Nafeez Ahmed: Environmental activists need to redouble efforts to demand Obama reject Keystone XL, abandon hydrofracking, and adopt tougher emission standards
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
We now continue our coverage of President Obama’s major address he delivered Tuesday outlining his plans to tackle climate change.
We are now joined by Dr. Nafeez Ahmed. He’s a best-selling author, investigative journalist, and international security scholar. He is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization, among other books. He writes for The Guardian on the geopolitics of environmental, energy, and economic crises on his Earth Insight blog.
Thank you for being with us.
DR. NAFEEZ AHMED, DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT: Thank you.
NOOR: So you just wrote a piece about how Obama’s new climate-change strategy will actually guarantee global warming disaster. Can you talk about what you’re arguing? Because if you read what a lot of his supporters that have been critical of his environmental policies say, they say this is a sharp break from the past, what previous administrations have been doing around climate change. What’s your response?
AHMED: Well, on one hand, I agree and I concede that absolutely this plan is unprecedented in the history of the United States. It’s the first time we’ve had such a wide-ranging, comprehensive plan on the environment, and in that sense it’s to be welcomed. And there’s a lot of great stuff in the plan. So it would be foolish to kind of say that this isn’t a huge a step forward.
But I think we need to have a reality check about what this plan actually means. And the reality is is that the scientists are saying is that if you look at the nature of the pledges that are being put on the table not only by the United States but also by China, also by Europe, also by the U.K. and other major powers, unfortunately they’re just not good enough in terms of avoiding the danger of climate catastrophe. And the problem is that we have accepted in the international policymaking circuit this limit of 2 degrees Celcius as a maximum limit for safe–for, you know, what is supposed to be the safe level of warming, and beyond that we enter the realm of dangerous climate change.
Now, all the models are telling us that even if Obama’s plan goes ahead with everything that it’s going to have in it, that still will not be enough to prevent us from hitting dangerous climate change within this century and having a temperature rise of between 3 to 4 degrees Celsius at least, according to the most conservative models looking at this scenario of implementation of these pledges, at least. And that means once we get into that danger realm, you’re going to trigger these positive feedbacks in the Arctic, in the Amazon rain forest, and other key ecosystems, which themselves will lead to further warming. And that’s really the danger is that once we hit that danger zone, it’s going to get worse.
So my concern is really to look at this from a species level point of view, is that this really is not good for humanity. We need a lot more. That’s the reality check. I mean, it’s not about Obama and his character and whether what he’s doing is well intentioned or not well intentioned. I’m not really bothered about that. What I’m worried about is: are these plans really going to be enough? But unfortunately they’re not.
NOOR: Now, his supporters say this represents progress, if nothing else. What’s your response?
AHMED: Of course it is progress. I mean, you’d much rather reduce emissions to some extent than not reduce them at all. If we didn’t reduce them at all, it would be even worse.
But, again, you know, this is–when we get involved in the political games, you know, it’s the environment that’s at stake. For me, as far as I’m concerned, is: does this 17 percent cut actually deal with the issue of stopping us from getting into the realm of dangerous climate change? It doesn’t. It doesn’t do that.
And if you actually look at it in comparison to the 1990 level, there’s only 4 percent cut, when you look at it from that perspective. So it really isn’t that much of a huge cut. It’s quite a modest cut.
So, yeah, it’s a good thing that we’ve committed to something in the United States, but it’s just not good enough. And, you know, this is not–the United States is clearly not alone in having pledged, you know, modest pledges which don’t go far enough. You know, this–all of the other major powers have done the same thing.
What–it’s worth bearing in mind that the United States government under the Obama administration did play a pretty heavy role in really effectively sabotaging international negotiations. And most people in the environment movement are quite aware of this, that the U.S. role in recent negotiations in Cancun, in Copenhagen, was effectively to dilute them. And it’s prevented major powers from reaching emissions pledges that could have been a lot more drastic, a lot more effective.
So we’re in this situation where the pledges that we have are just not going to cut it, and we are on this trajectory, even with these pledges, getting to dangerous–a really worrying danger zone that, you know, people like NASA’s James Hansen have warned that this could lead to major positive feedbacks, which could lead to further warming even beyond what the human effect on the planet is.
NOOR: Now, a lot of climate activists from around the world and in the U.S. that were disappointed by the Obama administration’s approach to the UN conference of parties you referred to, they focused on the Keystone XL pipeline and pressuring President Obama to either delay or block that decision. Now, he broke his silence on Keystone XL in his speech, saying he will only approve the pipeline if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.
Now, many of his supporters saw this as hope that he would ultimately decide to not approve it. But others, including many Republicans, say that because the State Department already had a review earlier this year which concluded that the Keystone would not raise carbon pollution, that this means that President Obama will actually in fact go ahead and approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Can you talk more about this?
AHMED: Well, I think there’s a number of issues here. The first is is really that, you know, it’s pretty clear that the U.S. government has been aware that there is massive opposition to the Keystone pipeline. And it’s worth remembering that it’s actually the environment movement that has managed to rally popular outrage a lot more effectively than other social movements in recent years. And the Keystone pipeline has been a major sticking point for activists. So this is clearly something the government would want to address.
The second point I think that is worth bearing in mind is that the Republicans are making an interesting and valid point by noting that a lot of the processes and planning processes that were in place to examine and decide whether or not Keystone should happen have already happened, and they’ve happened completely outside of any kind of public arena or Democratic kind of decision-making process, you know, that we’re now seeing that, you know, the president is kind of saying that, oh, we’re going to look at all of these other issues and we still have yet to make a decision. But why is it that we do have these documents that clearly say the decisions have been made? There’s already been investments that have been made. There’s already been–there’s a very–I mean, this is–there’s a long litany of documentation, actually, which shows how entrenched the U.S. government policy is on Keystone. So I would be wary with assuming that all of that would suddenly be reversed.
Thirdly, I think one has to assess what Obama is saying here against his track record in relation to other issues, such as the NDAA, such as drone strikes, such as the NSA PRISM issue. All of these issues show that Obama is very good at mobilizing very powerful rhetoric which can be quite convincing and in fact effectively diffuses and confuses potential opposition to his decisions, to the Democratic Party, and so on and so forth. But in fact what he actually does in practice can often be very, very different. And whether that’s a result of him personally or whether it’s because of the inevitable structures of power in which he’s operating is, you know, a debate that we can have, but the facts do speak for themselves that Obama often says things that his–and his administration tends to the do the opposite, and that often bears the stamp of his approval. I’m concerned that this could happen again in Keystone.
Fourthly, and my last and final point on this, really, is to look at another element of the government’s track record on this, which is the shale gas. And, you know, we’ve already–President Obama already said in his speech that, you know, clearly fracking and exploitation of shale gas and oil is going to be a major part of this apparent environmental strategy. And this is really, really worrying, ’cause as I point out in my Guardian article–and I’ve documented this in more detail in my book–shale gas is not the clean bridge fuel. Peer-reviewed scientific studies show that shale gas, in the process of exploiting it, releases methane, which is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And because of this, the environmental impact of shale gas can actually be even worse than conventional gas. And according to one comprehensive study in climactic change, published in 2011, and again in 2012 a further updated study, it’s even worse than coal.
So this is really worrying for me. And the fact that the U.S. government has already signed off on a devastating policy of promoting shale gas, which we know is going to contribute to further greenhouse gases, really for me makes me wonder how much we can trust the judgment of this administration in ensuring that it doesn’t back the Keystone pipeline, which we know, according to all the best scientific evidence, is already and will contribute immensely to greenhouse gases and also other forms of environmental degradation. So it’s pretty clear to me if you look at the government’s track record that this doesn’t–it’s not likely that Obama’s just going to say, hey, Keystone can go to hell.
NOOR: And I wanted to ask you: what challenge does this speech and his rhetoric in his speech pose to the same activists that we talked about that were on the front lines committing civil disobedience, making the Keystone XL, for example, a key issue that Obama had to address? What is their role going to have to be if climate change is addressed in a way that will prevent global climate disaster?
AHMED: In my view, I think we have to keep the pressure up, more so than ever before. And I think that’s the tactic. I mean, arguably–and this is perhaps a cynical perspective–but I think based on the track record of government so far, it’s not unjustified that the U.S. government and the Obama–you know, President Obama himself, I think, are attempting to really diffuse dissent and to really say, look, guys, you don’t need to be so angry, you don’t need to be so opposed to what we’re doing, you can trust us, you can trust the president, you can trust the decisions he’s going to make. He’s going to do his due diligence, ’cause he’s a father, I mean, he’s a great guy, and he loves the environment, and he’ll do anything for the environment. That’s the message that they’re trying to give out.
And the danger is that activists are going to basically say, well, you know, we don’t really need to worry so much now, because the president himself has signed off on this amazing strategy and everything is going to be fine. And, unfortunately, it’s not going to be fine. And whether or not we accept Obama’s statements at face value–and, again, I emphasize that whatever my personal views, I’m personally very skeptical of Obama’s policies and the way he presents them. But whatever one’s view is, the issue of personality, the issue of his intentions is not the point here. The point is that in reality, what will the impact of these policies be? The science shows the impact of these policies are not enough and that we are still on a devastating trajectory with or without these current pledges we have on the table. More needs to be done.
The other issue, of course, is that we need to keep up the pressure to make sure that we don’t allow the environmental movement to be diffused or confused by these kind of reassurances and to say we do need change, we need radical, dramatic, drastic change. These changes that are put forward in this climate plan, there are many, many positive changes in there which people in the environment movement can use and say, look, these are things which are being endorsed by the government, this is the thrust of the kind of changes that we need to see, but we need more, we need a lot more. We need a radical systemic change in our societies, the way our economies operate, and of course the way we do politics. But this is something that the environment movement needs to really kind of take ownership over.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us.
AHMED: Thank you.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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