Prof. Robert Pollin of Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) and Prof. Chris Williams of Pace University says there is a lot that President Obama could do to reduce carbon emissions in spite of the Republican-controlled congress


Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. In the State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, President Obama stated that no challenge poses a greater threat to the next generation than climate change. Citing recent reports from NASA and NOAA, he said that 2014 was the hottest year on record. Further, out of the 15 years of the 21st century, 14 were the warmest years in recorded history. Let’s have a look at what he had to say. ~~~ BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: (…) 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century. I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what–I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and at NOAA, and at our major universities. And the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate…. ~~~ PERIES: With us to help break down President Obama’s State of the Union address in relation to the climate change crisis are our two guests. Joining us from New York, New York, is Chris Williams. He is a long-time environmental activist, professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University. He is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. Also joining us, from Amherst, Massachusetts, is Robert Pollin. Pollin is professor of economics and founding codirector of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of two forthcoming books, Green Growth and The Global Clean Energy Transformation. Thank you both for joining us. ROBERT POLLIN, CODIRECTOR, POLITICAL ECONOMY RESEARCH INSTITUTE: Thank you. CHRIS WILLIAMS, AUTHOR, ECOLOGY AND SOCIALISM: Thank you. PERIES: Bob, let me start with you by getting your reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union in relation to the environment. POLLIN: There really wasn’t much there, Sharmini, which was disappointing, in the sense that the area of climate is, one, maybe the most prominent one in which President Obama has previously said, look, I’m going to go ahead with my agenda and I’m going to use my executive authority to proceed with it regardless of what the Republican Congress wants. He didn’t really go into that at all. It was more vague generalities, including around the issue of the agreement with China. I think it’s fair to say that the fact that the U.S. is saying they’re going to cut emissions and they’ve got China to say they’re going to stabilize emissions and start cutting is broadly favorable. It’s a lot better than not doing it. But the U.S. and China, who represent 40 percent of all global emissions, they have to make massive cuts. I mean absolute cuts, not reductions in the rate of increase. They have to make absolute cuts in the range of 40 to 50 percent over the next 20 years in order for the globe to have a chance of achieving climate stabilization. That’s how serious it is. And if we get everything that Obama has previously said he’s going to do, we would miss the target by about 40 percent, so that it was disappointing, in that Obama did not come out much more aggressively and say, I’m going to proceed with my agenda and I’m going to push my agenda further because if I don’t do that, the world is never going to achieve our climate reduction, emissions stabilization. So in that sense it was not really much there. PERIES: Chris, what jumped out at you in terms of the president’s State of Union last night? WILLIAMS: I agree that he didn’t really say anything new. And on the one hand, there don’t need to be any new laws to regulate carbon dioxide. The 2007 EPA v. Massachusetts rulings, pre-court ruling, illustrates that the president and the EPA has the right to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. And so we don’t need any new laws. But really, I mean, it’s kind of surprising that–I’m surprised that he can even keep a straight face when he talks, because, on the one hand, he’s saying that climate change is the biggest threat to human civilization. On the other hand, he doesn’t talk about it. So at the same time as what he does talk about, he mentions an expansion of energy production in the United States. Energy production has almost doubled in the last six years, specifically production of fossil fuels from tracking for oil and gas. And he’s also touting new trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will absolutely totally undermine any ability for national economies to say, no, we don’t want to go down this path, because it’s based on damaging the environment. They’ll be taken to court. And so it offers unrestricted access; the new trade deals that he was talking about offer unrestricted access to corporations to continue plundering the planet to the cost of the environment, and ultimately, obviously, every living thing on the planet. So there was nothing new in what he was saying, and where he did mention climate change as a huge problem, he then undermined his own argument by saying, well, we’re going to carry on producing fossil fuels, we’re going to initiate new trade deals. And I’m, frankly, quite concerned about the fact that the two biggest polluters on the planet are starting to set the agenda for supposedly ameliorating some aspects of their emissions, but not actually talking about reducing them. What we need is absolute and massive reductions starting immediately, not some time off in the far future when we’ve stabilized, as opposed to actually reduced, because we know that stabilization will come on top of increases in the meantime. PERIES: Bob, in your first response, you said that President Obama could have taken a stronger and a firmer position and moved forward with dealing with the environmental crisis and climate change that we are in. What did you mean by that? POLLIN: As Chris said, if Obama is going to acknowledge, as he did, that climate change represents a threat to civilization and to the ecology, that we’re going down a path of global suicide here, potentially. I mean, he does talk, he incorporates that rhetoric. If he’s going to talk in those terms, then he needs to then follow up by, say, we need to make massive changes now that will enable is not to stabilize emissions, but to reduce emissions in the ranges we’ve talked about before, 40 to 50 percent, the U.S., China as well. Now, as we’ve talked about before on The Real News Network, I myself think achieving those climate stabilization goals is entirely feasible and actually would be good for jobs. It would be good for the working class in the United States and in China, because we’re going to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and those are going to generate more jobs, the jobs that are lost in the fossil fuel industry. So, say that and say that this is going to be something that is going to be beneficial to working people, to their families, and it’s going to be the only path that we have to hit these targets. And it’s feasible. On top of that, we have to also say, you know what? It is going to be bad for people in the fossil fuel industry. And he’s going to have to acknowledge that. The fossil fuel industry is going to have to contract massively. The communities and the workers that are tied to the industry, we need transitional policies for them. It’s what Tony Mazzocchi, the late, great environmental and labor ][leader] used to call a super fund for workers. That’s what we need. And that’s what we should have said. And everyone would like that, except the fossil fuel industry. PERIES: Chris, last night, President Obama stated that the agreement with China might go a long way in terms of reducing emissions. But in our earlier conversations on The Real News, you had said that we actually don’t have the technology that is required to reduce the emission levels to the target that they had stated in the agreements. Elaborate on that, will you? WILLIAMS: Yeah, well, just in terms of some of the emissions reductions plans based on carbon capture and sequestration, which is not commercially available technology in any sense of the term. So the idea that we can carry on producing, burning fossil fuels, which produces carbon dioxide, as long as we then bury the carbon dioxide in enormous quantities, is the basis on which the fossil fuel economy can continue to grow. And part of the predictions about reductions in emissions are not so much in phasing out fossil fuels but in finding out supposedly more environmentally friendly ways of burning them. And that technology doesn’t exist on any kind of scale and seems unlikely to be able to bring to scale, thinking about the enormous volumes of gas that we’re talking about burying somewhere underground. So that seems like a completely phantasmagorical fantasyland of planning and just kicks things down the road safely to the next administration or the administration after that, where, before, we actually would have to take action. And you’re basing your predictions on something that doesn’t exist when we have plenty of technology that we know it not only exists, but works really, really well. I mean, how do we have the fourth-largest economy in the world, Germany, with 40 to 50 percent of its electricity now based on wind and solar panels in a place that’s not really very sunny? So how did they manage that? And their economy has not collapsed. In fact, it’s provided lots and lots of jobs, as Bob was saying. So, I mean, all of this conversation would be very depressing if we didn’t have some answers to how do we not burn 18 million barrels of oil every single day of the year. But we do. And the question is: why isn’t investment flowing into that when we know that 20 percent of the total world investment in crude oil at the moment, 20 percent of that is in U.S. fracking for oil and gas? So this is an enormous new area for investment, which has been completely facilitated by the Obama administration, and they are intent on expanding further and building more pipelines on top of the 250 million miles of pipeline that already exist in the U.S. between the oil and gas infrastructure. PERIES: Gentlemen, let’s take up the Keystone XL Pipeline in our next segment and continue this discussion. Thank you very much for joining me. POLLIN: Thank you. WILLIAMS: Thanks very much. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


Robert Pollin

Robert Pollin is Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is the founding co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI). His research centers on macroeconomics, conditions for low-wage workers in the US and globally, the analysis of financial markets, and the economics of building a clean-energy economy in the US. His latest book is Back to Full Employment. Other books include: A Measure of Fairness: the Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States, and Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity.