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Nafeez Ahmed and David Roberts discuss and debate Obama’s climate change policies pt 2

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. We’re doing another episode of Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News.

And joining us to continue our discussion/debate about President Obama’s climate-change policies, first of all, in London, Nafeez Ahmed. He’s a best-selling author, investigative journalist, international securities scholar. He is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development. And he writes for The Guardian on geopolitics of the environment, energy, and economic crisis. And he also writes at his Earth Insight blog.

Also joining us, in Seattle, is David Roberts. He’s a senior writer for, where he covers climate change and energy politics. And he’s written for Outside magazine and Scientific American and many other publications.

And thank you both for joining us again.


JAY: So, David, let me start with you. We ended the first episode–and I think you should probably watch segment one if you haven’t seen it yet, ’cause we’re just going to pick up where we were–you know, asking the question: should President Obama, can he still, but let’s start with should he have used his position to rally public opinion? Could he have been more effective, if in fact this is what he wants?

And let me–David, let me ask you this. I mean, it seemed to me that the core of President Obama’s climate-change policies for much of his first term was cap-and-trade policies, which many people criticize as being just the financialization of the problem and not really a solution to climate change, more a way that Wall Street can make money out of the problem than anything else, and that there was even–although he ran in the 2008 election on the idea that the economic crisis and the climate crisis were linked, because the building of a green economy would be a solution to the economic crisis and the climate change crisis–and during those first two years when they controlled both houses, we didn’t hear a heck of a lot about it, and then we heard less and less about it till we practically didn’t hear President Obama talk about climate change at all. So, I mean, don’t you think as an administration, first of all, they bear some responsibility for the fact that public opinion isn’t more clamoring for this kind of change?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, I want to be careful here, ’cause when I talk like this, I’m constantly accused of exonerating Obama and letting him off the hook and treating him like a passive player in politics. And, you know, I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

But if you look at–for instance, let’s talk about the bully pulpit. Let’s talk about Obama’s ability to shift U.S. public opinion. Right now we are in a situation in U.S. politics of unprecedented historical polarization, very much two sides like ships passing in the night. And there’s a lot of political science research that shows that when the president, who is the leader of one of those sides, ultimately is seen that way in D.C., seen that way by both parties, when he asserts himself in an issue and makes it a signature issue of his, it serves to further polarize it is what happens. And that’s what’s happened to climate change. The more Democrats push for solutions, the more it becomes seen as a Democratic issue and the more the country becomes divided on it.

So I don’t think Obama actually–I mean, who knows what could happen, but I don’t think Obama actually has the power or any modern U.S. president has the power to unite people. And I think, honestly, their ability to do that has always been somewhat exaggerated.

So, I mean, would I like Obama to give a lot more speeches about climate and lead a national teach-in and do radio fireside addresses, all that, sure, I would love it. But I think we need to be realistic about his ability to unite a very, very divided and polarized country about this. So that’s first of all.

Second of all, I don’t want to get in–you know, sink down the cap-and-trade debate rathole, which I spent years of my life in. But suffice to say if Obama and the Democrats had been able to pass that cap-and-trade plan that they originally proposed, the original Waxman-Markey bill in the House, that passed the House of Representatives, we would be in a much, much, much better position. It was a much better policy that it’s generally given credit for.

JAY: David, just one sec. Did President Obama support that bill? ‘Cause I thought that wasn’t really his favorite bill.

ROBERTS: Well, this is–he supported the bill notionally. He didn’t really get out and fight for it, because at the time he was fighting for stimulus, he was fighting for health care. I mean, ultimately the decision to put health care first in line ahead of climate change sort of, you know, sank climate change’s changes.

But I think arguably, given the U.S. Congress that we have today, there’s no way that plan–there’s no way the cap-and-trade plan could have passed. It passed the House barely and then just died an ignominious death in the Senate. And I don’t–you know, given the structural forces we’ve been talking about, I don’t know that more participation by Obama could have really swung things one way or the other. I think what you have to–I think you just have to acknowledge that current U.S. politics, as reflected in the current U.S. Congress, is not prepared to deal with this. And until the people start pushing Congress differently and until, you know, there’s less influence by concentrated money and corporate power in Congress, you’re not going to have that movement. So that’s what has to change. If Congress swung around, I know Obama would [crosstalk]

JAY: David, let me bring Nafeez in here. Nafeez, if you go–to my memory, you go back to 2008 when President–or 2009 when President Obama’s inaugurated, the crash, of course, is paramount. But during the whole leadup in the election of 2008 and even in ’09, even the mass media was all about climate change. Everybody–there was a few months there were there was nothing but climate change in the mainstream media. There was a lot of public opinion for doing something. He got elected with this idea of the convergence of the solution, a green solution to the economic crisis. And then we didn’t hear a heck of a lot about it after that. I mean, what do you make of that issue that he just was–he’s dealing with realpolitik and that’s that?

And, again, let me say again for people that watched the first episode, I’m not suggesting this is all about President Obama. Quite the opposite. I’m saying the interests that he represents aren’t all that interested in really taking on climate change.

DR. NAFEEZ AHMED, EXEC. DIR., INST. FOR POLICY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT: Yeah, I think this is–I mean, I think, you know, when all of that was going on, I didn’t expect it to actually transpire, and that’s because I knew who was funding Obama’s campaign. And I think a lot of people knew who was funding Obama’s campaign were equally skeptical. So it wasn’t really kind of a big surprise [incompr.] when, you know, we find that actually there is a very fundamental commitment to [incompr.] fossil fuel extraction and a lot less effort put into promises around the green economy, you know, cap and trade and all the rest of it.

It’s worth bearing in mind also that even if you look at the cap-and-trade stuff at face value and you look at the kind of the whole carbon market style solution to the crisis, because a lot of studies–even there was one study by Deutsche Bank which really, really covered, criticized this way of dealing with the problem in any case. So I’m not entirely convinced that that bill would have put us in a better place. I might be wrong, but [incompr.] obviously is no point. We don’t know that now.

But, I mean, getting back down to the issue of, really, Obama’s role in this, I think at the end of the day, you know, a political leader does have to take responsibility for their actions, ultimately, whether or not they’re constrained by institutions, whether or not they’re constrained by systemic power and money. I think [incompr.] Obama is a person who knows what he’s doing. He’s an intelligent man. He’s obviously clearly–she’s obviously responsible for his actions. And I do consider him to be responsible for his role in kind of fudging a lot of the issues around what has–how much the United States has fallen from its rhetoric over the last few years from his campaign rhetoric and how different the plan that we have now is compared to that rhetoric.

But at the same time, I think it would be naive to simply just say, you know–and, actually, I think–and in that sense, given the–you know, so I think David’s a lot more sympathetic to Obama than I am, but I think this is where when you look at this issue of–and I think, you know, this is why this debate is so important, that it can sometimes be very polarizing to simply focus on the man when we [incompr.] kind of encourages us to avoid looking at why it is that this man is failing so dismally in this context. And I think it comes down to the fact that ultimately Obama’s administration–I mean, let’s say it in a kind of blunt, tabloid style way [incompr.] bought and sold by the fossil fuel lobby. And that’s really the fundamental problem.

And so even though David and I might come from different ends of the political spectrum in terms of Obama, we still end up at this fundamental issue, which is: look at the nature of the U.S. political scene, look at the systemic issues, look at the money and the power. That is ultimately the problem of Obama’s administration is that even though he’s a different administration from the Republican administration–and there are nuances and there are differences, and there is certainly more interest in climate change on the part of the Democrats, but fundamentally it hasn’t given us what we need to take this off this trajectory.

So we really do need to look at developing how can we get people on the streets, how can we get a grassroots movement which is ready to kind of hold people, hold President Obama, hold other politicians to account and say that actually we’re really fed up and we’re not happy with this.

JAY: Let’s do a whole segment about that another day, ’cause that is a big topic, and I know everybody watching this is going to want to have an in-depth discussion about that. We just did a series with Chris Hedges which kind of dealt with some of the problems of how does a mass movement on these issues get going or at least develop on a bigger scale than it is.

But just to be fair with President Obama and his administration, ’cause my role so far has been to go after him more than you guys–but at any rate, let’s say whatever, you know, given the systemic issues, given the importance of some big solution, and given that it’s not going to happen right now, David, tell us some of the small things he plans to do that are worth doing that at least made you say this is worth something.

ROBERTS: Sure. Sure. Well, the biggest thing in his plan by far is regulations on existing coal-fired power plants. I really think, you know, in my endless quest to make climate change policy simple for people, I think one of the sort of simple things that people should remember is climate change is coal. Coal is climate change. It’s coal, cars, and cows. But coal in the U.S. is the big problem. And right now we have a large fleet of very old, very dirty coal plants that have no restrictions on their carbon dioxide emissions whatsoever. So finally EPA is, per the law, per what the Supreme Court said, going to regulate CO2 from coal plants.

Now, Obama did not say in his speech anything about the stringency of those regulations. So they could be weak, they could be strong. We don’t know yet. But strong regulations on CO2 emissions from coal plants would be by far the biggest accomplishment on climate change in Obama’s term. So that’s the big thing.

But there are other things, too. There are more increases in fuel efficiency for vehicles, which was a huge thing he did his first term, which I don’t think he gets enough credit for. And then if you dig down in the plan, there’s all sorts of little stuff like there’s a lot of things about helping farmers deal with drought, with adaptation, with getting cities starting to talk to each other and prepare for climate adaptation. There’s a really important piece about the U.S. saying it will no longer fund foreign coal plants. And the World Bank recently followed up on that and said it’s going to stop financing coal plants abroad. And that’s a big piece.

So a lot of this stuff is just moving the pieces of the federal apparatus in such a way as to lay the groundwork, I think, is a good way of looking at this. A lot of this is laying the groundwork for future changes. And you really have to get down in the machine and crank the gears and start getting people in the bureaucracy thinking about this and incorporating climate change and climate pollution into their day-to-day decisions. And that’s the sort of soil out of which bigger change will grow.

And so I don’t think you really–he’s getting enough credit. A lot of what needs to be done on this really is not a big, you know, grand dramatic gesture. It’s just mucking around in the machine and changing sort of the day-to-day operation of the federal bureaucracy. And that’s what most of the plan was devoted to. It’s not sexy, it’s not headline stuff, but it’s important work.

JAY: Nafeez.

AHMED: Well, you know, I think it’s important to recognize that when something good is done, that you accept it and you say, well, this is a good thing. However, I think we do need to give ourselves a reality check and remember that, you know, in the next few decades we’re looking at major transformations in the climate system which will undermine food production, lead to massive water scarcity, which will really challenge everything that we are used to in our Western way of life. And this is–we’re already seeing the effects of this in things like the Arab Spring and other kinds of issues that are going on and the kind of challenging problems we’re already seeing all over the world.

So I think the reality check is is that we’re headed for an uninhabitable planet before the end of this century, in my view. And that’s what the majority of climate scientists say. And, unfortunately, all of everything we’ve got on the table right now is just not enough. So while I think it is important, it is really important, actually, to recognize when government and when politics does do good stuff, ’cause if you just pooh-poohed it completely, you know, you’d just not be getting anywhere, but at the same time, it’s equally important to basically say, but this is like nothing compared to what we really need to be doing. And if we don’t say that, then we’re also being complicit in this juggernaut which is heading towards absolute catastrophe for us and our children and our grandchildren. So we need to kind of welcome, you know, baby steps. We also need to basically really be pushing for a lot, lot more radical, systemic change.

JAY: Okay. So what we’ll do is sometime in a few weeks we’ll reconvene this panel, maybe we’ll add a person or two to it, and we’ll start a whole series on why there isn’t a bigger movement demanding more dramatic, grand gestures on climate change. There’s a poll that just came out which apparently says that 75 percent of Americans under the age of 35 think that climate skeptics are crazy, and, in other words, accept that there is a real climate change crisis and that it’s human-caused. I’m not suggesting climate skeptics are crazy. I am quoting a poll. Alright. But if that’s the case, then–and if 75 percent of people under 35 believe all this, then they’re not on the streets about it. So that’s the question we’ll take up in a few weeks.

So, gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

AHMED: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thanks for having us.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget we’re in our summer fundraising campaign. If you want to see more of this kind of discussion and debate and more coverage on climate change, which I have to admit is maybe the weakest area of our work at the moment and something we need and will be paying much more attention to, then–but we need money to do it. So there’s–somewhere around here is a Donate button. And for every dollar you donate, it’s going to get matched.

So thank you again for joining us on The Real News Network.


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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)