The New Yorker: How the Senate and White House missed their best chance to deal with climate change

As the Senate debate expired this summer, a longtime environmental lobbyist told me that he believed the “real tragedy” surrounding the issue was that Obama understood it profoundly. “I believe Barack Obama understands that fifty years from now no one’s going to know about health care,” the lobbyist said. “Economic historians will know that we had a recession at this time. Everybody is going to be thinking about whether Barack Obama was the James Buchanan of climate change.

It may be true that Obama “profoundly” understands what failing to address global warming means.  Certainly I (and many others) thought that was true — until he basically punted on the issue without a serious fight.

The lengthy New Yorker piece, “As The World Burns,” however, suggests that if Obama did understand the transcendent nature of human-caused climate change, he personally didn’t try bloody hard to put together 60 votes for a bill.

The piece is well worth reading, although the conclusion, quoted above, just misses the mark.  I don’t believe that in 50 years “Everybody is going to be thinking about whether Barack Obama was the James Buchanan of climate change.”  Let’s set aside whether “everybody” (or even most people) in 2060 (or even today) would know what the “James Buchanan of climate change” means.  For the record, Wikipedia notes:

Buchanan had once aspired to a presidency that would rank in history with that of George Washington.  However, his inability to impose peace on sharply divided partisans on the brink of the Civil War has led to his consistent ranking by historians as one of the worst Presidents.

While Obama certainly aspired to be a president of the first rank, I doubt he will be ranked by historians as one of the worst presidents.  He isn’t in Bush’s league.  After all, W actively tried to block all domestic and international action on climate (see “Bush will go down in history as possibly a person who has doomed the planet”) — whereas Obama put real effort into both — for a while.

Obama just didn’t try hard enough or competently enough.  I had argued the former point in The failed presidency of Barack ObamaRolling Stone: “Instead of taking the fight to big polluters, President Obama has put global warming on the back burner” and in Some pundits challenge my statement, “Future generations are likely to view Obama’s choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions”:  Here’s why they are wrong.

But the White House didn’t merely fail to try hard enough, fail to twist arms with Senate Democrats, fail to become engaged in the process enough to make a workable deal.  It did some genuinely incompetent things, as the New Yorker explains:

On March 31st, Obama announced that large portions of U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic Ocean, and off the East Coast””from the mid-Atlantic to central Florida””would be newly available for oil and gas drilling. Two days later, he said, “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn’t come from the oil rigs, they came from the refineries onshore.” From the outside, it looked as if the Obama Administration were co¶rdinating closely with Democrats in the Senate. Republicans and the oil industry wanted more domestic drilling, and Obama had just given it to them. He seemed to be delivering on the grand bargain that his aides had talked about at the start of the Administration.

But there had been no communication with the senators actually writing the bill, and they felt betrayed. When Graham’s energy staffer learned of the announcement, the night before, he was “apoplectic,” according to a colleague. The group had dispensed with the idea of drilling in ANWR, but it was prepared to open up vast portions of the Gulf and the East Coast. Obama had now given away what the senators were planning to trade.

This was the third time that the White House had blundered. In February, the President’s budget proposal included $54.5 billion in new nuclear loan guarantees. Graham was also trying to use the promise of more loan guarantees to lure Republicans to the bill, but now the White House had simply handed the money over. Later that month, a group of eight moderate Democrats sent the E.P.A. a letter asking the agency to slow down its plans to regulate carbon, and the agency promised to delay any implementation until 2011. Again, that was a promise Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman wanted to negotiate with their colleagues. Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach. Graham was the only Republican negotiating on the climate bill, and now he had virtually nothing left to take to his Republican colleagues.

Most of the people I know engaged in the day-to-day process of trying to get a climate bill were utterly baffled by the drilling and loan guarantee moves.  The New Yorker piece is dead on here.  Who is to blame?  The piece continues:

But the Administration had grown wary of cutting the kind of deals that the senators needed to pass cap-and-trade. The long and brutal health-care fight had caused a rift in the White House over legislative strategy. One camp, led by Phil Schiliro, Obama’s top congressional liaison, was composed of former congressional aides who argued that Obama needed to insert himself in the legislative process if he was going to pass the ambitious agenda that he had campaigned on. The other group, led by David Axelrod, believed that being closely associated with the messiness of congressional horse-trading was destroying Obama’s reputation.

“We ran as an outsider and then decided to be an insider to get things done,” a senior White House official said. According to the official, Schiliro and the insiders argued, “You’ve got to own Congress,” while Axelrod and the outsiders argued, “Fuck whatever Congress wants, we’re not for them.” The official added, “We probably did lose part of our brand. Obama turned into exactly what we promised ourselves he wasn’t going to be, which is the leader of parliament. We became the majority leader of both houses, and we ceded the Presidency.” Schiliro’s side won the debate over how the White House should approach health care, but in 2010, when the Senate took up cap-and-trade, Axelrod’s side was ascendant. Emanuel, for example, called Reid’s office in March and suggested that the Senate abandon cap-and-trade in favor of a modest bill that would simply require utilities to generate more electricity from clean sources.

Axelrod — what a shock.  He may know a lot about running a Presidential campaign, but not so much about running a White House, let alone about avoiding either catastrophic global warming or the ruination of his boss’s historical legacy — see The unbearable lameness of being (Rahm and Axelrod).

The New Yorker piece has much more to say about John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham.  It may well be that there was no route to 60 votes in this political climate even if Obama had been a cross between Lyndon Johnson and Winston Churchill, but there certainly was no route to 60 votes without Obama using all of the political and rhetorical powers of the White House.

Finally, for the sake of completeness and so as not to be misunderstood by those who aren’t regular readers and didn’t see my June 30 post (“Republicans demagogue against market-oriented climate measures they once supported“), most of the blame for this failure should go to the anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues. They have spread disinformation and poisoned the debate so that is no longer even recognizable.  Who could have guessed just  a couple of years ago, that the GOP  champion of climate action would now trash  a bill considerably weaker than the one he tried to pass twice? (see Rolling Stone on “The Climate Killers: 17 polluters and deniers who are derailing efforts to curb the climate catastrophe.”)

And if you are keeping score at home in the blame game, the media is the second most culpable group for their generally enabling coverage “” see “How the status quo media failed on climate change” and How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics: “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”

Those two groups deserve about 90% of the blame (60-30?), I think (assuming that we assume the 60 vote antidemocratic super majority requirement is unchangeable).  The other 10% goes to Obama and his team (along with Senate Democrats, scientists, environmentalists, and progressives) “” and let’s not forget the “Think Small” centrists who  also helped shrink the political space in the debate (see “Michael Lind of the New America Foundation misinforms on both climate science and clean energy“).

Obama is neither the James Buchanan of climate change nor the Herbert Hoover of climate change.  Not that it matters much, but I’d say right now he’s the President Bill Clinton of climate change.

Is there time to change that?  The President still thinks so in his Rolling Stone interview, and I will do a post on that shortly, but for now, I’ll stick with my earlier analysis and say probably not (see “What are the prospects for comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation in the coming years?“).

But the Administration had grown wary of cutting the kind of deals that the senators needed to pass cap-and-trade. The long and brutal health-care fight had caused a rift in the White House over legislative strategy. One camp, led by Phil Schiliro, Obama’s top congressional liaison, was composed of former congressional aides who argued that Obama needed to insert himself in the legislative process if he was going to pass the ambitious agenda that he had campaigned on. The other group, led by David Axelrod, believed that being closely associated with the messiness of congressional horse-trading was destroying Obama’s reputation.

“We ran as an outsider and then decided to be an insider to get things done,” a senior White House official said. According to the official, Schiliro and the insiders argued, “You’ve got to own Congress,” while Axelrod and the outsiders argued, “Fuck whatever Congress wants, we’re not for them.” The official added, “We probably did lose part of our brand. Obama turned into exactly what we promised ourselves he wasn’t going to be, which is the leader of parliament. We became the majority leader of both houses, and we ceded the Presidency.” Schiliro’s side won the debate over how the White House should approach health care, but in 2010, when the Senate took up cap-and-trade, Axelrod’s side was ascendant. Emanuel, for example, called Reid’s office in March and suggested that the Senate abandon cap-and-trade in favor of a modest bill that would simply require utilities to generate more electricity from clean sources.

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62 Responses to The New Yorker: How the Senate and White House missed their best chance to deal with climate change

  1. David B. Benson says:

    I’d say right now he’s the President Bill Clinton of climate change.

    That’s a low blow.

    And a well-desrved jab as well.

  2. BR says:

    Here’s the thing I don’t get. Every president since Jimmy Carter has known about climate change. And none has done anything. While I agree that Obama should have done more on this, in my view that same criticism applies equally to Reagan, Bush the elder, Clinton, Bush the junior, and Obama.

    [JR: Sure. But scientific evidence is now overwhelming and Obama had about as large majorities as one could imagine AND he actually campaigned on this being one of his top three priorities with a specific set of policies.]

  3. Peter Bellin says:

    I am not sure what you mean about the Bill Clinton reference, unless it is a rather poor pun (he blew it).

    I believe that even in the White House, there are many who do not get the science of climate change and the threat it poses to our children. I agree that 90 per cent of the blame should go where it is deserved; to the deniers and self-interested politicians in the Senate.

    I agree with Joe and say that the chance is gone. I wish I believed that the chance was there in the first place, as the Democrats never really had a 60 vote majority, when we have to include Landreau, Lieberman and other ‘moderate’ democrats. I also do not think that Lieberman and Graham believe in the threat very deeply. Lieberman because I have no respect for the man, and Graham for his inane comments on climate change in recent months.

    That being said, failure to act on climate change is my greatest disappointment with President Obama. He has done much, but most of his acievements in promoting energy efficiency can be all too easily undone by the Republican ideologues who seem poised to capture the House, if not the Senate.

    I look forward to my reading of the New Yorker piece. Depressing as it will surely be.

    [JR: No pun. I just literally — or, rather, metaphorically — mean that I think Obama will get ranked as a President on climate change roughly the same place that Bill Clinton will be ranked as a president.]

  4. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, it would be good if you could discuss where you think Chu, Holdren and Lubchenco fit into all of this. They can’t be very happy.

  5. adelady says:

    From an outside the US perspective, I’d say Reagan is the ‘turning point’ figure.

    Internationally, the confluence of Reagan and Thatcher was extremely powerful and very, very long-lived in economic and political perspectives. The fact that Thatcher would have seen Reaqan’s ignorance and foolishness on science as beneath contempt never got in the way of supporting and reinforcing their shared world views on other matters. But Reagan’s endorsement of ignorance, anti-science, anti-‘elitism’ within USA poisoned the well for future public discussion on science and technical matters.

    He was a good public speaker, certainly better than Carter. Think what he could have done if he’d taken the nation on a scientific challenge / adventure with the fervour and patriotic eloquence of JFK and going to the moon.

    Instead he took down the WH solar panels and armourplated the ignorant and uneducated against the idea that they needed to learn anything themselves or pay attention to to those who’d studied anything on behalf of the rest of us.

    Bush was both incompetent and nasty. But he wouldn’t have been able to do so much damage on the scientific and educational front if Reagan hadn’t laid down the red carpet first.

  6. with the doves says:

    it’s not just James Buchanan. Fillmore and Pierce, the other pre-Civil War presidents, are also viewed very poorly.

    It’s true the Obama is faced with great challenges in terms of getting climate change legislation. However, his assignment is to get something positive done despite the obstacles. I can only conclude he hasn’t done enough, not yet.

  7. homunq says:

    When you do your post on whether there’s still time for Obama to redeem himself, please at least mention filibuster reform. The chance may not be great, but it’s the best chance we have. If people are seriously talking about spraying megatons of sulfuric acid into the stratosphere until the sky turns red, as a last-ditch effort to save the earth, then why aren’t we talking about passing climate legislation with 51 votes – which is orders of magnitude easier, cheaper, and better.

  8. Michael T says:

    September Sea Ice Extent is the third lowest on record:

    Sea Ice Extent Figures:

    Updating the Climate Science: What Path is the Real World Following?

  9. with the doves says:

    @homunq – “If people are seriously talking about spraying megatons of sulfuric acid into the stratosphere until the sky turns red, as a last-ditch effort to save the earth, then why aren’t we talking about passing climate legislation with 51 votes – which is orders of magnitude easier, cheaper, and better.”

    Very good! One hopes the Dems didn’t blow their one chance – next year’s house majority will be smaller or non-existent. Also helpful would be a communications offensive from the WH on the subject, as would be appropriate in an emergency.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    There is a rather decent chance that 2012 CE will be a scorcher, sorta like Moscow’s summer this year, only maybe in the USA. If so, that might finally change people’s minds…

  11. Wit's End says:

    Actually it turns out, presidents since JOHNSON have known about the serious, existential threat of climate change.

    Bill McKibben, and GWEN et al, I just watched this youtube for the umpteenth time and noticed…am I mistaken or at about .57 secs…are those the famous SOLAR PANELS on the roof of the White House???

    GIVE EAARTH A CHANCE!! We should have monitors playing this over and over at 10/10!

    plus…some other great reads in addition to the NY chronology of the epic legislative fail:

    cost of extreme extraction (peak oil anyone?)

    Racism, the decline of the empire, and panic:

  12. JHawk says:


    After reading the New Yorker piece, I have to say that I think the administration deserves a lot more blame than you place on them now.

    Like you said in a comment above, Obama actively campaigned on this issue, the onus of results was on him. The anti-science crowd has been a constant in this debate and I’d argue the media, while less helpful today than at previous points, has been a general road block to congressional success on climate change. They have not deviated from their roles. However, the group that has deviated from what was expected of them and what was promised is the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats.

    For one, and you mention this in this post, is the utter incompetence of the administration on this issue. It’s really a moral crime that the policy team at the White House had only Carol Browner and three staffers. I don’t even want to know how that matched up with Health Care. Next, the White House never gave any clear signals on how it would pursue this issue (except when they thought the debate was heading into politically murky waters with the linked fee). And to top it all off they gave away the most critical carrots to ensure that the “Grand Bargain” would actually come to fruition. It must have felt like Christmas came early for the Republicans.

    Then there is the Congressional Democrats. Now, I should probably be a bit more specific because many Democrats in the House showed an immense amount of courage with their votes. In the Senate, I also should applaud Kerry and Lieberman because they clearly did everything they could even until the end when all hope had assuredly been lost. My issue is really with Senator Reid. There is really no other way to say it, but he completely and utterly torpedoed this issue for his own political gain. The New Yorker article really got to the heart of it and it made me even more disgusted compared to how I felt before.

    From my vantage point, the administration and Reid deserve the vast majority of the blame. They clearly weren’t committed to actually getting this done. Obama probably does believe that we need to act, but as the saying goes, talk is cheap.

    The expectations for success were on them and they deserve the blame for not finishing what they started.

  13. Lore says:

    @homunq – “If people are seriously talking about spraying megatons of sulfuric acid into the stratosphere until the sky turns red, as a last-ditch effort to save the earth, then why aren’t we talking about passing climate legislation with 51 votes – which is orders of magnitude easier, cheaper, and better.”

    Such talk is a side show. All those in denial of climate change recognize that climate engineering would be an act out of desperation and a Hail Mary pass that most likely wouldn’t be considered until 10 minutes to midnight. Their job is to delay any climate action today and for the foreseeable future at least as long as they can. Why waste energy jousting with future phantoms.

    Which makes me wonder, what really keeps the Anthony Watts types up at night? I’m pretty sure it’s not about finding a coherent and pithy reply to all the trash talk, but what happens when the day comes that we reach the undeniable inflection point in the arguments surrounding climate change. When it’s all too self evident that dire transformation is upon us and you must either admit you were wrong and take the consequences of your actions like a citizen of the planet, or slink off into silence and social oblivion in the midst of heaping mounds of humiliation.

  14. CW says:

    It’s really hard to bring about change, I fully acknowledge. But there are mounting examples of not picking the right battles.

    I mean, I don’t know if it’s Obama’s administration or if this is the doings of people lower on the government ladder, but the US has just joined the EU and Japan in challenging Ontario, Canada’s feed-in tariffs for renewable energy.

    Wow. Try to tell people you care about green energy and the world getting together on a common problem then do this. If these countries are so convinced of protectionism, why aren’t they teaming up to take on China in a big way? Oh yeah, obvious answer there …. This is the easy fight, not the right one. It may even end up nixing Ontario’s whole green energy plan. Something that would backfire strategically if you do “profoundly” get the urgency of reducing emissions and as a result you get the need for all countries to get in on the movement in the climate change fight we all benefit from.

    U.S., EU join fight over Ontario’s green energy plan, Globe and Mail

  15. Wit's End says:

    “When it’s all too self evident that dire transformation is upon us and you must either admit you were wrong and take the consequences of your actions like a citizen of the planet, or slink off into silence and social oblivion in the midst of heaping mounds of humiliation.”

    um…think Jim Jones.

    We’ll never persuade these a$$holes. Like Sarah, they’ll go to their demise in rapture.

  16. Michael T says:

    Joe, it turns out you were very accurate with your prediction on the summer minimum that you made on Sept. 7th:

    We just have to wait for the final NSIDC report to come out later in the week.

  17. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thanks, But, and And

    Thanks for the helpful post. I hope you all are having a nice weekend.

    Several things, no particular order:

    First, I place a great deal of the blame on Axelrod and Emanuel, at least according to my sense of them, what I read about them, and the assumption that Obama has listened to them and thus (what we’ve ended up with). I’m glad they’re moving on. I hope it’s not too late!

    Second, if the question of Obama’s performance so far is the general one, about his presidency (so far) on all counts, that’s one matter, and I won’t try to comment on all that: some of it is good and some not so good. But, if we are asking the question about his performance specifically on the climate change problem and associated energy matters, the record (so far) is dismal, in my view. It hardly deserves a grade. Of course, it all depends on whether you’d like to use an absolute scale or a “relative” scale for grading. Has he done better than other presidents on climate change? Yes, for the most part. Has he faced the issue effectively and smartly? Not at all. How can one give him an A or B or even C or D on any absolute scale, if GHGs keep pouring, ExxonMobil and coal keep winning, the Senate fails, and the whole matter is still entirely out of control? You can’t. Grading someone’s efforts on climate change requires an Absolute scale, and a discerning one. That’s what I keep trying to tell the media. The question is not whether The New York Times is doing “a better job” than the Podunk Gazette or whatever. Instead, the question is how well have the media informed the public to the degree that the public actually makes informed, wise, and responsible choices?

    Because Nature will measure us — and deliver Her consequences to us — using Her own Absolute scale, we need to start using Absolute scales when assessing efforts of key leaders and institutions on climate change: Obama gets an F so far, just as the media get an F so far. Sound critical? Good! That’s as it should be.

    Otherwise, we’ll end up giving the media Bs and Cs, or even As in some cases (and they will certainly give themselves As or Bs), and we’ll end up giving presidents As or Bs or Cs or whatever, even as we never get around to effectively addressing the problem. Pooh on that.

    Does this sound too critical? Perhaps it will sap the motivation of presidents and media moguls and (supposed) top science reporters? Forget that. Presidents and media moguls and supposed top science reporters are big men and women, big ladies and gentlemen. When they deserve Fs, we should give them Fs. They get paid. If they’re gonna cry about an F, let’s get someone else!

    The challenge for Obama is this: Now that Emanuel and Axelrod are gone or will be gone (right?), will he step up to the plate and “just do it”, no excuses?

    Also, on matters like this, the reality may well be that someone has to sacrifice his own career (as president anyhow) to wake the public and to send the signal and to set the stage for the next try. The posture so far, it seems to me, is along the lines of, “we can do it one step at a time and we mustn’t do anything to cause us to lose the next election, because then we can continue with more steps”. Well, that may be entirely insufficient, and it probably is. We have a big problem, right? It may be that we can’t ease into solving it. The best bet is to GO FOR IT, HARD and TRUE, GENUINELY, with the PASSION THAT THE PROBLEM DESERVES, and then if that fails, at least people will wake up to the importance of the matter, and the next folks can do a better job. TEN careers may need to be sacrificed in order for the public to wake up and get the message. After all, if everyone only wants to push so hard, but not too hard, not so hard that they might lose their job or the next election, how important can the issue (of climate change) really be? Presidents send people to lose their lives in war, for goodness sake. But a president doesn’t want to risk his own job in order to make a statement about climate change and give the matter his very best shot?! The public intuitively senses what’s important to people by way of the sacrifices those people make to forward important causes. Has Obama made any sacrifices yet, on the matter of climate change? Did Axelrod make any sacrifices regarding climate change? Emanuel?

    I can’t agree — or rather, it doesn’t seem to me — that the president or Axelrod or Emanuel profoundly understand the climate change problem. It doesn’t seem to me that any of them do. They haven’t shown it. Talk and action are two different things.

    The real test will come in these next several months. Depending on what happens, I may decide that voting for a third party, in the next election, is the best and only sensible way to go, in order to get climate change addressed. I’m still hoping that Obama will turn up the heat, by a factor of 100, but I’m not sure if he has it in him from a paradigm standpoint or from a tactical standpoint.

    Regarding the media, I don’t think that they have a clear idea of what their aim is (presumably) supposed to be, and I’m hoping that Climate Progress will run a proposed guest post of mine on that very subject. It’s a bit long, and a bit of a rant in places, but it conveys what I think the media must ask themselves, face, and address. So, I’m hoping that Joe and Climate Progress will run it, if they think it’s worthwhile of course.



  18. catman306 says:

    Who Pays To Deny Climate Change
    Sunday 03 October 2010
    by: David Cronin | Inter Press Service | Report

    Brussels – European organisations dedicated to challenging scientific warnings about the gravity of climate change have refused to reveal who finances their work.

  19. Dave E says:

    #5 I absolutely agree with you that Reagan was the turning point. The Republicans had wanted to roll back the Roosevelt reforms but Eisenhower and his Republican successors realized this was politically impossible. It took until Reagan for the Republicans to begin to address this and now they are hoping to address it with a vengence. 1950-1970 were great years for the middle class but since the 80s the middle class has stagnated–what progress it made in the 80s and 90s was mostly due to more two income households and of course the middle class has made no progress at all in this millenium. We may be disappointed with the Democrats performance of late, but if the Republicans really make substantial gains, then we have real problems–especially since many of the Republican candidates have no qualifications whatsoever. Do we really want someone like Christin O’Donnell in the senate?

  20. Roger says:

    Great comments, as always.

    Having worked to get Obama elected because I liked his stance on climate, it’s been a cliff hanger. However, having just read his comments on this topic in the current “Rolling Stone” interview, I’m a little more optimistic. We informed citizens need to keep challenging him to do more. I’m not comfortable with our small margin of error!

    Next year will be critical.

  21. max says:

    I agree with you that the Obama admin has done poorly wrt getting a climate/energy bill done-but how about some healthy scientific skepticism when unnamed senior administration officials are doing their score-settling, blame game via Lizza?

  22. Steve Bloom says:

    Hmm, on the whole I think “the Calvin Coolidge of climate change” might be the best fit, plus you can’t beat the alliteration.

  23. Wonhyo says:

    homunq #7 says: “If people are seriously talking about spraying megatons of sulfuric acid into the stratosphere until the sky turns red, as a last-ditch effort to save the earth, then why aren’t we talking about passing climate legislation with 51 votes – which is orders of magnitude easier, cheaper, and better.”

    I think you’re missing the point. If we pass climate legislation with 51 votes, how will the Halliburtons and Bechtels of the world profit from it?

    Now, if we decide to spray megatons of sulfuric acid into the stratosphere, who are we going to hire to do that? My money is on Halliburton and Bechtel (and ExxonMobil).

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I like Steve #22’s allusion to Calvin Coolidge. I remember hearing that Coolidge’s daughter wrote in her diary,in the late 1920s,’Pappa says there’s a Depression coming’,or something to that effect.
    Until you get your head around the fact that Obama is a ‘con-man’, that his impotence and prevarication are deliberate, that he was controlled by Emanuel (his Dick Cheney) who is quitting because his job is done and Obama will be a one-term President, as always was intended,that his real masters are Big Business, who are more interested in profits from the multi-trillion fossil fuel industry than the lives of future generations and that he was programed to fail and deliver power back to the Republicans, you’re really lost.
    Your political system guarantees elite rule, with a cynical facade of ‘democracy’. Those waiting for Obama to ‘do something’ that he promised are the ultimate patsies. We in Australia suffered the exact same phenomenon with Kevin Rudd. Elected to end the ten year nightmare of John Howard, a denialist who was convinced that climate change science was a ‘Communist conspiracy’ to bring down capitalism, Rudd made action on climate change a central plank of his election campaign.
    Once in power, and faced by a deranged campaign of lies by the Murdoch media, and virulent opposition from the fossil fuel industry and its ‘think-tanks’, he ‘dogged it’ as we say here. Full scale retreat-one minute climate change was ‘the greatest moral cause’ of the age, the next it was dumped. The denialist moronosphere took over the opposition ‘Liberal’ (illiberal, reactionary and increasingly deranged) Party, and we have been careering backwards ever since.
    I was rather impressed by the Village Voice article concerning White psychopathy. I think that you can add another factor explaining why white Rightwingers have gone barking mad. The rise of China and the refusal of the Afghans, Gazans, Lebanese and Iraqis etc to follow orders, no matter how many of their wives and children are slaughtered by cowardly drone strikes, presages the eclipse of the White Man as global bully in chief, and I think that has the Western elites so terrified that their actions are becoming increasingly unhinged, and this terror has trickled down to the Rightwing rabble, who still think that the USA is Number One, (and don’t you forget it!) There’s nothing more dangerous than the declining bully-boy who no longer instils fear in his victims.

  25. fj2 says: Obama in Command

    Obama mentions climate change in the Oct 15 Rolling Stone interview

  26. Lewis C says:

    Wonhyo –
    with respect, I think you’re missing the salient point too.

    If we continue to assume that “geo-engineering means spraying megatons of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere”, and thus as a movement to hold opposition to geo-engineering as a core tenet of environmentalism, several outcomes will very likely occur.

    – There will be no serious global effort to develop the governance necessary for the research, selection and pilot deployments of more appropriate albido restoration techniques, as few politicians will expend effort on climate initiatives that don’t at least win them greeny points.

    – The necessary geo-engineering in the form of a carbon recovery program via worldwide native afforestation (optimized for the decentralized production of biochar and fuels) will not obtain the mass-support it needs for proper planning, funding and application, and such substantial efforts as are achieved with biochar from ‘wastes’ will be wasted as cheap offset-fodder for corporations’ avoidance of industrial reform, rather than providing the one critical opportunity for the verifiable outright recovery of historical GHG emissions being grant-funded by those nations whose unresolved carbon debts have long blocked agreement of the requisite equitable and efficient climate treaty.

    – As efforts by various nations to reduce GHG outputs begin to bear fruit in the coming decades, (possibly via a treaty that leaves laggard states excluded from its incentives but able to accede when they become willing to play catch-up), we’ll see the decline of outputs of coolant sulphate aerosols and particulates bringing around 1.0C of additional and rather abrupt global warming (~4.0C at the poles). Given the prognosis for climate destabilization before that point, the urge to apply the best available means of albido restoration (sulphates by default) would then be irresistible, and the Bechtel-the-saviour syndrome would start cashing its cheques.

    – At some uncertain date within the coming decades, one or more of the feedbacks will take off in a manner that starts to generate panic among wealthy electorates, at which point that same Bechtel-saviour syndrome will again do well. (Which of these two opportunities would occur first is an open question – It is of course possible that a third driver, food scarcity via loss of farm yields, could be the trigger that Bechtel awaits).

    – The delay in applying albido restoration for a few decades has its own consequences of course – say another three decades of increased warming going into the oceans (regardless of the extent to which GHG outputs are being cut) – and that heat will circulate over the ultra-vast stocks of methyl hydrates, warming them potentially to the point of outgassing, while warmer air masses from over the warmer oceans will be afflicting the far smaller 1.67 trillion tonnes of carbon now held in permafrost.
    In sum, any belated emergency application of albido restoration, whether by sulphates or by some benign technology, is all too likely to be far too late to avoid that massive pulse of heat traveling into those carbon banks and triggering a self-reinforcing progressive release of their stocks as both CH4 & CO2.

    So maybe it’s time the environment movement got serious about the predicament and,
    rather than blithely assuming that no longer adding to the problem of excess airborne GHGs will solve the problem of excess airborne GHGs,
    and rather than dismissing geo-engineering as merely a dangerous corporate scam,
    instead started discussing the criteria by which the cream of the various geo-engineering technologies could best be selected for research, localized pilot operation, and, where proven effective,
    for deployment ASAP with regard to very long-term carbon recovery,
    and for fast albido restoration ASAP after the requisite climate treaty comes into force ?



  27. fj2 says:

    Can we hope that the president is lining his ducks up to go really big and do the military option as Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute recommends?

    This would address climate change at the correct scale.

  28. fj2 says:

    Rolling back pro-oil California Prop 23 may be the first big battle ground.

  29. Peter M says:

    In the early 21st Century we have entered another fractured period in American history that has been building since the 1960s- Obama’s desire to ‘bring the nation together’ as he said in his speech at the Democratic convention in 2004 ‘There is no Red or Blue America’ may be a dream and illusion never to be accomplished.

    James Buchanan’ response of the seething tense pre civil war chasms in the nation are eerily similar to today’s cultural & political polarization.

    We have entered a very difficult period in American history of extremes from the left and the right. Obama seems as perplexed and paralyzed to make a courageous stand on everything from Gays in the military to Climate change. Buchanan’ vacillating message regarding slavery is indeed a fair comparison.

    Presidents before Buchanan, Pierce from New Hampshire, with southern sympathies, but also Polk, did little to solve the nations growing split on slavery.

    Will Obama be remembered weak on climate change- the most important issue we have face as a nation-or as a Buchanan, or Pierce (both today considered weak leaders on the issue of slavery)

    Obama needs to take a robust stand on climate change- and inform the public in a non alarmist campaign. Will he? Thus far sadly he has proven to be very cautious and non confrontational- qualities not suitable for the immense challenges we face.

    Future Presidents will face the increasing social & economic burden’s caused by climate change-

  30. Raul M. says:

    Thank-you very well said.
    Future Leaders will face the difficulties

  31. Mark says:

    Presidential Incompetence from a one term senator; Hillary was right.

    We can’t know what Obama thinks, but there isn’t much in the way of deeds to demonstrate that he “profoundly” understands this issue.

    interesting comments, thanks, Jeff, you said it very well.

  32. According to the official, Schiliro and the insiders argued, “You’ve got to own Congress,” while Axelrod and the outsiders argued, “Fuck whatever Congress wants, we’re not for them.”

    Can someone please put an end to these idiotic turf wars?

    Given that Obama was using Lincoln imagery during his campaign to the White House, it’s strange that he’s now doing exactly the opposite of what Lincoln did. Lincoln didn’t incessantly chase after some false dream of “bipartisanship”; he was willing to declare all-out war on the slave states, and he did. Obama has the chance to be the Abraham Lincoln of climate change. Take that chance now, Obama!


  33. adelady says:

    Peter M@29 “extremes from the left and the right”?

    From outside the USA it’s very hard to see anything or anyone that qualifies for the ‘left’ description, let alone extreme left. You obviously have people who are ‘left’ of the extreme right. But in Europe and in the rest of the English speaking world, an American non-right politician would be a very poor fit in most centre left political parties. You could hope for a meeting of minds on labour, unions, mine safety, but as for the rest. A lot of foot shuffling and sideways glances I would expect.

  34. Wonhyo says:

    Lewis #26 says: “…rather than blithely assuming that no longer adding to the problem of excess airborne GHGs will solve the problem of excess airborne GHGs, and rather than dismissing geo-engineering as merely a dangerous corporate scam, instead started discussing the criteria by which the cream of the various geo-engineering technologies could best be selected for research, localized pilot operation…”

    I don’t assume emissions reductions, by themselves, will stop global warming. However, emissions reductions, to near zero, are a necessary step toward climate stabilization. Geo-engineering without emissions reductions is like putting a bandaid over a cut on the hand while ignoring the artery that is severed in the neck (and the bandaid is infected with bacteria).

    There are some sensible geoengineering solutions, but none of them will produce enough corporate profits to garner sufficient political support. For example, painting roofs white (as JR suggests) is a low-cost, low-risk, no-side-effect way to reduce solar heating. However, big corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel will not profit from people painting their roofs white. They will profit from injecting sulfur particles in the air. Guess which solution is going to get more political support?

    Finally, as JR has pointed out, it is not possible to “research” geoengineering in a “localized pilot operation”. The only way to truly test geoengineering solutions is to deploy them on a large geographic scale in a long time period. Geoengineering solutions cannot be adequately tested before deployment. Kind of like going to war, and guess which two companies profited most from that experiment?

  35. Mimikatz says:

    Having read the New Yorker article, I’d say there is lots of blame here. The most serious is the failure to coordinate so that Obama repeatedly and uselessly gave away prime negiotiating points without getting anything in return at a time when he should have known there would not be Republican votes for anything he proposed. But that coordination went both ways. Harry Reid should take some blame too, but he’s thinking of his reelection. Now we will be saddled with a Congress filled with even more deniers.

    Indications are that 2012 will be as hot or hotter than this year, with mroe CO2 and less ice. Obama has a chance to gamble and make climate the centerpiece of his reelection run. It is the point of greatest contrast with the GOP. As things stand now, they are likely to nominate a climate denier. That election may be our last real hope, if the issues can be clarly articulated.

  36. Lewis C says:

    As far as I can remember the Whitehouse tactic of achieving policy via ‘plausible incompetence’ was first visible to me during Reagan’s second term, for all it was Cheyney who brought it to a fine art.
    Quite why Obama’s serially deficient conduct on climate since his first weeks in office should still be viewed as incompetence by generally astute CP contributors is beyond me.
    I could, but won’t, list a score of telling events, starting with his adoption of Bush’s wholly illegitimate unilateral baseline of 2005, thereby reneging, gratuitously, on the US signature of the UNFCCC treaty. That was an entirely unnecessary act of demonstrating bad faith to UN negotiations – unless of course you want to signal that you’re taking on Bush’s policy of stonewalling those negotiations until China and the rest are so hard hit by climate impacts that they will drop their demand for an equitable treaty.
    The New Yorker article has blown the “lack of effort due to lack of confidence” thesis by detailing the handing of huge pork to key vested interests, thereby disabling the three senators’ key negotiating strengths. To do that once, for no particular reason, without liaison with the bill’s sponsors, would have been grossly incompetent. No doubt the senators made their feelings known immediately. Yet the Whitehouse ignored them and did so twice more. That is not by any stretch incompetence – that is policy framed, as the article put it, so that “From the outside, it looked as if the Obama Administration were co-ordinating closely with Democrats in the Senate.”

  37. Lewis C says:

    Joe describes the astonishment of Washington insiders at these spoiling actions well: they were utterly baffled – Not only did these give-aways disable the negotiations, they also informed canny republicans that the Whitehouse wasn’t supporting the bill – and their confidence was doubtless boosted, along with their obstructionism and gross slander.
    An aspect made clear in the TNY article is that Graham’s participation was greatly undermined by the drilling give-away – he now had nothing of much interest for his home state that passing the bill would allow. How could he possibly sell it at home, let alone to other Republican senators ?
    Yet the final straw for Graham was not the give-aways on nuclear loan guarantees, on immense oil-drilling expansion and on the curtailing of EPA capacities – it was a ‘leak’ from the Whitehouse to Fox News, the leading denialist junk-TV, presenting parts of the bill as a gas tax – which was a term Graham had specifically warned his co-sponsors about [see New Yorker]. On the Fox website, Garret, their Whitehouse correspondent, cited “senior administration sources” and said that the “Obama White House opposes a move in the Senate, led by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, to raise federal gasoline taxes within still-developing legislation to reduce green house gas emissions.” Including two updates to his original story, Garrett used the word “tax” thirty-four times. In fact, there was no such item in the draft bill.

    [JR: Note that there are plenty of people inside the White House who don’t get climate and didn’t want a bill. So it isn’t very hard for one of them to leak to FoxNews to piss off Graham.]

  38. Lewis C says:


    That destructive ‘leak’ is the first specific instance of the Whitehouse actively engineering the strident dishonest opposition to climate action on which the shreds of US international credibility on climate now depend. This exposee will thus have serious international ramifications.

    With Reid, for some still unexplained reason, then suddenly declaring that immigration would come first, Graham split and the bill was defunct. (Another TNY quote may be relevant here: “Emanuel . . . . called Reid’s office in March and suggested that the Senate abandon cap-and-trade in favor of a modest bill that would simply require utilities to generate more electricity from clean sources”).

    The article states that Graham was eventually satisfied that the ‘leak’ was not by Emmanuel. I suggest that none of these events were ‘by Emmanuel’. He plainly argued the case for them and intervened as required, but they were Obama’s decisions, not his. And Obama did not repeatedly sabotage the bill’s negotiation and break the co-sponsors’ unity for fear of the bill not passing – his one-sentence-per-month on climate has been a very clear indication of his priority commitment to near total inaction on the issue of climate legislation.

    His inherited Bush-era policy of a brinkmanship of inaction with China et al precludes any significant action domestically. To have allowed a climate bill through the senate, even with its derisory 3.67% GHG cut, would have violated that inadmissible policy and, by the rules of nationalist hardball diplomacy, would have undermined the long years of US stonewalling at the UN in hopes of getting the deal that ignores US historical responsibilities.

  39. Lewis C says:


    Quite why people find this fairly simple dynamic so hard to credit seems very obscure. It is not as if Obama is being weak – he is playing the most cold-blooded poker-game on the planet. Nor is the policy unassailable and thus too depressing to consider as a possibility – its very inadmissibility means that it will have to be reviewed once efforts to expose to the public its reckless nationalist short-termism start to gain momentum.

    Maybe it is just that the US environment movement has a hard time conceiving that the American Democrat Obama could possibly be doing anything as irresponsible as stonewalling the negotiations in a manner that also stonewalls domestic action ? If so, I can only suggest studying the TNY article, and paying closer attention to the details of what is said by whom internationally – starting with reading between the lines of Foreign Secretary Hague’s speech to the CFR, and then considering the output from this week’s Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels, and then there is the UNFCCC meeting in China, followed by Cancun.

    The alternative, of clinging to the moth-eaten official cover story that Obama would really like to act but can’t because of the conduct of the [GOP] would mean yet more years spent kicking, futilely and painfully, at entirely the wrong point in the hierarchy of power that is the US establishment.

    – To clear a log-jam, you have to get a line onto the right log, and then haul it out of the way. Getting to the right log is thus the starting point of clearing the jam. –



  40. catman306 says:

    Mimikatz, I’m not sure I want Obama to run for re-election on a climate heating platform. I feel certain that following his re-election, it would be business as usual in DC. But with a denier as the likely alternative, what’s a guy suppose to do? Our political system is broken. Money got into the gears and broke the teeth.

  41. Bill W says:

    Have you noticed that many GOP Congresspersons become more “reasonable” once they’ve announced that they won’t be running for re-election, or once they’ve retired?

    If we can’t get campaign finance reform, maybe we should work on term limits. I know, the critters, and more importantly under term limits, their staffers, can still be bought through revolving-door job offers. But maybe at least some termed-out members would vote their conscience instead of the party line.

  42. homunq says:

    Sorry to bring geoengineering into the conversation. My point was not to start a discussion of the so-called “field” of geoengineering (which seems to me like a false set of unrelated possibilities, some good, some speculative, and some crazy), but to note that congress can hold hearings about far-off drastic action, but so far finds it impossible to openly and seriously discuss simple fixes for an antidemocratic system nobody imagines is sustainable.

    I know I repeat myself on this, but filibuster reform merits far more urgency than it gets. Maybe Obama could have wrangled 60 votes; maybe he couldn’t have. But there’s no doubt at all that he could have gotten 51, and he probably will still be able to after the election. Yet “wait and see how many votes we have, then change the rules on that basis” is setting yourself up to look like an opportunistic loser. Now is the time to talk about it. I’ve mostly given up hope on Obama recognizing that, but we still need to make as much noise as possible now.

    1. US federal climate legislation is important. Although state and regulatory action can perhaps accomplish as much or more, federal legislation would still be huge on its own, as well as allowing progress on global negotiations.
    2. Federal legislation will not pass without filibuster reform. Period. I think it might never have passed without, but anyway that doesn’t matter now.
    3. Filibuster reform is possible. There is no Democratic senator or candidate who flatly opposes it. I think that a filibuster should mean 40 explicit votes to temporarily extend debate – and that does mean actually debating, not just moving on. Each successive filibuster on the same issue should require a vote or two more, until it requires 51 (to preserve the constitutional role of the VP as a tiebreaker if there’s a 50/50 split).

    Even if the (current crazy crop of) Republicans controlled both houses – even if, heavens forbid, they controlled the presidency too – I’d still support such a reform (although it doesn’t matter what I say, because the filibuster would be toast then anyway). That situation would of course be a disaster, but even then, the Democrats would accomplish nothing with today’s filibuster; they need to learn to engage forces, or they will keep losing. And I’d rather have 2 years of crazy and some new young Clarence Thomas, if in return there were a chance for meaningful action afterwards. It would at least be a more interesting and less certain doom than business as usual.

  43. Andy says:

    @Lewis C (#36-39)

    This is your clearest explination of the brinkmanship policy that I have seen, and I confess it is frightening.

    One question though: Why does this brinkmanship policy preclude “any significant action domestically”? I know your arguement in support of this supposition is that Obama wants China and the developing world to be so hard hit by climate impacts that they will cave in their negotiations for an international treaty that puts a fair burden on the US. However, isn’t there plenty of warming in the pipeline (and even more when considering the inertia of global energy/transit systems) that will hit China and the rest regardless of what we do domestically? Aren’t the real leverage points internationl aid for mitigation and adaptation (technology as well as $$ aid)?

    I can outline some sketches of a response to these questions myself, but you have thought much more deeply about this and I would be curious to hear your thoughts.



  44. Richard Miller says:

    To Lewis #35-40. I usually find your posts enlightening, but not in this instance. It is hard to believe that Obama does not understand the gravity of our situation, after bringing Holdren and Chu into his administration. It is also hard to believe that he really understands the gravity of our situation but he lacks the courage and fight to push members in the Senate around to get this done. Just because these are so hard to believe, and the monstrous stupidy of administration not pushing for climate change legislation is hard to believe, does not mean that we just flip the whole thing on its head and say that they could not be so awful or stupid so they must have some brilliant grand plan. The latter is really unbelievable and an utterly bizarre ineffectual approach.

    No, I think it is much more likely a mixture of the inability to face up to truth of our situation, which all of us suffer from to a certain extent, mixed with short term politicking, mixed with many other issues that take his attention, mixed with weakness and a lack of courage, mixed with wishful thinking, mixed with living in an echo chamber, etc.

  45. Kevin Zeese says:

    The deals on off shore oil and nuclear loan guarantees show Obama making the kind of pro-corporate deals his administration should become known for. He pays off his contributors rather than solves the urgent problems the country faces. His health care bill is essentially a give away to the insurance industry of $400 billion in new tax subsidies a year and it further entrenched the insurance industry as the dominant player in health care when he should have challenged them, indeed, ended their role with a single payer health system.

    While Obama did his corporate energy giveaways — classic corporate welfare — this crony capitalism is only part of Obama’s failing. The cap and trade approach was also a mistake. Cap and trade has not worked where it has been tried And, the bill got worse, it became a give away to polluters with massive carbon credits to carbon polluters. Thank goodness this bill did not pass. It would not have solved the carbon energy problem, but would have further entrenched it by rewarding polluters and would have created a new massive market for Wall Street to profit from.

    The legacy of the Obama presidency is not rising to challenge concentrated corporate power on any issue. Every problem the country faces, is “solved” by giveaways to big business (i.e. to Obama’s biggest donors). Of course, this actually means, no problem is actually solved and the necessities of the American people, and of the Earth, go unsolved.

  46. mike roddy says:

    The American government was dysfunctional for 41 years, starting with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. From then until the guns of Fort Sumter, all American presidencies became tarnished by compromise and paralysis, and the assumption that they needed to continue to please the vicious slaveholders from the South.

    We’ve done the same thing since Reagan was elected in 1980. The oil and coal companies became integrated into government, and never left. Any discussion of energy independence or getting away from fossil fuels in general now includes the codicil that we will depend on oil, coal, and gas for the next few decades, ensuring their continued enrichment, and the destruction of a fecund and habitable planet.

    Yes, Obama needs to be like Lincoln, who saw that it’s pointless to try to compromise with the kinds of men who believe in treating humans as property, selling and whipping them at will. By now Obama should have learned the lengths that people like Koch and Tillerson will go to in order to retain their wealth. He was handed an issue that could make him our greatest president ever, acting with moral clarity and ensuring justice for all.

    I don’t know that Obama wakes up here, but other presidents have grown into their jobs, including Madison and Roosevelt. It’s his turn now. There’s nobody else. Do it, Barack!

  47. Andy says:

    Richard Miller (#44),

    The policy of brinkmanship has been pursued with wrecklessness in the past – Cold War brinkmanship literally brought us to the brink of destroying the planet. (Cuban Missle Crisis, anyone?)

    Why is it unbelievable that such a policy would be pursued again by the U.S., when it was pursued in the past – with comparable potential for planetary devestation – and accomplished the intended goals?

    I’m not saying the U.S. is certainly or even probably pursuing a brinkmanship policy with respect to climate change; I am just pointing out that there is substantial historical precedent.



  48. Mark says:

    really interesting stuff here thanks.

  49. Mark says:

    just read as much as I could tolerate, of the New Yorker article.

    so, who leaked the story, and derailed the effort?

    If the entire article is accurate, it’s disgraceful, on all sides. It seems the last thing any of them cared about, was climate change.

    “legislative legacy”, being a centre of power, ego, money, politics.

    And these were the people that represented the best hope of meaningful results.

    pretty grim scenario.

  50. Lewis C says:

    Joe –

    “Note that there are plenty of people inside the White House who don’t get climate and didn’t want a bill. So it isn’t very hard for one of them to leak to FoxNews to piss off Graham.”

    I’d well agree that this might have been some loose cannon with a grudge, yet the stakes at that point were extreme. Feeding Fox the lie and the meme of a gas tax was lethal to Graham’s co-sponsorship, and thus to the bill. Had Obama been working for the bill and not himself thrice sabotaged its negotiation with the give-aways, then this would have been direct treachery by one of his staff. In reality, the ‘leak’ was right in line with de facto policy.

    Given that the Whitehouse then “had to be forced to issue a statement” that the senators K,G&L planned no such provision, the pile of indicators of active Whitehouse opposition seems many times too high to be credible as either incompetence or a fear of losing a senate vote. Indeed, with support for climate action at around 70%, a hard-fought straight loss would have been politically benign compared to the bill’s slow, painful and pathetic demise.

    For this reason I’d suggest straw-polling the insiders you described as ‘utterly baffled’ by the disabling giveaways with my analysis above, and see to what extent there may be agreement that the title of the TNY article might sensibly have been: “How the Whitehouse avoided the best chance of legislation on climate change.”



  51. Tom Gibbons says:

    I have been to immigration meetings sponsored by people sympathetic to the illegals and concerned about what happened to them in places like Postville, IA. People in these meetings were so concerned about their issue and so effective at demanding that everything else be placed on the back legislative burner, that I left the meeting wishing I had never (a) heard of climate change and (b) given up drinking. I still think climate change should be addressed first, but I mention this just to give a hint about what presidents have to contend with. Besides immigration, the same attitudes are easily found in groups concerned with health care, terrorism, Iraq, financial reform, Afghanistan, the national debt, and several others including, of course, climate change. Presidents, especially this one, who knows all of these problems are important, are bombarded with demands to be first from everywhere. That is before you even get to the facts that the economy almost went through a complete collapse and that a large percentage of Americans burn with the belief that the government should pretty much never do anything. It is hard to chart a course through all this without some missteps. Some of you should probably keep this in mind before you let your anger cut all ties with potential allies in the government.

  52. Richard Brenne says:

    What Mike Roddy (#46) said! All should encourage Barack in this direction as much as possible, and never give up on him while he’s in office.

  53. Lewis C says:

    Andy at 44 –

    Thanks for you response. You wrote:

    “Why does this brinkmanship policy preclude “any significant action domestically”?
    . . . isn’t there plenty of warming in the pipeline (and even more when considering the inertia of global energy/transit systems) that will hit China and the rest regardless of what we do domestically?
    Aren’t the real leverage points international aid for mitigation and adaptation . . . ?

    The policy of a brinkmanship of inaction was of course started by the Bush Whitehouse, and Obama then chose to adopt it as covert policy. It functions as a lever on the rising powers led by China by means of an open-ended delay of commitment to mitigation until demands for the US to meet its liabilities for the damages of historic emissions, and for onerous terms of burden sharing in the allocation of national emission rights, are dropped due to fear of further delay imposing catastrophic climate damage and climatic destabilization of society.
    China’s response thus far is an identical refusal to accept binding commitments.

    To be credible, the brinkmanship demands a total lack of domestic action that is significant to the US committing to binding international constraints. In this context renewable energies are not significant – without a treaty capping national emissions any fossil fuel displaced is bought and burnt elsewhere. By contrast, formally declaring climate change to be “a real and present danger to the security of the nation” and thus multiplying executive powers, or launching a nationwide climate education program, would directly feed public demand both for domestic legislation and acceptance of the best deal on a treaty currently available.

    Passing domestic legislation would have directly conflicted with the policy of brinkmanship by committing the US to a legal constraint on emissions without first getting China et al to back down on their demands. By contrast, the EPA will now act under the president’s volition, reportedly to achieve less than the late senate bill’s 3.76% cut off 1990 by 2020. Given that the recession has already cut the first ~2% of that, the present prospect is of achieving between a 0% and 1.0% cut by 2020. Certainly less than the margin of error in emissions monitoring.

  54. Lewis C says:


    Much of the US public, and international opinion, would be profoundly offended if the policy of brinkmanship were publicly recognizable, which means that the GOP’s conduct in blocking any and all action is more than helpful; it is actually necessary to veil the policy’s requirement of continued inaction. Thus there has been no official effort to defend climate scientists, and no exposure of the corruption of the deniers’ funding, and no coherent formal discrediting of the ridiculous cant that they are pushing as disproof of the science. To what extent the Whitehouse has previously encouraged the denial lobby I don’t know; the ‘gas-tax’ lie given to Fox News to break the senators’ partnership was the first such collaboration I’ve heard of.

    An aspect of the policy of brinkmanship worth considering is Obama’s rationale for adopting so unconstructive an approach on so critical and time-urgent an issue. I suggest that he was shown no preferable options that would be acceptable to American expectations of lifestyle and consumption levels, and also that he knew full well that the fascist right in the US (with over 800,000 paid up members of the American Nazi Party at the outbreak of WWII) has not gone away, and has its own agenda on the issue: there are those within the far right of US politics who view climate destabilization as a boon in providing a substantial cull of world population, particularly the poor and primitive sections of it, thereby ensuring continued resources for the use of wealthier people of ‘superior’ intelligence and civilization.

    Obama has to have been made aware that if he accepted a treaty that could empower that far right under their pretences of it being unfair to Americans, the outcome could be far worse even than prognosis for the current stalemate. Thus at Copenhagen his offer to China was a patently unacceptable brush-off: in essence, that each American should still have the right to emit three times the GHGs of each Chinese – in forty years time.

  55. Lewis C says:


    As you say, there is a great deal of warming ‘in the pipeline’ and we’ll add more to it in the coming decades, as will the feedbacks. So the mutual threat levels are already very high indeed, but as yet they’ve not generated a willingness in the US or China to acknowledge the kind of creative thinking that can cut a path out of the impasse. You may be interested by the content at which offers the best such creative thinking I’ve seen. GCI stands for Global Commons Institute, which promotes the widely endorsed climate policy framework of “Contraction & Convergence” [C&C] that it originated around 1990. The current focus is on C&C’s unique potential to frame the negotiations under the principle of “Climate Justice without Vengeance”.

    With regard to the leverage available via aid for mitigation and adaption, C&C offers a framework whereby those viewing this as a matter of aid or charity can share a metric with those viewing it as an issue of liabilities being honoured. The core resource in the negotiations is the allocation of national emission rights, usually coded as ‘burden sharing’. Under C&C, while contracting globally to respect a sustainable global carbon budget by an agreed date, those national emission rights would also converge from the present de facto GDP correlation towards international per capita parity by an agreed date, with surplus rights being traded annually between nations as countries’ needs demand.

    It is a very large subject and this post is over long, so I’ll add only that C&C provides the equity (both senses) that allows nations to be confident both of the necessary resource transfers and of all parties’ verifiable compliance with the agreed emission constraints, and that C&C now forms the basis of negotiating positions for the EU, the Africa Group, India, Brazil, Australia, numerous smaller nations and (according the Indian government) for China too.

    This being so, I have hopes that Joe may someday invite GCI’s director, Aubrey Meyer, to provide a guest post describing the C&C framework rather better than I can.



  56. fj2 says:

    Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers are gone both reported to have advised holding back on climate change.

    Science advisor John Holdren and Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu know the seriousness of climate change.

    Steven Chu has been positioned as the saviour during the BP crisis. Let us hope that he is brought front-and-center to address climate change loud-and-clear and empowered to initiate action at the greatest scale.

  57. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Kevin Zeese #45 has it spot on, as does Tariq Ali in an article I just read concerning Obama’s foreign policy, which is even worse, even more belligerent, than GW Bush’s. Obama is, like Blair in the UK and Rudd in Australia, a total fraud, a Trojan Horse through which the real rulers of capitalist societies, the rich, ensured the continuance of elite policy after a period of vile and unpopular Rightwing misrule. The interregnum is intended to be brief, and Obama’s total betrayal of the ‘Hope Fiend’ suckers is intended to put them off political involvement, hopefully for life. Rudd and Blair were exactly the same, betraying the idiots who believed their lies with relish, while serving the business interest slavishly. As Blair’s steady income stream since retirement shows, this sort of service is richly rewarded. Obama will be a willing and enthusiastic ‘lame duck’ after the coming electoral rout, things will only get worse, and he will deliver the Presidency back to the Republicans. Following my lifelong habit of expecting the worst and most preposterous outcome, I expect a Palin/O’Donnell ticket to come to power,just as the ecological dung hits the fan,big time. As the Chinese say,’May you live in interesting times’.

  58. Kevin says:

    Lewis C — you touch on a point that bothers me quite a lot — who leaked to fox so that they’d go after Graham? If it wasn’t Rahm, who? I wonder if it could be one of the ngos who were so annoyed about the nuclear & offshore provisions that they’d rather torpedo the entire enterprise than see these enacted. After all, a few of these in that meeting are part of the “renewables only” crowd. This was sabotage, pure and simple. There are a handful of folks who would see this as a perfectly good move as they hope for something purer in the future.

  59. Lewis C says:

    Kevin –

    we should certainly be told who did the leaking and who ordered it – but I’m not confident we will be.

    Thus far there is no evidence for some rogue NGO having done so but several items indicating Whitehouse responsibility:

    – the senators KG&L immediate assumption, as core players, that it was the Whitehouse
    – the use of the term ‘gas-tax’ that Graham had specifically warned about
    – the citing of ‘senior administration sources’ in the Fox News reports
    (death to a career as Whitehouse correspondent if falsely claimed)
    – and the senators reportedly having to force the Whitehouse to issue even a grudging retraction.

    However the key issue for me is how we are going to put an end to the predictably genocidal policy of a brinkmanship of inaction with China.

    Nothing significant will be achieved before that policy is reviewed and replaced.



  60. Tom Gibbons says:

    Lewis C gives a very interesting conspiracy theory which, I admit, never occurred to me. But isn’t there a much simpler explanation for the inaction on a climate bill? The Senate votes are not there. There are a dozen or more very controversial and important actions and reforms that congress needs to take, but congress can generally handle only about one at a time at least on the floor. The administration has been opportunistic in sending up whatever seemed to offer the best chance of holding most of the senate Democrats together and picking off a few Republicans. Some things such as climate and immigration just do not fit that description. As for the leak to Fox: did the leak really have to be what Fox claimed it was? Could some Fox reporter just have asked some “senior administration source” if the administration supported a gas tax? Answer: Nope. Then Fox is off and running.

  61. Tom Gibbons says:

    One follow up: What a climate bill needs more than anything is a few Republican senators. I suggest that a good use of your time, if you understand the need for such a bill, would be to work on your Republican senator. I am pretty sure that there are a few who actually do understand the situation down there at some level even though they cannot break through the party discipline. Given the makeup of the senate, there is really no alternative to working on that.

  62. Lewis C says:

    Tom at 61 –

    if this is the best you can do by way of a critique, I’m rather encouraged.

    It is patently nonsense to try to belittle the observation of a covert policy of brinkmanship of inaction with China as “a conspiracy theory”.
    As is obvious to most readers, every government on the planet has covert policies, hidden either from their people or from other governments, or both. Obama’s inherited climate policy is nothing unusual in this regard.

    I note that you have to ignore the many items of evidence of that policy’s operation to attempt a rebuttal – choosing instead to speculate an origin of the Whitehouse leak that simply doesn’t fit with the known facts, and to then pretend that it resolves the issue.

    You are of course welcome to your own opinion, and to cling to the increasingly incoherent cover story of how committed to action Obama has been since day one of his term of office. But I think it is not only unhelpful to getting the fundamental change of policy now urgently required, it also leaves you looking remarkably gullible.

    With regard to your suggestion of contacting my senator, I’ve two problems – first, it appears to ignore the utter failure of that approach over the last three decades; perhaps you are willing to persevere unquestioningly with that failure simply because that is how the system is supposed to work ? So for how many more decades would you maintain that approach ?

    Second, as a Commoner within a constitutional monarchy that enjoys a full parliamentary democracy, I don’t have a senator to call. What I have is a member of parliament, who is already fully supportive of the coalition government’s efforts to raise the EU target to 30% off 1990 by 2020.

    You may wish to consider the fact that this position has been achieved by innovative rather than conformist action.