Obama’s climate crusade – Part IV

[USA] The next argument that was being made — and a lot of Republicans have continued to make — is the notion that, well, even if it is a problem, there’s no point in us doing something because China won’t do something about it. And my trip to China and the joint announcement, I think, was critical in puncturing that notion.

Every so often, John Holdren, the head of my science advisory group, sends out the latest data, and I make sure that not only me but my entire senior staff read it. And the last few reports have gotten everybody feeling like we’ve got to get moving on this, and to see what kinds of tools we can use to really have an impact.

So that brings us back to politics. Obviously one of the biggest sort of impediments to moving faster is the oil cartels — especially the Koch brothers. They’re oil billionaires who are doing everything they can to slow the transition to clean energy. You recently singled out Charles Koch for fighting subsidies for clean energy, saying, “That’s not the American way.” What did you mean by that?
Well, it wasn’t just that they were trying to eliminate solar subsidies — that’s the spin they put on it after I made those remarks down in Nevada — they are actually trying to influence state utilities to make it more expensive for homeowners to install solar panels. And my point was, that’s not how the market works. And by the way, they’re also happy to take continued massive subsidies that Congress has refused to eliminate, despite me calling for the elimination of those subsidies every single year.

Everybody is very selective when they start talking about free-market principles and innovation and entrepreneurship. And it seems as if — and I don’t necessarily need to single out the Koch brothers, I think that this is true for a lot of folks in the traditional energy industries — they’re fine with sweetheart deals and cushy subsidies for their mature, well-established industries, but somehow when it comes to developing clean energy, they’re not simply opposing subsidies, they’re actually actively trying to keep competitors out.

And what’s been fascinating is the coalition that you’re now seeing between the green movement and some members of the Tea Party in some states, saying, leave us alone. If we want to set up a solar panel or change how energy is distributed, and to reorganize the traditional power grid in a way that is more efficient, saves people money and is more environmentally sound, that’s something that government should support. That’s not something that government should be trying to impede.

Let’s talk about the Arctic. The Russian deputy prime minister recently called the Arctic “Russia’s Mecca.” And there’s a lot of talk about Russian operations here, military buildup and a new Cold War brewing. How do you read Russia’s intentions up here?
So far, Russia has been a constructive partner in the Arctic Council and has participated with the other Arctic nations in ways that are consistent with the rule of law and a sensible approach to the changes that are taking place in the Arctic. Given that much more of their country and their economy is up north, it’s not surprising that they see more opportunities and are more focused on a day-to-day basis on what’s taking place here than Washington has been.

But part of the reason that I wanted to come here is that needs to change. The icebreaker announcement was just a concrete example of the need for policymakers, starting from the president on down, to be mindful that this area is changing and is changing faster than policymakers thought it was going to 10 years ago, or five years ago, or last year.

So we’re going to have to have more resources up here. I think that we have to work with other countries, including Russia, to establish some clear rules of the road so we don’t start seeing some of the same kinds of problems that we’ve been seeing in the South China Sea around maritime rules and borders and boundaries. I think that’s achievable. Obviously we’ve got big differences with the Russians on other issues. But as we’ve seen in the discussions with Iran, there is the ability to compartmentalize some of these issues so that even as we have very fierce disagreements with Russia on Ukraine, there remain areas where we should be able to work constructively together.

One thing that I am concerned about is, as a major oil producer, Russia may not be as concerned about climate change as they need to be. And if we’ve got problems with public opinion in the United States, I think it’s fair to say that those problems are bigger in a country like Russia. And so constantly engaging with them around the science and making it clear that there is an upside for them in navigation and commerce, but there are massive downsides for them as well — as we’ve witnessed in the biggest fires that they’ve seen in years recently — that is a conversation that we’ve got to have on an ongoing basis.

The Russian icebreaker Yamal. Nery Ynclan/NBC/Getty
The Russian icebreaker Yamal. Nery Ynclan/NBC/Getty

You’ve talked increasingly about climate change as a national-security issue. How would you compare the challenges and the risk to America’s security regarding climate change to, say, ISIS or, for that matter, Iran?
Well, they’re different. And as president and commander in chief, I don’t have the luxury of selecting one issue versus the other. They’re all major problems. What we know about climate change, though, is that with increasing drought, increasing floods, increasing erosion of coastlines, that’s going to impact agriculture; it’s going to increase scarcity in parts of the world; it is going to result in displacement of large numbers of people.

The people who live on the island [Kivalina] that we flew over today can move. It’s painful for those residents, but it can be done. If the monsoon patterns in South Asia change, you can’t move tens of millions of people without the possibilities of refugees, conflict. And the messier the world gets, the more national-security problems we have. In fact, there have been arguments that, for example, what’s happening in Syria partly resulted from record drought that led huge numbers of folks off farms and the fields into the cities in Syria, and created a political climate that led to protests that Assad then responded to in the most vicious ways possible.

But that’s the kind of national-security challenge that we’re looking at with climate change. It will manifest itself in different ways, but what we know from human history is that when large populations are put under severe strain, then they react badly. And that can be expressed in terms of nationalism; it can be expressed in terms of war; it can be expressed in terms of xenophobia and nativism; it can be expressed in terms of terrorism. But the whole package is one that we should be wanting to avoid, if at all possible.

The Paris climate talks that are coming up in December are a big focus of your attention right now, and may be the last best chance for the world to come together and actually do something to slow climate change. How will you define success in Paris?
For us to be able to get the basic architecture in place with aggressive-enough targets from the major emitters that the smaller countries say, “This is serious” — that will be a success.

I’m less concerned about the precise number, because let’s stipulate right now, whatever various country targets are, it’s still going to fall short of what the science requires. So a percent here or a percent there coming from various countries is not going to be a deal-breaker. But making sure everybody is making serious efforts and that we are making a joint international commitment that is well-defined and can be measured will create the basis for us each year, then, to evaluate, “How are we doing?” and will allow us, five years from now, to say the science is new, we need to ratchet it up, and by the way, because of the research and development that we’ve put in, we can achieve more ambitious goals.

You think about when I started, we thought we were setting a really bold goal with our plans for solar-power production. And if you had told me in 2007-2008 that the costs for solar would have dropped as much as they have, even Steve Chu, my then-energy secretary, would have told you that’s a little crazy. But it has. And I think just last year, costs were down 10 to 20 percent, depending on the region. So human ingenuity, when focused and targeted, can achieve amazing things.

And the key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, “We’re going to do this.” Once we get to that point, then we can turn the dials. But there will be a momentum that is built, and I’m confident that we will then be in a position to listen more carefully to the science — partly because people, I think, will be not as fearful of the consequences or as cynical about what can be achieved. Hope builds on itself. Success breeds success.

When you talk about capitalism, that reminds me of the pope, who is speaking out about climate change and is trying to build momentum for the Paris talks.
I really like the pope.

Personally?
Yes, he’s a good man. And he’s on the right side of a lot of stuff.

In the encyclical, the pope talks about what he calls the “myth of progress.” And he basically argues that greed and materialism are destroying the planet. How do you interpret that idea? Do you think that dealing with climate change is ultimately going to require rethinking the basic tenets of capitalism?
If you look at human history, it is indisputable that market-based systems have produced more wealth than any other system in human history by a factor of — you choose the number. And that has been, net, a force for good.

In our own lives, you think about the changes in the standard of living that have taken place here in the United States. Then you think about hundreds of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty in China or in India — and you can’t scoff at that. If a child has enough food to eat, if they have medicine that prevents deadly diseases, if people have a roof over their heads and can afford to send their kids to school, that is part of justice and part of my ethics. And so I think a broadside against the entire market-based system would be a mistake.

What I do think is true is that mindless free-market ideologies that ignore the externalities that any capitalist system produces can cause massive problems. And it’s the job of governments and societies to round the edges and to address big system failures. That, by the way, is not controversial among market economists. There are a whole bunch of concepts involved in that that you can open up in any standard economic textbook in the United States or anywhere else in the world. And pollution has always been the classic market failure, where externalities are not captured and the system doesn’t deal with them, even though it’s having an impact on everybody.

So our goal here has to be to say that climate change is a major market failure, just like smog in Los Angeles was back in the Sixties and Seventies, just like the problems with polluted waters were in the Cuyahoga River. And just as we were able to use the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to clean up those waters and to clean up that air, just as we were able to solve the acid-rain problem and the growing problem with ozone with some smart regulations, we can do that with climate change.

The difference is that those previous pollution problems were more or less localized, and you weren’t seeing the possibility of a global feedback loop that tips us over the edge. So there is a race against time here that we haven’t seen before, but the nature of the problem is not that different.

And I think that the way we solve any big market failure is to have a broad-based conversation and to come to a collective agreement that this is something we’re going to take into account in our day-to-day doing business. And when we do that, businesses will find ways to profit from it, jobs will be created. We’re already seeing that when it comes to the solar industry. We’re seeing that when it comes to the wind industry. And we’re seeing that consumers are interested in saving money and using less electricity.

 

Continue reading: Obama’s climate crusade – Part V (Final)

Read also: Obama’s climate crusade – Part III

View original article at:  Obama takes on climate change: The Rolling Stone Interview

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