Is Obama Walking Into COP21 With An Empty Hand?

NYU’s Christian Parenti says international agreements will remain largely symbolic if the Obama administration fails to aggressively push for green economic policies

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

With the UN climate change conference in Paris beginning on November 30, many Republicans and some Democratic politicians are intensifying their efforts to block national and international climate change legislation. On Tuesday the U.S. Senate voted to block the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in a 52-46 vote, challenging the Obama administration’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal power plants. The Senate also passed a resolution against further regulation on new coal-fired power plants as well. So a lot to discuss, but President Obama says he’ll veto both resolutions. So we want to put this all into context.

So joining us to discuss these resolutions and the strategy behind them is our guest Christian Parenti. He’s a professor at NYU’s global liberal studies program, and his most recent book is titled Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Thanks for joining us, Christian.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So let’s jump right into this, Christian. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. You have Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia. They’re both obviously going to be big supporters of these type of resolutions, because they come from coal-producing states. But a big part of their argument points to how President Obama’s coal power regulations would eliminate good-paying jobs and punish the poor.

First off, do they have a point? Is there any statistical evidence backing that assertion?

PARENTI: I mean, obviously if we shut down the coal industry 70,000 coal miners would lose their jobs. But already more people, twice as many people, are employed installing solar panels than work in the coal industry. So the fact of the matter is the green jobs discourse, which unfortunately has sort of, it kind of went away with sort of the fall from grace of Van Jones, who was the green jobs czar, I think there’s a lot to that. And you know, there should be programs to help with a just transition, which is a term joined by Tony Misaki, who was a progressive and insurgent leader of the Atomic and Chemical Workers Union, so it comes right out of the labor movement.

But there’s also–if we build out a clean tech sector, there is going to be lots of employment. And to the extent that we are making directions towards a clean transition, we are seeing a growth in jobs. Good, clean jobs.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Now that we know they’re blocking the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Republicans, and as I mentioned some Democrats, this is largely seen as symbolic. But since we have COP21 coming up in Paris in about a week, what does this resolution really represent, then?

PARENTI: This resolution represents the importance of the EPA, as far as I see it. And one of the main problems of the EPA is also the Democratic party and Barack Obama. The history behind this resolution is this: that the U.S. signs the Kyoto Protocol in the late ’90s, which is the first agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. So the Clinton administration signs that, but they can’t get it ratified by the Senate. So then there’s a lawsuit by states that says the EPA has to regulate greenhouse gas emissions because they qualify as pollution under the Clean Air Act. In 2007 the Supreme Court said that’s true, the EPA must regulate greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve been waiting since then for meaningful action on this front, and the Obama administration has been really bad in that regard.

So this Clean Power Plan that is now underway, that the Senate is rejecting symbolically because they’ll be overridden by the president, should have been one of the first things on the Obama agenda. And instead he pursued this attempt to create cap and trade legislation, comprehensive climate legislation, one version of which would have stripped the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. That failed, and he dragged his feet throughout the rest of his two terms. And so now we’re, you know, at last ditch effort, we’re getting the Clean Power Plan, which is a step in the right direction but ultimately inadequate.

So what it says internationally is that the U.S. isn’t going to go along with this. It’s trying to, you know, throw cold water on the Paris talks. But it also says something that progressives and environmentalists should look at. The right wing in this country has been obsessed with the EPA. Why? Because the EPA has the power necessary to impose a de facto carbon tax on the economy. If the EPA issues the 20 or more tailoring rules that we’re waiting for, pursuant to Mass v. EPA, which is what this Clean Power Plan is about, it’s the first step in that direction or one of the first steps. We would effectively raise the cost of dirty energy like gas and coal-fired electricity, and relatively lower the expense of clean energy, and investment would flow into that.

So a lot of environmental organizations are uncomfortable dealing with the government, and they prefer kind of essentially private solutions. And I’ve been critical of this on numerous fronts, even as I’m very supportive of the environmental movement. But–so we’ve pursued divestment, we’ve pursued corporate campaigns, and overlooked the role of government and its ability to control industry and shape industry. And that, to me, just reflects the ways in which neoliberal kind of anti-government ideology has infected even certain precincts of progressive and left politics in the United States.

But if you look at the left–if you look at the right wing, from the very beginning they were obsessed. The Koch brothers have been obsessed with the EPA, trying to stop it and shut it down, ever since the beginning. And that’s because they know it’s potentially very, very powerful. And that’s good news for us.

DESVARIEUX: Yes. And that obsession is now shifting to the Green Climate Fund. It’s still environmental, obviously, news. But they’re now saying they’re going to be making plans to prohibit U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund. That’s a fund set up to help developing countries build adaptation and mitigation to counter climate change. Christian, will this type of proposal undermine President Obama’s attempt to make any sort of real agreement that has some teeth there in Paris on November 30?

PARENTI: Well, it might. It might not undermine the ability to create an agreement, but it will definitely undermine the ability to implement an agreement. So you know, my understanding is that this is not going to be framed as a treaty that has to be ratified by the Senate, but it will be a presidential agreement so that it can be signed and ratified–not ratified, but go into effect that way.

It’s very serious. And it’s one of just many problems that this whole process faces. And I don’t really put a lot of faith in these international agreements. I think they’re important, and I really want there to be a successful agreement. But I think the main thing that is going to drive the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy is the action of large economies as regards their internal decisions. So what we’re seeing in China, for example, is very important. In response to what they call Smogageddon, Airageddon, just the horrible local air quality in China, there is significant investment going into clean energy. And it’s not because it’s about saving the world, it’s because the local pollution problems in China are so intense they have to deal with that. That investment in China is helping to bring down the price of all of the clean technologies. Wind power, et cetera. But particularly photovoltaics. The price of photovoltaics have been dropping. And I think those kinds of national-level programs that ultimately affect the price of clean power technology at a global scale, that that’s what is most important in terms of the coming decades.

Because the Kyoto Protocol was ratified. Not by the U.S., but it, you know. No country that signed up to that treaty met its targets except for Russia, because of the economic collapse that happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And that saw the worst decline of living standards in peacetime ever, and as a result Russia reduced its emissions by 5 percent. So you know, these international agreements are important, they set the stage. It’s definitely the Clean Development Fund–not to be confused with the Clean Development Mechanism. But that would or could be really important. Countries need access to technology, and they need capital to make the transition off of dirty fossil fuels and to adapt to the new extreme weather that is part of climate change.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Christian Parenti, joining us from Brooklyn, New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

PARENTI: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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