The news in May that carbon dioxide levels had broken through the symbolic barrier of 400 parts per million (ppm), a level not seen since the beginning of our species’ evolution on planet Earth, 3 million years ago, caused a barely perceptible ripple in the mass media.
As climate blogger Joseph Romm has argued, a large part of the reason for this can be laid at the door of the Barack Obama presidency, because “the net effect of the political incompetence and the messaging failure has been to turn the issue of the century into a virtual non-issue, which in turn has allowed the major media to all but ignore it, too.”
Is Obama ‘resetting the agenda’?
It is by these criteria — that climate changes poses an existential threat to human civilisation — that we should judge President Obama’s speech on climate on June 25, and set it within the context of his five years in power.
This is a position he himself argued for during his speech when he said that we need to “be more concerned with the judgment of posterity” than short-term political considerations.
So is Obama, in the words of World Resource Institute President Andrew Steer, really “resetting the climate agenda” and can we honestly say that “it’s a wonderful thing to see that he is really reclaiming this issue”?
While many other environmentalists, including Bill McKibben of 350.org, are fervently hoping that this is true, history and facts demonstrate otherwise.
Obama’s dismal domestic and international record on environmental issues — it was, after all, he who was the lead protagonist in wrecking the international climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 — and his commitment to US imperial power as a representative of US corporate interests surely point toward the need for a greater and more thoroughgoing critique than a character assessment of the man himself allows for.
Furthermore, it’s hard to take someone seriously when that person has presided over the biggest expansion of the security state in US history and relentlessly pursued government whistleblowers with unprecedented ferocity, when they say simultaneously in a climate speech that they are directing the Environmental Protection Agency to generate new standards for the regulation of existing power plants in “an open and transparent way”.
With a more systematic, broader analytical framework, unimpeded by misty visions of an Obama rebirth as a climate champion, one immediately recognises the inadequacy of his “Action Plan on Climate Change” to keep the planet below the critical threshold of 2°C of average warming.
This needs to be acknowledged, even as we welcome the fact that — after a five-year hiatus, including a re-election campaign where he never even mentioned climate change — Obama has been forced to re-engage with the central issue of our time by the power of grassroots protest, even to the extent of referencing the divestment movement and the fight against the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline.
After five years of doing all he can to promote fossil fuel production, it’s the first, timid, grudging response of the US state to the growing environmental movement against Obama and all that he represents: the economic, political and military priorities of US imperial power.
The growth of the environmental movement and its threat to US imperial and corporate interests has been well catalogued, tracked and, as we now know, extensively spied upon by the US security apparatus.
After reporting on a raft of documentary evidence to this effect, Dr Nafeez Ahmed writes: “The Pentagon knows that environmental, economic and other crises could provoke widespread public anger toward government and corporations in coming years.
“The revelations on the NSA’s global surveillance programs are just the latest indication that as business as usual creates instability at home and abroad, and as disillusionment with the status quo escalates, Western publics are being increasingly viewed as potential enemies that must be policed by the state.”
There is, therefore, the overriding requirement that we continue to build the movement independent of the limitations imposed by the Democratic Party, until we achieve the kind of changes that are actually necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change, by stitching together all forces aimed at this objective.
Such a transformation is far less utopian than believing that capitalism can solve the problem that it created. Such a transition cannot mean a continuation or expansion of the criminal agro-fuel production, still less the increase in natural gas production through fracking, the continuation of nuclear power and the entirely ridiculous concepts of “clean coal” and carbon capture and storage, all of which Obama includes as part of his planned solution.
Obama’s actions over the past five years in power — during two of which, the Democrats had super-majorities in both houses of Congress — even to his most fervent supporters, have been a damp squib.
On the basis of his extremely thin record, Obama nonetheless is still defended by some environmentalists, such as Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, who penned an article in May entitled “Why Obama Might Actually be the Environmental President”, and David Roberts of Grist, who said that Chait “gets it mostly right”.
However, sections of even the mainstream environmental movement have been forced to adjust their priorities due to the impatience and anger of their membership, and, over the past few months, move toward a more confrontational stance with regard to the president they once unequivocally regarded as sympathetic to their interests.
Building a real movement
Since the re-election of Obama, the environmental movement is the only social movement so far to pull off a national demonstration in the tens of thousands — in Washington, DC, in February — and it has put hundreds of people on the streets to bird-dog Obama wherever he turns up, in order to voice their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
A new movement for campus divestment from fossil fuels has sprung up on hundreds of campuses in a matter of months, and the anti-fracking movement continues to grow all across the country.
Thousands of people have pledged mass civil disobedience should Obama, as expected, sign off on the construction of the rest of the Keystone XL pipeline, in the same manner he already assented to building the southern portion.
To quote Romm once more, “If Obama truly were the ‘environmental president,’ then Keystone would be a very, very easy decision for him,” and would make protesting against him unnecessary.
The change in the political dynamic has created the space for more radical and left-wing arguments to gain traction, with wide layers of activists around the slogan of the new group System Change, Not Climate Change: The Ecosocialist Coalition, which argues for complete independence from the Democratic Party and an emphasis on the systemic nature of the ecological crisis — and thereby the need, ultimately, for a completely different kind of society not driven by profit, warfare, racism and continual expansion.
In reference to this, contrary to preceding reports and in a surprise turn of events, Obama, in a set of remarks quite clearly directed at the environmental movement that has so far refused to back down on KXL, said in his speech that KXL would receive the go-ahead from him only if the pipeline “does not significantly affect carbon pollution”.
Given that tar sands are widely recognised to be far more polluting than even regular oil extraction and processing; that the ripping apart of Indigenous lands and boreal forest large enough to be seen from space; and that the deposits are as large as Saudi Arabia and if developed represent “game over” for the planet, according to NASA climate scientist James Hansen; the immediate next words from Obama’s lips should have inevitably consisted of “and that’s why I’m not approving KXL”.
Instead, a deafening silence ensued.
No eco-illusions in Obama
What we should be doing is taking a leaf from the protest pages of the people of Turkey and Brazil. They have shown, if ever we needed more evidence, that mass protest uniting social and ecological demands into one unified movement independent of mainstream politicians has the power to change state policy at the national level.
Furthermore, mass protest can bring about thoroughgoing and immediate change in a matter days, while all the lobbying and backroom operating in the corridors of power took years to accomplish far less.
We should be looking to the people of South Africa, where Obama visited and presented with an honorary degree on June 28. COSATU, the South African trade union federation representing 2.2 million workers, which was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, is calling for mass protests against Obama as workers march on the US embassy under the slogan of “NObama”.
Before his visit, Bongani Masuku, COSATU’s international relations secretary, said: “Obama is perpetuating American foreign policy. The US is an empire run on behalf of multinational companies and the ruling class of America. US foreign policy is militarising international relations to sponsor and make their own weapons.”
Masuku said he is “not disappointed because I didn’t expect anything. It’s not about the individual; it’s not about the race he came from. It’s about the class he represents. It’s like he’s the gatekeeper for white monopoly capital. He promised things we knew he wouldn’t be able to do.”
These are words we would do well to learn from in the US, as we redouble our efforts, build on our successes and fight the entrenched corporate interests that Obama so faithfully represents.
Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis.