Is Obama Walking Into COP21 With An Empty Hand?

Lambert here: Totally violating Betteridge’s law of headlines, I’m going to answer “Yes,” but as usual, Obama’s hands are never empty by chance.

Anyhow, I’m way behind the curve on COP21 — the 2015 Paris Climate Conference — and I hope readers with real expertise on the conference will weigh in, in comments. In this video, The Real News Network’s Jessica Desvarieux interviews Christian Parenti, a professor at NYU’s Global Liberal Studies program. His most recent book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Parenti gives this useful review of the bidding.

These passages caught my eye:

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. …

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 [to cut carbon emissions from the EPA] 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.


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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. ambrit

    Another “canary in this coal mine” would be the status of the extant ‘Green Energy’ projects around the country. Here in Mississippi, a solar panel production scheme, Stion, was loaned $75 million USD, by the State of Mississippi, to produce solar photovoltaic panels and film at a plant outside of Hattiesburg. The corporation has recently begun the task of renegotiating the terms of the deal because it says it cannot fulfill the terms of the original agreement. Now the firm wants to cut its’ production quotas and employment promises. The firm looks to be able to get away with it.
    Meanwhile, China is going ‘great guns’ ahead with solar panels, while Germany and associated countries are forging ahead with wind power. Even nuclear power can join in with the Thorium Reactor or Pebble Bed Uranium Reactor designs. In America, hydro power on major rivers, like the Vidalia Louisiana plant, which diverts ten percent of the Mississippi Rivers flow through electric generating turbine systems are proven out. What’s needed is the political will. That’s a “power” that is visibly lacking in the D of C.
    There is a bright side, though. When Global Sea Level Rise kicks in in earnest, the District of Colombia will be inundated. Now we need to force the climate deniers to live in the D of C for ever.

  2. Daryl

    > So a lot of environmental organizations are uncomfortable dealing with the government, and they prefer kind of essentially private solutions.

    This is very reflective of the attitude I’ve encountered in both the tech and nutritional supplement industry, but I’m curious to hear more. What kind of “environmental organizations?” I would assume that a lot of the activist groups would be lobbying for regulations. I know that industry self-regulation is a total dead end from personal experience.

  3. omg the stupid i just can't anymore

    Typical humans, flying around on CO2 spewing airliners to discuss how CO2 is destroying us. Amy Goodman, even you. Gah.

    1. Paul Tioxon

      Let’s not forget all on the littering on Earth Day, gag, styrofoam cups with organic green tea, Hah!

  4. rusti

    Something that made a deep impression on me was the fact that the Obama White House enlisted the NSA’s help to spy on the 2009 Climate Summit. I suspect that for the vast majority of people in the Beltway, climate change is just another political football to be tossed around like gay marriage or gun laws, and the most important thing is not to get caught off guard and to not anger donors.

    The opinions of scientists or the will of the people don’t particularly impact the decision making process, because those are problems that can be fixed with the right PR.

  5. susan the other

    The lead up to COP21 has been lackluster. No doubt to keep the enemies of “clean industry” at bay. Don’t let them get too wound up and steal the show. But some info would be useful – like what is the agenda and where do various governments stand going in; and what is the timeline; what is the point of no return, etc. Parenti says the obvious when he invokes governmental regulation as essential to forming new pro-Green industries as part of the solution. I wish someone would also point out the weak link here – that traditional capitalist solutions requiring markets and large profits might do more harm than good in many situations in that there simply is not much profit when you are protecting the environment from being looted, and you are dedicated to creating “good clean jobs.” So markets might not be very effective in this case. They are based on instant gratification. But yes, Parenti is correct, it will take all governments to shape a globally coordinated “industry” to repair and protect the planet. So let us hope that other governments do not have an equally absurd and ignorant legislature as ours.

  6. openvista

    Seems to me the minute President Obama gets serious with the EPA and people’s electric bills go up, the GOP benefits. Repubs would *love* to run on the platform that the Dems raised your bills and we will lower them! Politically and realistically, until the country grows up and realizes it’s time to eat its veggies, no politician or policy that attempts to rescue the climate can survive.

  7. Questor

    Do any of you real people have a solar array? Do you know how much it costs in cold hard cash to put it in…without loans, and subsidies, and other governmental nonsense? Do you know how little actual kilowatt hours those gleaming sheets of black glass produce?

    Did you ever realize that no one, even in California, where the sun almost always shines, can get enough solar panels on their housetops, unless they live in a McMansion or two, to actually run their houses? Did you know that there are not enough contractors in the world to put them onto one’s home and property, without a three month installation agreement turning into a full year…two years running for two separate installations, even with a good contractor who tries really hard?

    Did you know that your solar salesman, no matter how much you know, and indicate you want to buy in regards to output, will nod continuously, and forget to write down all the things you asked for, and were willing to pay for, just because he doesn’t know what he is doing? And that your contractor, honest as he is, has to make a profit, or not be able to run his business, making it extremely hard to get your custom installation going…because they are all custom installations?

    Did you know that forcing an innovation where it is not needed doesn’t work, even for those who want them to? And what about the fact that half of the world will not do what is best for them until they have a gun in their faces? Do you see America even eating enough veggies yet to offset their beer guts?

    I didn’t think so.

    Reality will intrude, and so will the fact that economics and markets and the base nature of humanity will trump idealism (as in card play, not politics) until the cows come home.

    1. ambrit

      Do you realize that you have just described most of the American ‘Economy?’
      What most of us are wrangling about is the fact that very few people, anywhere, at any time, have ever done the logical thing. governments exist for various reasons. Good ones coerce the people for good, in this case, existential, reasons. Bad governments coerce people for bad, in effect, personal, to the governors, reasons. Control of the levers of power is what it’s all about.

    2. Eureka Springs

      Yes, Most people are paying way, way too much. And the avg. solar salesman should be met with the same skepticism of a used car salesman. But that doesn’t mean the actual costs aren’t much much more reasonable nowadays. Navigating all of this is an order of magnitude easier than navigating a purchase of Obamney-not-care.

      Unless you are running air-conditioners and clothes dryers a household can run very well on a few panels… with minor adjustments now and then – like vacuuming on a sunny day. Adjusting to no electric company bill ever, being the best part.

      I have several friends and neighbors living completely off grid life in comfort and style now.

    3. hunkerdown

      Because, of course, fossil fuels do not receive any direct or indirect subsidies, especially favorable regulations, an entrenched distribution and processing system all the way to the last mile, or armed security, whatsoever from any government. Are you an advocate for oligarchs professionally, or are you just campaigning for the job on spec?

  8. susan the other

    This Clean Power Plan is going to tax carbon, making it too expensive to compete. In China (BBC) they are in the last stages of setting up a carbon exchange – cap and trade – where the sellers are lined up on one side and the buyers on the other. The logic is that it will gradually discourage the use of carbon fuel because the government (whichever one) will issue fewer and fewer credits and they will become more and more expensive to trade until the same end is achieved – carbon simply becomes too expensive. One interviewee said the solution to expensive carbon will be smaller cars and houses. But that sounds like not just smaller but more, at least in China. It also sounds far too gradual.

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