Road to Trump’s Climate Change Hell Paved by Obama and Clinton
Gerald Horne, Robert Pollin and Paul Jay discuss the debate within the Trump White House on whether to leave the Paris climate accords or just undermine them; and how this relates to the fight within the Democratic Party
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
According to the New York Times, there’s a big debate going on within the Trump White House. A debate is on one side, led by Steve Bannon and his allies, pull out of the Paris Climate Accords altogether. And on the other side of this debate is, “Let’s not pull out, but let’s make sure we actually don’t do very much.” In other words, “Can we stay within the Paris Accords?” this side argues, and that includes Secretary of State Tillerson, we are told.
This side says, “Well, we can stay in it, but we actually don’t have to do very much. In fact we can lower our pledge, and we will still be within the legality of the agreement.” Which is all kind of odd anyway, because the agreement’s non-binding. But one side argues, let’s keep the positioning looking not as bad, and the other side says let’s be honest and just get the heck out of it.
All of this should be put into this context, I think. It was only a few months ago that seven leading climate scientists, including Sir Robert Watson, who’s the former chair of the IPCC, said that even if all the countries that pledged at the Paris Accords, even if they all met their pledges, well, we’re still going to hit the 2-degree threshold. We’re going to pass the 2-degree threshold by 2050.
Now, if Trump reverses much of the — I would say modest reforms, but there was something under Obama, at least the emissions regulation to cars had seemed meaningful. With all that now being reversed, is that 2050 date still meaningful? In other words, are we really going to cross this very dangerous threshold, perhaps by 2040, 2035?
What does all this mean? Trump climate policy. What does it mean for us — us as a species? And then also, I’m going to ask in this interview, just why is climate change not at the very top of people’s political agenda?
Now, joining us to talk about all of this, first of all, is Gerald Horne. Gerald joins us from the African American Studies at the University of Houston, where he is the chair. He’s also the author of many books, most recently The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America.
And Robert Pollin joins us from Amherst. He is the Distinguished Professor of Economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute, known as PERI, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He’s the author of several books, including Greening the Global Economy.
Thank you both for joining us.
ROBERT POLLIN: Thank you very much for having me, Paul.
PAUL JAY: Bob, let’s start with you. You’ve done a lot of work on energy and climate policy. I guess in your wildest imaginations, when we were doing these interviews during the Obama administration, and we were critiquing often, how little had been done — you know, we just did a little exercise this morning at The Real News.
We went through President Obama’s State of the Union speeches. You can only find about four or five sentences, at best, about climate change in his State of the Unions, in 2011 not a single sentence. It’s not like it was ever the priority of the administration, but who would’ve thought the next administration would be catastrophically worse. What does that all mean for us?
ROBERT POLLIN: It’s disastrous. I don’t think there’s any way around it. If we are going to take the findings of climate science seriously, as you said in your introduction, even the agreements reached in Paris in December 2015 are, you know, wholly inadequate to the task of trying to achieve climate stabilization.
You quoted this work by Watson. Generally speaking, groups like Carbon Tracker, they find that if all the pledges at Paris are met by all the countries, we are still on track to exceeding pre-industrial average temperatures by 2.5 to 2.7 degrees Celsius. So, the climate agreement itself — not just the United States — the Paris agreement itself is a first step, but it is a very meek, modest first step.
Now, on top of that, if we have the leading industrial economy, the United States, saying that our choices are we’re either going to pull out altogether from the Paris agreement, or not pay any attention to it, and minimize what our pledges are, yeah, the only way to characterize it is catastrophic. Either that or climate change is all a bunch of bunk, and we don’t have to pay any attention to it. There really are no alternatives there. Either it’s a disaster, or climate change just happens to be — climate science just happens to be — completely wrong.
PAUL JAY: Gerald, there was an interview with President Obama last September, where he says the climate change argument is kind of over. Most Americans get that there’s climate change, and global warming. He says the real issue now is how to act.
But surveys actually don’t show that. There’s an important Yale study recently, which says that, while I think it was 72%, 73% of Americans believe global warming is real, 50% of them don’t think it’s caused by human activity. Only one in ten people surveyed knew there was a scientific consensus, that more than 90% of scientists thought climate change is caused by humans, and its implications are catastrophic.
What do you make of this fact that there’s such a level of denial, and climate change is just so low on almost everybody’s political agenda?
GERALD HORNE: Well, first of all, those who are paying attention to U.S. politics should not be surprised by the fact that magical thinking is the dominant characteristic. Particularly when one considers that a billionaire conman was elected, supposedly to protect the interests of a certain sector of the working class.
If you look at other kinds of polling data, you may not be shocked to ascertain that many Republican voters feel that those who are defined as white actually face more discrimination than black Americans, who were the descendants of enslaved Africans. This should point us to the reality that those who deny climate science are not necessarily in a category where they’re accepting other kinds of realistic predictions and prognostications.
I think that if you look at the history of the United States, what you’ll come to see rather quickly is that in order for the United States to move away from both slavery and Jim Crow, it is extraordinary global pressure. Likewise, if the United States is going to adhere to climate science, we may want to take seriously the proposal that has been floating around for some years now, that a tariff be placed on certain U.S. exports, with the funds being poured into a climate fund, that will be devoted to the interests of so-called climate refugees, that is to say, those who flee from Africa, or Asia, or Latin America because of the deleterious impact of global warming, or that that fund be devoted to certain kinds of technologies which can rescue the planet from the disaster that the Trump coalition is promising for us all.
Admittedly, this is not necessarily a realistic prediction or reform, given the global correlation of forces with Washington keeping its thumb on the scale, but certainly we need to start thinking along those lines, if we are going to rescue humanity.
PAUL JAY: Bob, not only did the media barely cover climate change in 2016, something like 96 minutes of total coverage by the four or five major broadcasters — and that included Fox — but part of the reason corporate media doesn’t cover this is because the leadership of the Democratic Party has never made it a real campaign issue. Certainly Hillary Clinton just mentioned it once in a while, during her campaign. She was just interviewed on CNN just this last weekend, and she named two of the great challenges facing America, and it was robotics and artificial intelligence, not climate change. And this is on the same weekend, with two to three hundred thousand people —
and if you take the numbers across the country many more — are out in the streets about climate change.
How do we deal with this issue that, in terms of the mass media, and public consciousness, there just is so little sense of urgency about this?
ROBERT POLLIN: Well, first of all I want to congratulate The Real News, because unlike the other media outlets that you just mentioned, The Real News did excellent coverage of the climate march last weekend. So, there are certainly outlets that are giving it a lot of attention. There are people that care a lot. That’s what the demonstration shows.
I mean, again, if we want to invoke historical patterns, you know, in the anti-Vietnam War protest era it took years before there was any serious breakthrough in the mainstream media, in terms of recognition of the protesters, but more significantly of the savagery of the Vietnam War.
Eventually, we did break through. So, I think the only thing that we can keep doing is the kind of thing that you, and The Real News, and other people, progressives, that were out marching and supporting it, and people doing work on the issue, is keep doing what we’re doing, just keep doing it relentlessly, always do it better, and make the connection. Which has been one of my main areas of work. Make the connection that building a green economy, which can stabilize the climate, is also good for human well being.
It’s good for employment. It does not slow down economic growth. It will open up new areas of job opportunities, for women, minorities, for union organizing. I myself am doing projects right now, commissioned by coalitions of environmental and labour groups, which I think is a new thing, that labour and environmental groups are getting together, and taking this challenge seriously.
So, there are breakthroughs to get to the point at which we force mainstream political parties and figures to act on it. You know, we have to keep fighting for it.
PAUL JAY: Gerald, in that interview with Hillary Clinton, she declared herself part of the “resistance”:
HILLARY CLINTON: I can’t be anything other than who I am, and I spent decades learning about what it would take to move our country forward — including people who, you know, clearly didn’t vote for me — to try to make sure that we dealt with a lot of these hard issues that are right around the corner, like robotics and artificial intelligence, and things that are really going to be upending the economy, for the vast majority of Americans, to say nothing of the rest of the world.
So, you know, I’m now back to being an activist-citizen, and part of the resistance.
PAUL JAY: It seems to me that this struggle on the issue of climate is very linked to the struggle inside the Democratic Party. I mean, clearly, the Republican Party is not going to be the one that’s going to give any leadership in a positive way on climate change.
But the corporate Democrats did very little, and Hillary — it wasn’t an election issue, even though there was an interesting editorial by the Washington Post very early in the election campaign, that actually predicted that Hillary would make climate change a wedge issue with the Republicans, and the Washington Post predicted it would be a successful tactic. Well, she never did that.
This fight for the planet, for the earth, for the civilization, if you will, it’s very linked to a fight against corporate Democrats, do you think?
GERALD HORNE: Absolutely. And you need look no further than what’s going on right now in the highest councils of the New York Times, the so-called “Paper of Record” of the United States of America. They’ve just hired as a new pundit Bret Stephens, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, and of course, he is a noted climate science denialist.
His first column just a few days ago ranked every change with regard to his denialist mantra. That has led to a number of New York Times subscribers basically canceling their subscription. And I think that that’s the kind of citizens’ actions that we need, because the New York Times editorial board has written editorials basically endorsing climate science, but they are accepting what they consider to be signals from the market, and hiring a six-figure salary pundit.
I should also say, we should pay attention to what’s going on in California. Sacramento has its own policy with regard to climate science, just like it has its own policy with regard to auto emissions. It’s seeking to reach out to neighboring states, such as Oregon, and the state of Washington, and indeed across the border in British Columbia. And if a number of states can join with California, perhaps we can push back successfully against what’s going on at the White House.
And finally, I’d like to say with regard to U.S. national chauvinism, this idea that the United States has to be number one, people in that particular category, need to realize that China is now outstripping the United States, with regard to 21st century technologies that are adapting to climate science.
The United States will rapidly fall behind, unless it seeks to exceed China in terms of adapting these new technologies. I think we need to broadcast that particular message, far and wide.
PAUL JAY: Bob, this point about what’s happening at local and state levels, if the federal policy is completely dead in the water, in terms of any real climate change policy, what’s possible at state and municipal levels? It’s really going to have to be big cities, really, that do things, because so many state legislatures are also Republican, except for a few of the big industrial states — of course, those are rather important ones.
ROBERT POLLIN: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, as Gerald just said, California is, and has been, a leader, and is directly in opposition to what’s going on in Washington. I myself am working with groups — maybe I shouldn’t say the states just yet, until the work comes out — but two other very large states that I think have a good chance of advancing quite significant climate stabilization programs tied to opportunities expanding job opportunities, and incomes, including in lower income communities, those kinds of fights will go on.
Yes, they’re states and municipalities. It’s not the federal government. But it is going to set the terms of debate, as you said, Paul, within the Democratic Party, to the extent these kinds of initiatives are successful, they will set the standard. And, yeah, there will be resistance among corporate Democrats. But then the fight will have to be between the corporate Democrats and the real progressives that understand the magnitude of the threat of climate change and that therefore we cannot just pay lip service to it, at the same time as we continue to allow big corporations to continue to exploit the earth, burn fossil fuels, frack for natural gas, release methane, and all the disastrous things that they’re doing. That just has got to stop.
PAUL JAY: Gerald, just to continue this point of the fight with corporate Democrats, it seems to me part of the issue here is to really be honest about what happened during the Obama years. And while some of the infrastructure spending in the early period that was linked to energy, that was something — I think it was, like, $80 billion dollars of the infrastructure package, did go to energy, clean and sustainable energy. It helped develop more wind farms — but then not much after that.
And there’s an interesting report we carried, The Guardian newspaper carried, which was that the Import-Export Bank of the United States, if you look at the loans that they’ve been giving, and much of those loans are to fossil fuel companies. And if you look at the carbon emissions, if all the projects that had been funded had come to fruition, and the amount of carbon will be emitted by those businesses, this is under the Obama administration, the Import-Export Bank — there will be as much carbon emitted by those things as that were going to be taken away, by the higher efficiency in automobiles, and the closing down or reducing coal emission for energy production. In other words, it would’ve been a wash, Obama’s signature energy project.
So, this… but this debate is getting mooshed, by, like, Hillary becoming part of the resistance, and Obama being considered to having a progressive energy, climate change legacy.
GERALD HORNE: Well, I think what your remarks point to is the need, and necessity, for more citizen action. That is to say, that on college campuses, as we speak, there is a movement amongst students to force their boards, their board of trustees, for example, to divest their endowments from investments in corporations that are linked to fossil fuels. This is a movement that has the potential to catch fire.
Recall that in the 1980s, when the United States was in bed with Apartheid South Africa, it was that kind of student activism, that is to say students forcing universities to divest from corporations whose endowments have holdings in corporations that were embedded in Apartheid South Africa, that pushed us towards democratic elections in 1994. That led to the election of Nelson Mandela.
I think that citizen activism should also take the form of going door-to-door, particularly in states like West Virginia. A state that is one of the poorest in the nation, a state that has a significant percentage of coal miners to this very day, but a state that voted in great proportions, and great majorities, for Donald J. Trump. And a state where there is an anti-climate science majority, perhaps — perhaps unthinking, perhaps ignorant — but existing nonetheless.
We had something similar in the state of Mississippi in the 1960s, when we had college students going door-to-door, trying to educate black people about their rights. Perhaps we need to adapt that script for 2017, and have people go door-to-door in West Virginia.
Finally, I think that it’s fair to say that there is a large, and thriving public interest litigation sector, in the United States of America. The Environmental Defense Fund, of course, is usually pointed to in that regard. But it seems to me, given the gravity of what we’re facing with regard to global warming, it would not be outlandish to suggest that the American Civil Liberties Union, that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, that the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, all add to their portfolios litigation concerning climate science.
I think that the creed of lawyers, in those particular firms, can think of hooks and linkages that can lead them directly into courtrooms to file lawsuits, for example, against the Trump White House, against ExxonMobil, and other bastions of climate denialism.
PAUL JAY: All right, gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us.
ROBERT POLLIN: Thanks very much for having me.
GERALD HORNE: Thank you.
PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.