Running From the Climate Challenge
Chris Williams of Pace University and Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University say the presidential candidates have not given the issue of climate change the attention it merits given that the future of humanity is at stake
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
It is New Hampshire Primaries week. The candidates’ policies on energy, the environment, and climate change were debated topics, at least among the Democratic candidates vying for a shot at the presidency. However, the subject of climate change has been notably absent from the Republican debates and campaigning platforms. A USA Today Rock the Vote poll found that the biggest voting demographic bloc, millennials, overwhelmingly support clean energy efforts, and in addition to that 81 percent of Americans agree that we should transition to clean energy by 2030.
Recently, the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy organization that [assists] political candidates support a pro-environment agenda, came out in support of Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, the Friends of the Earth, another high-profile environmental group, has thrown its support behind Bernie Sanders.
To discuss all of this and the kind of environmental policies that are required to seriously address the urgent problem of climate change we have two guests, Michael Oppenheimer and Chris Williams. Michael Oppenheimer is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences at Princeton University. He’s a participant in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He’s a lead author of the IPCC 5th Assessment report. And we’re joined by Chris Williams. He’s a longtime environmental activist, professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University, and chair of the science department at PACA Collegiate Institute. He’s the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. Thank you both for joining us today.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thank you, Sharmini.
MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Pleasure to be here.
PERIES: My first question to you, Michael. How concerned should Americans be about the disaster effects of climate change in our lifetime, and particularly in light of these elections?
OPPENHEIMER: I think it’s right up there as the number one, or among the number one problems that we have to deal with in this century. It really relates to the future of humanity writ large, and if we don’t grapple with it starting immediately, in fact we should have started 20 years ago, there’s little hope of avoiding a dangerous warming with changes which will be destructive and perhaps even catastrophic, particularly in countries that can least afford it.
As far as the presidential election, there’s been a discouraging lack of discussion about this issue on both sides. On the Republican side it’s been mostly because the candidates are running away from the issue because large segments of the Republican base in fact don’t believe in science at all, much less the science of climate change. And as far as the Democrats are concerned, I think because they probably don’t have sharply different views, although there are some differences, I’m sure, and because there’s no extreme position being raised in terms of not acting on it by either candidate, it also hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
There were some specific plans rolled out earlier by Clinton, and Sanders had said some constructive things along the way as well, although usually staying in kind of the 20,000-foot level. So I would like to see much more engagement between those two, and I’d like to see the Republicans get real about it, and tell us how they’re going to grapple with an issue that’s basically about the fate of the planet and the future generation, and beyond.
PERIES: Now, Chris, how serious do you think these candidates are about the issue?
WILLIAMS: Well, I mean, I don’t see how anybody could take Hillary Clinton very seriously on any principle, actually. But with regard to the environment, she has a, a long track record as Secretary of State of not just supporting fracking but actively causing it, its expansion internationally. And so–against the wishes of many of the inhabitants of Poland, Romania, she pushed the State Department and the U.S. government to make sure that fracking started to occur in those countries. She’s a big proponent of it. She fully supports Obama’s all-of-the-above energy policy, so yes, while there is some support for renewable energy there is continued support for more offshore drilling, more fracking, et cetera.
And so anybody who’s not really talking about shutting off and closing down some sections of industry, i.e. the fossil fuel industry, starting with the coal industry, and retraining those workers, and then shifting funds and subsidies–I mean trillions of dollars in subsidies, hundreds of millions, billions actually in the United States alone–to the fossil fuel industries, which is, should also be switched to alternative forms of energy. There was just a study out by [NOAA], U.S. government organization, saying that by 2030 we could have almost totally carbon-free energy cost competitive with fossil fuels. So the government itself is saying it’s possible, and yet the candidates are not following their lead.
So I think it’s the same story of talking about supply-side stuff without talking about the ways in which consumption is a problem, but never doing anything about production. And so based on where we are right now, and as Michael was just outlining with regard to the very severe consequences not just that we’ll face in the near-term future but the longer-term future even more, and many people, millions of people are already experiencing. So with regard to climate change, severe weather events and so on, it’s only going to get worse.
And so we really have to be acting now, and the next president is going to be in power until 2020. What are they really going to do? I don’t think any of the candidates have really talked about the ways in which actually we need to have much more control over our resources, democratic control, so that people have a say in what’s happening. For example, I mean, look at Flint right now, which was–the people there are being poisoned by not the corporations, actually, in this instance, but by their own government, by the elected representatives and the people who are there to protect them.
So why don’t we, Obama boasted while Hillary Clinton was in the State Department, boasted about laying more pipeline or enough pipeline for oil and gas production to encircle the earth and then some. But Flint is only 17 miles away from the Great Lakes. How come they’re not laying that pipeline? I think these are some pretty pointed questions that we should be asking about reorientating society away from the production of fossil fuels. And not just that, but like, how do we as a people have more say so that this is actually a democratic country instead of ruled by the corporations, which pay a lot of money to Hillary Clinton in particular to make sure that she abides by their interests as opposed to ours.
PERIES: And Michael, what do you make of what Chris is saying here?
OPPENHEIMER: Well, I tend to think of this problem in more concrete terms. What I’m interested in, if I had the candidates in the room, would be ask them what they’re going to do to make sure there isn’t a successful attack against the regulations that this administration, the current administration, has put on greenhouse gases which have our emissions going down significantly. I’d like to know what the plans are for making sure that downward trend continues, not just through 2025 or so, which is as far as the current plan goes, but in the decades beyond where we soon have to cut our emissions by 80 percent or more to make sure that there isn’t a dangerous warming.
And third, I’d like to know what the next president is going to do as far as international leadership is concerned, and really bringing other countries together with us, because no one country can solve this problem, to actually get the job done, so that while the goals that Chris has outlined and the problems that he’s underscored, related to structural issues within the American political system, are real and need to be grappled with, I also think that those probably won’t be fixed overnight. And in the meantime, earth is warming very rapidly and we need to do certain things in the short term. So I don’t see these agendas as being conflicting by any means, I just think we can’t afford to hold up dealing with greenhouse gases until these major structural changes are made.
PERIES: Michael, there’s obviously a certain sense of urgency here, and you as scientists, both of you have the moral obligation of guiding the public, having studied this issue for a while now. And especially as a member of IPCC. When you assess the two candidates’ position on climate change where is your emphasis? Who do you think has the better shot of really addressing the problem with the urgency it needs to be addressed with?
OPPENHEIMER: Well, first of all I want to say that I’ve been, I’ve been asked to provide some advice to Hillary Clinton, and I’ve done so on the science, not the politics. So I just think the viewers should know that, just so that in case they want to take that into account, my views.
But I think the distinctions between–the distinction between the candidates at this point, number one, we can’t tell so much because, as I said, neither of them has laid down the details that we’d like to see in terms of what they’re going to do specifically and immediately as soon as they become president, to deal with the problem. And number two, to the extent we do know what they’re going to do on the specifics, it’s not at this point vastly different. And number three, so it comes down to the argument that’s been raging as to whether, you know, the right thing to do is to have a next president who’s pragmatic, or argues that she’s pragmatic and can get things done in a practical, political sense, or one that is arguing that we need to, you know, very broad changes, which could be rather difficult. But who as a politician, I understand, has been very good himself at making deals in the Congress when they, in the Senate, when they needed to be made.
So I’m not going to put down a preference here between the two of them, becuase they’re both, like, in a different universe compared to the alternative of one of the Republican candidates. I think in either case they’re both going to have to deal with it, and they both will find themselves in a position of dealing with the climate problem.
PERIES: One serious indicator of how the two candidates, in this case the Democratic candidates, stand on climate change is really the Trans-Pacific Partnership and where you stand with it, because so much of it is, makes the climate vulnerable. Let me ask you, Michael, are there any components of that agreement that you’re seriously concerned about, by way of the issue of protecting our environment?
OPPENHEIMER: It’s a little difficult to tell exactly which revisions would affect what with regard to climate change. But there certainly have been some question about the agreement, which both candidates, in fact, have, have taken exception to.
I think, rather, you want to step back when you ask that question, and look at the global trade situation as a whole, and say, you know, what’s being done through trade that favors fixing the greenhouse problem, and what’s being done that hurts it? And frankly I think that the whole, the global trade agreement should be taken apart, so to speak, at least metaphorically, and throw away the stuff that’s getting in the way of fixing the problem, and put some new arrangements in which will, for instance, get rid of trade barriers to goods which, like renewable energy systems, which actually cut greenhouse gas emissions. I think that, you know, we’re probably not going to throw away the whole global trade system right now, and there’s some good stuff in it and there’s some not so good stuff in it. But–so that a clever way to get at it is to try to figure out which elements of it can be dealt with.
Now, you know, again, there’s kind of a difference between me and Chris on this. In my view, yes, I’m very glad there are, there are people out there who don’t, who don’t have the patience for moderate measures and want it the whole hog all at once. And sometimes that works, and usually it doesn’t. But if you keep trying, maybe it will. But while we’re trying to have a revolution in terms of the way the world deals with energy, for instance, I think we need a lot of pragmatism at the same time.
So it’s a combination, and I don’t criticize anybody’s approach as long as it’s constructive, and I think we need both kinds of actors in this system, frankly.
PERIES: All right. Chris, let me give you the last word, if you could address the Trans-Pacific Partnership in particular, and what challenges there are in that agreement that could compromise the environment.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, sure, thanks. I mean, I, I completely agree with Michael, that I’m all for moderate measures as well. I just think that while we’re fighting for moderate measures we shouldn’t lose sight that there’s a big horizon for social change, which is necessary, really. I mean, if we’re talking about actually staying under 2 degrees C, there need to be vast changes to our entire social system in the way in which this system currently operates, with profit as the bottom line. Then we are not going to get anywhere unless we start readdressing the power relationships that exist within that system.
And so yes, we want to win small things. I want to win a new pipeline, just 70 miles. That’s actually quite small considering the tens of thousands of miles of oil and gas pipeline that they’ve been laying all over the country during Obama’s administration. Why can’t they lay 70 miles to get clean water to Flint? We could do that in a couple of weeks if they applied the capital and the labor to it. So why isn’t that being talked about? That seems pretty reasonable to me, actually. Stop poisoning the people of this country. So–but then, they don’t want to do that, because they want to spend money elsewhere.
And TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there is a very important clause in there that they want to make sure stays in there, and that’s guaranteed future profits, which is modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. They promised all kinds of things with NAFTA, which was signed by another Democrat, Bill Clinton, that there would be protections for labor, that there would be protections for the environment. None of that has come true. So let’s look at the evidence for what they say is going to happen when they negotiate these treaties not with us, but with the corporations who are going to benefit from it. What is the end result of NAFTA? It’s been devastating for Mexico, devastating for the environment, devastating for jobs, generally. But it’s been extremely profitable for the corporations involved.
So TPP will put NAFTA to shame with regard to how much money these people are going to make at the top of society, and the price is going to be paid by ordinary people and by nature. And so this system operates by exploiting both, and that’s why we have to re-regulate it. That’s why we need to ultimately try something different. And that’s why I think actually there is an answer to capitalism, and that’s socialism. And I’m glad that people are reinvestigating that word and what it might mean as an alternative.
And excited about the fact that somebody standing for president, who calls himself a democratic socialist, whether he ultimately is or not, is not as important I think as the fact that people are looking for some genuine alternatives. Because people are really sick of this, and as much as we haven’t seen radical change in this country for a little while, outside of things like–I mean, look at the way in which gay marriage has been won, as I mentioned earlier, and the way in which it’s changed people’s opinions about gender and sexuality. It’s incredibly exciting change in just a few short years.
So what else can we do? I think we should be asking that question. Rather than lowering our, our sights, and thinking about, well, what can we kind of cajole out of these people who are basically controlled by big business, what else can we do? How can we form a larger movement, a larger organization, independent organizations? Why isn’t Bernie running as an independent? He’d be a much stronger candidate. I think we should be asking those kind of questions, and really put up a fight with regard to saving our world.
PERIES: All right, Chris. Thank you so much for joining us today. And Michael Oppenheimer, I thank you both, and I hope you guys come back and weigh in as we follow the elections in this upcoming year.
OPPENHEIMER: Thank you so much.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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