pacific island and you’re almost under water now, you feel a sense of sense of urgency. But the Earth’s major economic powers don’t yet–are not yet gripped by sufficient urgency.

JAY: Alright. So, David, let me continue with you. So now, then, we agree on that. It’s urgent. We’re not debating whether or not there’s human-caused climate change. The question is what set of policies will be effective.

So Nafeez is going to argue, ’cause he wrote a piece in The Guardian which essentially said that President Obama’s policies are a guarantee for climate change disaster. But you’ve been saying that they’re measured, they may not go far enough, but it’s only thing that’s possible. So make your case. Why did you write a piece more or less defending Obama’s policies and strategy?

ROBERTS: Sure. Well, I mean, the nature of climate change, it’s not like any other political problem we have. The nature of climate change is that, I mean, theoretically, the U.S.–Obama could come out and say, we’re going to turn off all our lights and shut down all our machines and cease emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow. We’re going to return to a state of nature tomorrow. Even that wouldn’t be sufficient to solve, quote-unquote, climate change. Even if the U.S. emissions were eliminated, you would still have a substantial problem. You see what I mean? The problem is so big, it requires so much action and coordination from so many countries, that it’s very hard to know what basis you should use to judge an individual leader in an individual country. So, obviously, what Obama proposed is insufficient to the problem. It’s sort of–by definition, almost anything a national leader could propose would be.

I think we have to find some reasonable way of judging him based on the realities of the U.S. political context. And my only argument was just that he’s got–Obama has a Congress that has absolutely and unequivocally refused to act and will not act and has made that very clear. So he’s now hemmed in to what he can do with the executive branch, the branch of the government he runs. You know, people forget he’s not the king of America. He runs one branch of three coequal branches of government. And now he’s hemmed in. So he has to figure out: what can I do with executive powers? So even that alone really hems him in tightly. There’s not a ton–you know, to really do anything dramatic would require legislation, would require Congress. So he’s stuck doing this sort of wiggle room, fiddle around the edges kind of thing.

JAY: But if you judge him by his own frame of reference, which he says we can’t leave future generations a planet that’s beyond fixing, if that’s the goal, shouldn’t he tell people whether or not what he’s proposing actually does that? ‘Cause I would think you’d probably say that doesn’t accomplish that. We’re getting to a planet that’s getting beyond fixing.

ROBERTS: Well, sure. But, I mean, imagine, for Obama, saying this to people. The problem is so big that literally nothing the U.S. can do can solve it, but we are nonetheless going to make our small effort, hoping that other countries will come along and that effort will build. You know, that’s just not a–it’s not an inspiring political message. I mean, he has to have this sort of florid rhetoric to sort of frame the urgency of things, because once again, not only is he hemmed in by the fact that Congress won’t do anything; he’s somewhat hemmed in by the fact that U.S. political opinion is not particularly behind him on this. There is no massive groundswell of grassroots action demanding that he do stuff. So almost everything he’s doing on climate change is mostly political risk and very little political payoff. So all I’m saying is that–

JAY: Okay. Let me bring Nafeez in.

ROBERTS: –judged in the actual context of U.S. politics, he’s doing more than I think could be expected and quite a bit more than is being acknowledged by most people.

JAY: Okay. Nafeez, what do you make of that argument? I mean, you know, the green movement, environmentalists, people like you, they want a grand plan. They want a big move. But David’s arguing the big move isn’t politically possible. What do you make of that?

AHMED: I’m quite sympathetic to David’s argument. I think he does make a very valid point.

I think really for me this issue’s not about–you know, a lot of people get very bogged down in the politics of it, of the personality of it. You know, do we like Obama? Do we not like Obama? And I think that can sometimes be a distraction.

I mean, I think it’s clear if you even look at how Obama–already we’ve had such huge opposition from the Republican sectors of Congress, and they’ve already tried to water down what Obama’s put through, a plan which admittedly doesn’t go far enough. So I think it’s important to recognize that there are political constraints and this is really a systemic crisis that we’re facing. And part of the problem we’re facing is that really our political institutions are not built to deal with this planetary issue. You know, they’re just not cut out for it. And there is a lot of dramatic change that we need if we’re going to avoid some of the dangerous impacts.

I mean, what I intended to do with my piece was to kind of look into the reality of whether these policies that are going to be put in place, if indeed they do get put in place, whether they would be enough to avoid us from going down this path towards dangerous climate change impacts, within the next few decades, even. And the answer clearly, if you look at the scientific evidence, is no, it won’t, it won’t do that.

And the thing is is that–again, this is–it also is important to emphasize that this is not something unique to the United States. I mean, Britain, Russia, China, all of the major powers have pretty much put on the table pretty tepid emissions reductions pledges. And, you know, arguably the United States government did play, has played–and among other powers, Britain as well, a number of powers have played a role in kind of watering down negotiations, arguably obstructing them. There’s been a lot of–a lot of the main industrial powers actually have played a role in that.

So that’s really what’s–that’s really the problem. It would be unfair to kind of single out Obama and the United States government and to kind of blame them for everything and at the same time also kind of expect, you know, the entire answer to come from the United States.

I was disappointed with the emissions pledges, but I wasn’t surprised, because those emissions pledges were put down at Copenhagen, and that was what we were left with.

JAY: But, Nafeez, what you wrote is a little different than what you’re saying. In your article you said that if you take the holistic look at Obama’s policy, which is support for fracking and support for coal, that even if this stuff gets executed, some of the extraregulatory authority that he’s taking through direct presidential orders–and I take your point: we don’t even know how much that really gets implemented. But even if it does, if it’s within the context of pushing a big expansion of fossil fuel use in the United States in terms of offshore and other types of oil and gas and fracking, then he’s–according to your article, that’s a recipe for climate change disaster.

AHMED: No, absolutely. I stand by that. I don’t think that–see, I’m sympathetic with the reality of the political constraints. But what I think is important to recognize is that what we have on the table, the package of policies we have on the table remains a recipe for disaster.

And the fundamental problem is that the United States, as well as all the other major powers, are actually committed [incompr.] to the maximum exploitation of fossil fuels despite the emissions reductions pledges, despite all of these ideas, despite the attempts to look at renewable energy and all the rest of it [incompr.] efficiency gains and lots of other great things which are in this plan. And it is an unprecedented plan.

However, the reality is is that it’s not going to cut it. It’s not going to stop this trajectory towards dangerous climate change. And, in fact, it could make things dramatically worse.

And I think obviously the two issues that I’m concerned about is the emphasis on fracking and the reliance on shale gas, which is touted as a clean bridge fuel, which it isn’t–and peer-reviewed studies actually suggest that it could be dirtier than coal–as well as the reliance on nuclear. And I don’t think nuclear energy is going to cut it either. And there’s been a number of reports, even a report recently, a status report on the nuclear industry of the United States [incompr.] out in the last few weeks which actually also corroborates that there’s been a lot of lot of massive nuclear subsidies, but not enough in terms of sufficient energy production. So when you’re looking at that, it’s a worrying picture. But I don’t think it makes sense to simply just say we should basically focus on Obama the man.

JAY: We’re focusing Obama ’cause that’s the topic of the the debate. We could focus, if you want, on Stephen Harper and do a Canadian debate, you know, but we are focusing on Obama, ’cause right now we’re in the United States and we’re doing a show about Obama, and you wrote an article trashing Obama’s speech. So you can’t tell me not to focus on Obama when you wrote this whole piece trashing Obama, right?

AHMED: Well, absolutely. But my piece was not about trashing Obama. My piece was to highlight the reality that those policies that Obama had in place were not going to–.

I’m not a great Obama fan. I think Obama has eroded a lot of–he’s gone even further than the Bush administration in many of his policies. Whether he’s done that by intention or not is really irrelevant. But I’m not a great Obama fan.

But when I say that we have to not just pin the blame on Obama, it’s important to understand that the crisis that we’re facing is a systemic crisis. And whether or not you think that Obama the man or Obama the administration is a problem or a bad thing or a good thing, the reality is is that the nature of the U.S. government operates in the context of an economic system which creates certain types of pressures which lead to these kinds of policies. And until we address those underlying systemic issues, you know, it’s not really going to–we’re not really going to get anywhere. So Obama, yes, the reality that Obama’s policies will fail and that other policymakers around the world are also failing is part of this wider systemic issue.

JAY: Right. But, David, part of your argument is there’s not a political climate that’s putting pressure on Obama to go further or to allow him to execute policies that perhaps he actually wants to. And I think that’s for myself a question mark. But isn’t that partly his responsibility? And, yeah, I’m focusing on him ’cause he happens to be the president of the United States and he represents an administration. But he doesn’t just represent administration. He represents exactly those systemic forces that Nafeez is talking about. Those forces don’t exist in the abstract. They’re not metaphysical. There’s real people that finance President Obama’s campaign. We’re talking–you know, these forces play themselves out through real actors. And right now the representative of those actors is President Obama, and the guy didn’t say a word about climate change for almost his entire administration. He got elected on it, but then he didn’t talk about it.

ROBERTS: It’s always a frustration for journalists and pundits, because Nafeez is right. It is systemic forces. And Obama is largely a bit player in those systemic forces. And, you know, I think everyone in U.S. politics has this tendency to exaggerate the extent to which U.S. politics is personified by Obama.

But let’s get back to the substantive issues, ’cause I think you and Nafeez have both identified something, which is a dichotomy that’s been going on as long as Obama’s been in office, which is that he has supported both fossil fuel extraction and efforts to cut demand for fossil fuels. And this has always driven environmentalists crazy. They see it as a contradiction.

I don’t think the people around Obama and Obama himself necessarily see it as a contradiction. I think a lot of people–I think there’s at least an argument to be made that if there’s going to be a substantial decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to come ’cause U.S. demand for those fuels declines, which means we have alternatives to them. And in the meantime, as long as a demand exists, the fuels are going to come out of the ground regardless. That’s at least the thought.

But, you know, at this point for Obama to stand in the way of fracking in a serious way, fracking, which has, you know, whatever you think about it, brought all these jobs to the U.S., brought all this cheap energy to the U.S., partially revived manufacturing in the U.S., is supported by everyone in the Republican Party and the vast majority of the Democratic Party, is supported by Democratic senators in vulnerable states who are in very vulnerable Senate races right now, for Obama to really come out and throw his body on the tracks and say, no, I’m going to use my executive agencies to slow this down or regulate it or stop it or put a moratorium on it, that would be a political controversy that would absolutely consume his presidency. It would stop him from getting any of his other priorities done. It would be a political disaster. And it would probably lead to a Republican Senate, and maybe even a Republican president in 2016. And then you’ll really see some fossil fuel extraction without any of the efforts to reduce fossil fuel demand.

So, you know, the nature of the problem here is that we’re stuck with a bunch of bad choices, we’re stuck with a horrible situation with very little wiggle room in U.S. politics right now. And, you know, I think focusing on should Obama wiggle harder, it’s interesting, but even if he wiggled as hard as he could, even if he did everything he could, it would still be insufficient.

What we need is greater–a huge shift in public opinion in the U.S., efforts to reform Congress, to reform the influence of money on Congress, efforts to reform the filibuster. All sorts of sort of boring procedural issues and process issues like this in the end I think matter more than Obama’s sort of willpower.

JAY: Well, Nafeez, if you go back to the FDR analogy, which often is used both in economic terms and otherwise, I mean, a president has a pulpit, does he not? And he’s not a passive player in where public opinion is at. I mean, what do you make of the argument that, you know, fracking is so critical and is so–at the moment in growing importance to the U.S. economy, he can’t even speak about it in a negative way?

AHMED: Well, again, you know, within the framework of the system in which–we’re seeing, you know, unfolding on its trajectory towards doom, you know, I can understand that. It makes sense. But that’s the problem.

But the reality is is that fracking has devastating environmental consequences. It’s not cut out in terms of energy, in terms of energy return on investment, the amount you get out compared to what you get in. It’s not going to even solve our energy problems for the long term.

And, you know, obviously there’s the issue of how much it contributes to climate change. And as I said, there are peer-reviewed studies which suggest that it could contribute worse to climate changes than coal due to methane emissions from the fracking process.

So, you know, while I understand that there is this constraint, we have this problem, we have this issue that there is this overwhelming juggernaut which is tied into this fossil fuel system and that, you know, if we, you know, extract ourselves from it too much it’s not going to be politically possible or desirable, there are too many players who don’t want it, public opinion is not ready for it, that’s the problem that we find ourselves in.

And so I agree that actually–really, this is the thing. Whether you think Obama is–you know, how much personal responsibility you pin on him as a man for this or not is almost irrelevant, because ultimately he is a figurehead in a machine which is hell-bent on this trajectory of destruction. And it’s not just the United States that is part of that machine; it’s the whole industrial civilization that we’re part of.

And, unfortunately, we’re in this ironic situation where such is the nature of this political process that Obama himself has–I mean, if you looked at the coverage from DeSmogBlog over the last few weeks of the Keystone XL pipeline and the amount of information that’s coming out about the conflicts of interest, that lobbyists related to Obama are tied up to the Keystone pipeline–and there’s all of this kind of very shady stuff going on and fudging of research in order to kind of allow the pipeline to go through and kind of fudge its terrible contributions to the climate crisis that would inevitably result if it went ahead. So all of those things, you know, make me skeptical of the man.

But ultimately I do actually think that that skepticism is kind of irrelevant, because whether it’s about the man or not, it is about the political system. And I think David is absolutely right that we need to kind of get away from this issue of, you know, do we hate Obama or not, because I think that–.

JAY: Hold on. I’m not suggesting the issue’s do we hate Obama or not. The issue’s, I think, clear. President Obama represents a section of the American and, if you want, even global elite. They have their interests. We know how much of President Obama’s election campaigns were financed by Wall Street. We know his ties to the whole financial sector. We know, you know, in fact, even ties to the fossil fuel sector. Of course he’s speaking on behalf of a sector of those who own stuff and have a lot of political power. We understand that. But he is the actor that personifies who plays this role. He speaks for them. So when you’re criticizing or talking about his policies, of course you’re talking not just about an abstract system; you’re talking about a system, but real players and real people who actually own stuff and are trying to tell the American people, which President Obama did in his speech, that we can have a planet that’s not going to be beyond fixing if we do this. And you’re both–but you’re both telling me he’s not telling the people the truth.

AHMED: [incompr.]

ROBERTS: [incompr.] the question: could Obama–. You know, you brought up the bully pulpit, which I hear about a lot. Let’s ask the question: could Obama, if he set about it, change public opinion in a way that would drive a grassroots push?

JAY: Okay. In part two of this interview, that’s what we’re going to pick up. We’re going to pick up the question: could he have, is it too late to do so. And three, we’ll do a little bit of, okay, let’s say he really does want to do something; is there more he could do. So we’re going to pick this up in part two of this discussion/debate. It turns out I’m debating both guests, but c’est la vie.

Please join us for the next section of Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network in just–we’re going to run this one day; you’ll watch it the next day.

Thanks for joining us.


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Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar. Formerly of the Guardian, he is a columnist for VICE and Middle East Eye, and the creator of Insurge Intelligence, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project. His latest book is a scientific monograph for Springer Energy Briefs, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence (2017)