The President and the Climate: Reflections on Progressive Obama Delusion and a Curious Line in Bill McKibben’s Eaarth


Just what did Barack Obama and his spinners do to the critical faculties of so many leading American progressives?  Some of my regular readers might be surprised to know that I often bring a significant measure of disinclination to my recurrent radical criticism of President Barack Obama and his “progressive” defenders.  The reluctance stems from my concern that too much focus on “Obama” can divert from the deeper corporate and imperial institutions and structures — what I have taken to calling the unelected interlocking dictatorships of money and empire — that create the deadly, narrow contours of American politics and policy beyond the question of who happens to occupy the White House.  Besides, my main problem with many liberals and progressives over the last three years hasn’t been that they’ve been clueless and overly attached to “Obama” per se.  It’s that so many of them have tended to buy into a constricted definition of relevant politics as being about little more than these big corporate-crafted, mass-marketed, narrow-spectrum, highly personalized “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s term) that pass for shining examples of democracy in the United States.  I don’t wear political buttons that say whether or not I like Barack Obama or Sarah Palin.  I wear buttons advertising “Single Payer Health Insurance: Improved Medicare for All,” “350” (for the reduction of carbon from its current dangerous level of 390 parts per million to 350), “The Employee Free Choice Act — For a More Democratic Workplace,” “U.S. Out of South Asia,” and the like.  And I agree wholeheartedly with what the late radical historian Howard Zinn used to say: “the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in — in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.  Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating — those are the things that determine what happens.”

“We’ve Finally Got a President Using Centralized Power to Good Ends”

Still, sometimes I find it hard not to wonder if there’s just something unprecedented about Obama and/or his persona, imagery, and marketing when it comes to bamboozling smart progressives and undermining their capacity to embrace the resistance that is so urgently required these days.  Last week, for example, I was working my way through the brilliant environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben’s must-read volume Eaarth.  It’s a very important book because of its unflinching look at the ecological catastrophe that is already underway thanks to human-generated climate change.  Still, McKibben makes what I think is a remarkably ill-advised statement about the current president of the United States:

We shall see, in chapter 4, how we’ve let out energy and our food systems grow ‘too big to fail,’ just as we did our banks.  And the answer is the same — not bigger banks, but smaller banks. . . .  Food that comes closer from home. . . .  Energy from your roof or ridgeline-energy that doesn’t quite yield the power of a barrel of oil, but that doesn’t require an army to keep it flowing.  Our projects, if we are wise, will be myriad and quiet, not a grand few visible to the whole world.

Should this happen . . . the power that’s concentrated in Washington will begin to tilt back toward lower levels of government.  It will be a more Jeffersonian future than a Hamiltonian one.  Which would be ironic, since in Barack Obama we’ve finally got a president using centralized power to good ends, but even he can’t stand athwart the tides of history, especially once the sea has risen a few feet.  (emphasis added, p.128)

This passage was penned in the second year of Obama’s hope-killing presidency.  It was not written in the honeymoon period, when an open-ended spirit of progressive “change” still floated above Washington in the wake of Obama’s election and inauguration.  It was produced by a savvy writer who knows very well that the main thing he blames for the collapse of livable ecology (that, to repeat, he demonstrates is) already underway — the rich world’s deadly addiction to fossil-fueled economic growth — is a richly bipartisan (Democratic as well as Republican) affair in the U.S.

I will not tarry long in this essay on numerous aspects of Obama’s presidential record that make one wonder how on eaarth McKibben understood “good ends” when he wrote that passage — on the administration’s monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, on its refusal to nationalize and cut down the country’s arch-parasitic too-big-(too-powerful)-to-fail financial institutions, on its passage of a health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), on its cutting of an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds and rewarded capital flight, on its savage disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, on its continuation of the occupation of Iraq, on its escalation of mass-murderous superpower violence in South Asia, on its rollover of George W. Bush’s not-so-counter-terrorist assault on human rights (in the name of “freedom”), on its extension of the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, on its escalated U.S. occupation (disguised as humanitarian relief) of Haiti, on its aiding and abetting of a right-wing coup in Honduras, on its stepped-up prosecution of war crime whistleblowers, on its harassment and repression of American antiwar activists, or . . . the list goes on.

A “Profound Error”

Forget all that (if you can) and focus only on McKibben’s most important issue — global warming resulting from the rich nations’ rapacious, growth-addicted over-exploitation of carbon energy resources.  Early in Eaarth, McKibben quotes Lawrence Summers as an example of the bipartisan elite’s disastrous commitment to economic expansion.  “As Lawrence Summers, now President Obama’s chief economic adviser, put it while he was still Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary: we ‘cannot and will not accept any “speed limit” on American economic growth.  It is the task of economic policy to grow the economy as rapidly, sustainably, and inclusively as possible” (McKibben, Eaarth, p. 47).  Summers appears again later in Eaarth, quoted as follows: “There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future.  There isn’t a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else.  The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error” (p.95).

“A Copenhagen Conservative”

So McKibben was hardly unaware that Obama has taken his primary economic advice from Summers, a dedicated enemy of McKibben’s anti-growth eco-agenda.  McKibben was also surely aware of the truly terrible role that Obama has played in effectively sabotaging the global effort to reach a new treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  At global climate talks in Bangkok in late September and early October 2009, the Obama administration helped move the “advanced” capitalist world backward on climate change.  During George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s reign, European governments set themselves apart from the United States with their strong commitment to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.  European Union (EU) nations reduced their carbon emissions by 2 percent from 1990 levels, while the United States increased its emissions by 20 percent.  But, in Bangkok, the Obama administrations persuaded the EU and the rest of the “developed world” to tear up and replace the Kyoto Accords at much-ballyhooed climate meetings in Copenhagen in December.  Kyoto mandated unmistakable and binding emission-reduction targets, placing the preponderant burden of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the wealthy nations that had created the climate crisis in the first place.  The new Obama plan, by contrast, left each country free to decide how much to cut and then to submit its plan to weak international monitoring.  Worse, the plan deleted the rich countries’ special responsibility.  In the end, it left the world with what Naomi Klein rightly called “nothing but wishful thinking to ensure” that the planet’s temperature stays below “catastrophic levels.”1  As the climate talks in Denmark loomed closer, British columnist Johann Harri noted that Obama’s “environmental team” was “vandalising the vital Copenhagen conference” by insisting the United States — the world’s largest carbon emitter — would not agree to any legally binding restrictions on its release of warming gases.2

Three weeks before Copenhagen, Obama announced that there would be no binding carbon-emission rules.  “It was the admission of a massive failure,” wrote German environmental commentator Christian Schwagerl.  Obama “came to office promising hope and change,” Schwagerl noted. “But on climate change, he has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, George W. Bush,” refusing to “take a leadership role on a problem that could shake civilization to its very core.”3

Thanks in no small part to Obama’s (all-too predictable) lack of progressive leadership, the Copenhagen conference was a disaster.  The three-page accord he worked out with the leaders of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa and presented as a fait accompli to the conference did not even meet the modest goals its leaders had set for this meeting.  It failed to commit either industrialized states or developing nations to firm targets for mid-term or long-term greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  It failed even to set a 2010 goal for reaching a binding international treaty to seal the provisions of the accord.  Obama added to a palpable sense of bitterness and frustration among most of the conference’s global delegates, including those from poorer nations that had been frozen out of the negotiations and represented the leading victims of a climate crisis the richer nations (with the United States in the lead) had created.  As the British newspaper The Guardian reported:

Barack Obama stepped into the chaotic final hours of the Copenhagen summit today saying he was convinced the world could act “boldly and decisively” on climate change. . . .  But his speech offered no indication America was ready to embrace bold measures, after world leaders had been working desperately against the clock to try to paper over an agreement to prevent two years of wasted effort — and a 10-day meeting — from ending in total collapse.  He offered no further commitments on reducing emissions or on finance to poor countries. . . .  He did not even press the Senate to move ahead on climate change legislation, which environmental organizations have been urging for months. . . .  “We have charted our course, we have made our commitments, and we will do what we say,” Obama said.  But in the absence of any evidence of that commitment the words rang hollow and there was a palpable sense of disappointment in the audience.4

It was a pathetic, business-captive performance.  According to leading British climate activist and intellectual George Monbiot, making an interesting analogy to George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq:

The immediate reason for the failure of the [Copenhagen] talks can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama.  The man elected to put aside childish things proved to be as susceptible to immediate self-interest as any other politician.  Just as George Bush did in the approach to the Iraq war, Obama went behind the backs of the UN and most of its member states and assembled a coalition of the willing to strike a deal which outraged the rest of the world.  This was then presented to poorer nations without negotiation; either they signed it or they lost the adaptation funds required to help them survive the first few decades of climate breakdown. (emphasis added)5

According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama was a “Washington liberal” but “a Copenhagen conservative,” functioning as “the conservative stalwart in Copenhagen” by “supporting the least-aggressive steps, advancing the conservative position of opposition to strict world-wide limits on emissions that ask much more of developed nations than of poorer countries.”  Obama was serving as “the leader of the ‘haves’ in their dispute with the ‘have-nots.'”6

It doesn’t get much worse than that when it comes to NOT “using centralized power to good ends.”

Early in Eaarth, McKibben says that the Copenhagen conference “turned into a fiasco of the first order.”  Surely he is too smart not to know that the Summers-advised Obama played a pivotal role in the creation of that tragic “fiasco.”

Localist Illusion

It could be argued in McKibben’s defense that he argues in Eaarth for an activist and policy agenda that does not depend on Obama or any other Washington politician for success.  The last two chapters of his book are dedicated to the advance of small-scale and local change away from fossil fuel dependency and toward sustainability beyond the reach of “centralized power.”  In calling for a world that is more local — one where the provision of food, energy, raw materials and goods are “distributed, not centralized” — McKibben advocates the parallel dispersal of political power.  He argues that our institutions should be downsized along with new ecologically friendly technologies and practices.  So what if he flubs understanding the federal Obama administration when his own version of hope and change depends on a eco-localist model of digging in and “hunkering down” for sustainable economics and a related localized politics and policy at the community and regional levels?

It’s a nice defense as far as it goes except for one little technicality: McKibben is wrong to think that we can make the transition towards a sustainable future this way.  As the environmental writer and activist John Acheson noted in an appreciative yet critical review of Eaarth last May:

[M]anaging a “graceful decline” or even a steady state economy will be the greatest collective challenge humanity has ever taken, and it is one we must take together.  To presume that the actions of thousands of small entities can effect such a change — or that we can count on every one of them to do it — is to ignore most of human history.  Any strategy that invests most of the responsibility for change to a bunch of individual and essentially autonomous entities runs smack into Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. . . .  If humanity is to make a transition as profound as McKibben says we must, then we need even stronger institutions at both the national and international level.7

If Acheson is right, and I’m quite sure he is, it matters a great deal that Barack Obama has used centralized power to disastrous, eco-exterminist ends within and beyond Copenhagen ’09.  And the responsibility of progressives to struggle to impact national and indeed international politics and policy continues.


1  Naomi Klein, “Obama’s Bad Influence,” The Nation (October 15, 2009).

2  Johann Harri, “The Real Reason Obama Is Not Making Much Progress,” The Independent (UK), November 20, 2009.

3  Christian Schwagerl, “Obama Has Failed the World on Climate Change,” Spiegel Online (November 17, 2009).

4  John M. Broder, “Many Goals Remain Unmet in 5 Nations’ Climate Deal,” New York Times, December 18, 2009; Suzanne Goldenburg and Allegra Stratton, “Barack Obama’s Speech Disappoints and Fuels Frustration at Copenhagen,” The Guardian, December 18, 2009.

5  George Monbiot, “Requiem for a Crowded Planet,” The Guardian, December 21, 2009.

6  Peter Brown, “Obama: Washington Liberal, Copenhagen Conservative,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2009.

7  John Acheson, “Review of Bill Mckibben’s Must-read Book “‘Eaarth’,” Climate Progress, May 22, 2010.