Dirty Truth About Obama’s Clean Power Plan

August 5, 2015

Daphne Wysham and Chris Williams unravel the contradictions in President Obama's Clean Energy Plan and his "all of the above strategy" the last seven years that has been less than desirable in curbing catastrophic climate change.

Daphne Wysham and Chris Williams unravel the contradictions in President Obama's Clean Energy Plan and his "all of the above strategy" the last seven years that has been less than desirable in curbing catastrophic climate change.



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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

President Obama unveiled his Clean Power Plan this week, mandating the EPA to implement the plan to ensure that U.S. power plants reduce their emissions by 32 percent below the 2005 levels by 2030. Let’s have a look.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Here’s how it works. Over the next few years each state will have the chance to put together its own plan for reducing emissions, because every state has a different energy mix. Some generate more of their power from renewables. Some from natural gas. Or nuclear, or coal. This plan reflects the fact that not everybody’s starting in the same place. So we’re giving states the time and the flexibility they need to cut pollution in a way that works for them.

PERIES: President Obama said that each state gets to decide how best to meet these goals. They can invest in renewable like solar and wind, switch to natural gas, or simply upgrade coal plants to produce more electricity with lower emissions, he said.

So to discuss this I’m joined by two guests. First, Daphne Wysham. Daphne is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the director of Climate and Energy Program at the Center for Sustainable Economy. We are also joined by Chris Williams. Chris is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crises. He’s a professor at Pace University in New York City at the Department of Chemistry and Physical Science.

So I thank you both for joining us today.

DAPHNE WYSHAM, FELLOW, CENTER FOR SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY: Thank you for having me.

CHRIS WILLLIAMS, AUTHOR, ECONOMY AND SOCIALISM: Thank you for having me.

PERIES: So first of all let me begin by, Chris, you give me your take on the plan.

WILLLIAMS: Well, Obama spoke about having time and flexibility, the two things that we don’t have. And I would say that this just, his plan just ratifies what’s already happening in the U.S. economy. So it’s neither groundbreaking nor historic, because the percentage declines in emissions from the power sector already on-track to happen as a result of wider changes to do with the low cost of natural gas and the retirement of old coal plants. And the fact that you’re giving states with dirtier energy more and more time to change and flexibility around that question, including counting nuclear power towards your clean power credits, I think illustrates that this is neither groundbreaking nor anywhere near the kind of thing, action, we need to avert dangerous climate change.

PERIES: And Daphne, your initial take on this plan.

WYSHAM: My take is very similar. It’s, not only is it essentially just making a big deal out of something that was already in the works, but at the same time we have Obama continuing with his all of the above energy strategy, which includes opening up the Arctic, which absolutely must be off-limits for drilling if we’re to avoid dangerous climate change in addition to expanding offshore oil and gas drilling around the country and continuing to export massive quantities of coal.

What we need is not, as Chris said, we don’t need more time. We need a rapid scale up along the lines of a World War II-type mobilization towards a 100 percent renewable energy economy and zero emissions by 2050 if we are going to dodge this very dangerous bullet that’s headed our way.

PERIES: Now, one of the great challenges that the president is facing is of course the pushback he’s getting from the Republicans and the coal-reliant states. In fact 15 of them including Oklahoma and West Virginia is already threatening to take this to court, this plan. Why do you think the president has been unsuccessful at trying to convince the nation about moving forward with such a plan all these years that he’s been in office? I’ll go to you, Daphne.

WYSHAM: Well of course the Koch brothers have pledged to spend over $1 billion on the Republican presidential campaign. There’s all kinds of oil, gas, and coal money flowing into these political campaigns thanks to the lack of limits on campaign finance spending. So that’s a key issue in this, is that we just don’t have the kind of money on the other side to push forward an aggressive set of policies that would actually help us avoid dangerous climate change.

PERIES: Chris, your take on the pushback that the president is getting on any plans he’s proposing at this time.

WILLLIAMS: Well actually, I think the Koch brothers are probably wasting their money because Democrats or Republicans are in the same boat when it comes to facilitating the accumulation of U.S. capital. I don’t see any real difference there. And Obama’s had seven years, this is actually a ruling that is, the U.S. is legally obligated to do since 2007, Massachusetts vs. the EPA, CO2 has to be regulated as a pollutant. And so seven years later we get some very weak rules.

And we know that previously, Obama has completely downplayed, does not talk up the issue of climate change on a regular basis or explain it, why it’s important. Has not taken scientific reports seriously. Has boasted about constructing more pipeline than any other president. Has opened up the Atlantic to more drilling, and now most notoriously also the Arctic, where no drilling has ever gone on before offshore.

And so I don’t think it’s about lobbying, I think it’s about the Democratic party being in hock to the corporations as they exist, many of which the largest are fossil fuels producers. So the percent decrease–we’ve already had 15 percent decrease in emissions from the power sector over the last 15 years, and that’s because of the increase in fracking and the shift from coal, as well as the recession. And so another 15 percent to 2030 actually is extremely doable. The question is how much further can we really go, and will it be undone by other changes such as increases in the size of the economy, which is not, obviously, ruled out and which is advocated for by all political parties, that the economy has to keep growing.

And seeing as that is mostly fueled by, overwhelmingly by fossil fuels, then we have to be talking about drastic changes to the way the U.S. economy works and limits to production on fossil fuels in particular, but also new transportation networks and a whole host of other things if we’re really going to take the scientists and the threat of climate change seriously. So clearly the states that get their energy from dirtier sources, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s already been talking about how he’s going to ramp up legal challenges. That’s going to be actually quite difficult because it’s based on the 1970 Clean Air Act and 2007 Supreme Court case. It could delay it. But ultimately those dirty states get a lot of concessions from the EPA, so they could easily make the limits that have been set, too.

Seventeen states have already set tougher limits than the Clean Power Plan. So I think you have to bear in mind the whole picture and put it in the context of climate change to recognize that this is an extremely underwhelming legislation.

PERIES: And Daphne, you were just engaged in an action in Portland that actually speaks to what you mentioned earlier. President Obama’s all of the above strategy. And tell us about the fight back that is going on in Portland.

WYSHAM: Well, you have covered our victories in the past against the Pembina propane export terminal that we won, and that sort of set the stage for the battle that we saw happening just this last week. We were prepared to blockade with kayaks the Fennica before it departed for the Arctic. Greenpeace joined us at the last minute from the bridge in a surprise action. And so we had both the air and the water blockaded.

One of the reasons why so many groups out here are saying no and literally putting their bodies on the line is because the Pacific Northwest is the target of five times the Keystone XL pipeline in terms of the carbon content of the 28 projects that are on the books. Five Keystone XL pipelines are prepared for the Pacific Northwest in the form of export projects. Oil, gas, coal, tar sands, propane. And the people of the Northwest are saying no. we know that one Keystone XL pipeline is game over, so five absolutely must be stopped. And we’re calling for no new fossil fuel infrastructure in Oregon as well as in the entire West Coast.

PERIES: And Daphne, what do you make of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the critique against it where people are saying that these kinds of market-based compromise with polluting industries and relying on inherently flawed programs like cap and trade is not the best direction to take at this time?

WYSHAM: My understanding is that there is some flexibility in terms of applying a carbon tax or a fee and dividend as opposed to cap and trade. As you know, I’m not a fan of cap and trade.

That being said, I think at this moment in history what we need to do is have our targets and timetables adhere to what the science requires, not to what business and free markets require. And that will require an absolute cap, both on overall greenhouse gas emissions for the U.S. economy, as well as major constraints on exports. We need to keep 80 percent of our proven reserves in the ground. We can’t afford to be opening up new, unproven reserves in places like the Arctic if we’re going to avoid dangerous climate change.

PERIES: And Chris, according to a new poll that was done by Pew, it’s showing that 42 percent of Americans want action on climate change. So this is a situation where President Obama’s faced with a majority, if he’s to democratically rule, where 42 percent of Americans are saying look, we need to do something about it. But he’s mitigating his plan and his efforts on behalf of the ruling corporations.

So what do you make of this, and what can he actually do still within his power to really bring about a more dramatic change?

WILLLIAMS: Well, I think it’s a little hard to have much hope after seven years that change will occur in the last 12 months or so. And actually, a New York Times poll just indicated that two-thirds of Americans would vote for a candidate who was serious about doing something on climate change. So Obama is well to the right of what most Americans believe needs to be done. So there’s an enormous opportunity, actually, to reach out to ordinary people and to mobilize them.

So rather than spending his time in 2011 helping to push down and prevent people from democratically discussing the needs of the country, as he did with the occupations during Occupy Wall Street that were crushed by police in 17 different cities, there is an enormous opportunity to build up a new movement that actually is taking climate change seriously, as the scientists tell us we need to be taking it.

But that’s going to require strongly anticapitalist measures, because we’re not just talking about emissions but primarily talking about reduction. Change to the way things are made and the way things we transport, ourselves and commodities from one place to another place. And if that’s still 80 percent-plus based on fossil fuels we have a significant problem. And nothing is addressing that so far. So the only way we’re going to get around the kind of changes that we want is to actually take to the streets and get organizing on an ongoing basis as has been happening in Portland against Shell’s drilling rig as it heads off to the Arctic.

But much more needs to be built up, because this is going to require a mass mobilization of people all across the world in order to effect the kind of change we want. Because it’s an existential threat to human civilization, I would say. And we can’t really–we are faced with a choice. Capitalism, or a future for the planet. So I would rather choose the planet.

PERIES: Chris, if two-thirds of Americans are willing to back a candidate who’s got a good climate change plan, who are the leading candidates so far that has put their hat in the ring?

WILLLIAMS: Well, unfortunately the person who’s been exciting most people, I think particularly young people, is Bernie Sanders. But he’s already said as of when he loses the Democratic party nomination he’s not standing as an independent. He’s told his supporters to support Hillary Clinton. And he obviously has extremely controversial and backward views on immigration and a range of other things.

So it’s difficult to see where a candidate is coming from unless we’re talking about the Green party and Jill Stein, for example, or new parties and organizations emerging from the left to excite people not just on climate change, but also around really important social change. Because I don’t think we’re going to have any positive ecological change without simultaneously getting even more urgent social change, for example, around the murder of, black lives and young black people around the country by the armed state.

So I think it’s a question of tackling issues simultaneously around racism, sexism, economic inequality, which will link to the question of environment and protecting the globe from climate change. So I would like to see candidates take, tackling all of those issues equally and seriously.

PERIES: And Daphne, are there any candidates out there that you think has a good platform on climate change?

WYSHAM: Well, Martin O’Malley, the Democratic contender, does have a very strong climate platform. Unfortunately however, one of the components in his state’s power plan included incineration as a form of quote-unquote renewable energy. So that was troubling to those of us who were active in watching his thinking evolve in that state. Hopefully he’s learned his lesson from that and no longer includes incineration as a form of renewable energy, because that’s clearly an environmental justice issue.

Hillary Clinton has talked in sort of very general terms about how important climate change is and how she wants to see renewable energy scaled up across the country. But really it’s true, Jill Stein is the only one who has anything close to the level of ambition that we would require in order to properly address this issue.

PERIES: Chris, Daphne, I thank you both for joining us today.

WYSHAM: Thank you.

WILLLIAMS: Thank you very much.

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

End

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