Opinionista Jonathan Neale 9 March 2021

Joe Biden and the climate crisis: Lessons from Obama and Zuma in Copenhagen

Covid-19 has taught many people two bitter lessons. When the scientists say that something terrible is coming, believe them. And act now, not later, to save lives. Sadly, the indications are that on climate, like Barack Obama, Joe Biden plans to talk left and walk right.

I want to tell you a story about something that happened in Copenhagen 11 years ago. Partly because I was there, and I’m still mad. But mainly because there is a lesson here about the Biden administration and its climate policy.

I came of age in Texas during the time of civil rights. Now I’m a climate activist in Britain. In January 2009, Barack Obama began his first term as president of the United States. I cried when I watched him speak at his inauguration, as I had cried at his speech the night he was elected.

Activists all over the world were also excited by his victory. Finally, after eight years of Bush, we had an American president who wanted to do something about climate change.

That spring some of the president’s staff called the leaders of environmental organisations from all over the United States to an off-the-record meeting in the White House. Obama did not attend. But his key environmental advisers told the assembled leaders and executives that they should make a shift in language. They should stop talking about climate change, and use the word “energy” instead. The environmental leaders understood that Obama wanted them to downplay climate. They admired the president and wanted to help. So they complied, and suddenly we were hearing about energy, energy, energy.

The only leader at the meeting who refused to comply was Bill McKibben of 350.org, a pillar of integrity. McKibben and 350 continued talking about climate change. There the matter rested until Suzanne Goldenberg published an account of the meeting in the Guardian in 2012.

Had we known about that meeting in 2009, we might have been given an early warning of what was coming next.

Every year, except for 2020, the governments of the world meet somewhere in the world for two weeks at the UN-sponsored Convention of the Parties (COP) to decide global policy on climate change. Politicians, civil servants, scientists, environmentalists, business people and campaigners come too.

In the first year of Obama’s presidency, 2009, the COP meetings were in Copenhagen. Some 30,000 scientists, experts, civil servants, campaigners, students and activists attended. I had spent much of the year organising global protests over climate, and the march at the COP in Copenhagen was 130,000 strong, the largest climate demonstration in the world up until that time.

This COP was special that year because the Kyoto Treaty was expiring. The Kyoto agreement was the international treaty the UN had brokered in 1999. There were many flaws in it, but Kyoto had committed all the rich countries in the world to fixed reductions in their emissions. This was the treaty that George Bush, alone among world leaders, had famously refused to sign.

The climate world waited to see what would replace Kyoto. The question was how much deeper would the mandatory reductions in emissions become. There were many loopholes in the Kyoto agreement. But everyone understood that it was a step to binding all the main emitting countries to mandatory reductions.

Many climate campaigners thought the big conflict at the talks would be between the rich countries of the North and the poorer countries of the South. The flashpoint would be how much aid the Northern countries, like the US, were prepared to give the Southern countries so they too could begin to decarbonise.

We got that wrong.

For the first week, there was deadlock at the talks. There is always deadlock at those talks, and then it is miraculously resolved late at night on the last day, or sometimes in the early hours of the morning. On cue, then-president Obama was supposed to arrive on the last day, on Friday morning.

Wednesday night I went to a reception by the major US trade union federation, the AFL-CIO, for Nancy Pelosi, then as now the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives. I was a union climate jobs activist and got invited to those sort of dos. Many of the AFL-CIO and Democratic party people were fit young men and women, who had dressed up for the reception in very expensive suits and dresses. I could see the Ivy League dripping off them.

Pelosi addressed us all informally. She said we might not like what president Obama would do when he got here on Friday. But if we did get upset, we should remember that without him, none of us would be here. Pelosi was obviously preparing her people.

Uh-oh, I thought, but I still did not understand.

Friday morning Obama flew in. He had a 45-minute meeting with President Xi of China. They drew up a short agreement, which they must have prepared ahead of time. Then Obama and Xi had a two-hour meeting with president Lula of Brazil, president Zuma of South Africa and prime minister Manmohan Singh of India.

Lula had been the leader of the metalworkers’ strikes that effectively ended the military dictatorship in Brazil in the 1980s. Zuma was the then-new president of South Africa. Singh was a more moderate man in his youth, but he was heir to the mantle of the Indian National Congress that had won independence from Britain.

Of these five men, four were from the South, and the fifth had a father from Kenya. They all agreed to the “Copenhagen Accord” that Obama and Xi had drawn up. At lunch, that accord was conveyed to the delegates from all the other countries in the world, not for discussion but for approval. They approved.

That agreement was two-and-a-half pages long. It said, simply and clearly, that there would be no mandatory cuts in emissions for any country in the world. In future, every government could choose whatever increase or decrease in emissions they felt like.

Obama had not saved us. Nor had the Global South. Instead, those five men were the instruments of our destruction.

Leaving Copenhagen early that evening, I was standing in the airport ticket line behind a former director of one of the largest environmental organisations in Britain. He did not recognise me, but I recognised him.

He was crying. He flourished three pages of paper and said he had managed to get a copy of the accord. “It’s shit,” he said, shaking the paper and crying again. “It’s shit.”

He was a middle-aged man who had spent all his life trying to save the planet.

I read the three pages of paper quickly, sick at heart. It was so simple, so clear, so blatant, no attempt at hiding what they were doing.

I passed the pages back to him. “It’s shit,” I said.

“It’s shit,” he said again, shaking with rage. Then he turned away. Maybe he didn’t want to share his feelings with a stranger any longer, or maybe he did not know what to do with his anger and despair. I did not intrude any further.

The environmentalist in the line never said it was shit in public. Some environmental organisations hailed the result of Copenhagen. More organisations said they were disappointed in the accord, but at least there had been international agreement and we had all moved a step forward.

Almost none of us believed that. Two pieces of evidence made that clear. One was that the big environmental organisations moved on from climate campaigns to doing something else. The other was that the marches we organised grew tiny. Everyone, the leaders and the rank and file, knew that hope had suffered a historic defeat. It would be four more years before anti-pipeline protests by indigenous First Nations communities in Canada showed us a way for grassroots revolt, and the movement again began to grow.

Why?

I think I understand why Obama did that. You can find the complicated explanation in my book Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. Here I will just suggest the three main reasons.

First, Obama was committed to neoliberal economic policies. That meant that like many other global leaders, he wanted to do something about climate change. But anyone who thinks about climate solutions for any length of time realises it will take massive government action; it will have to move far beyond the rules of the market; it will change everything.

The people who now run and own the world have spent their adult lives convincing the rest of us of three things. First, we have to obey the rules of the market. Second, there is no alternative to the market. Third, if we disobey, we will be crushed. The most powerful weapon the rich and powerful have is that most people, most of the time, believe them.

So the rich and powerful want to do something, but can’t do anywhere near enough. And they are conscious of just how much they have to lose if the rest of us stop believing in the market.

There is another pressure upon world leaders and the corporate rich – global competition. As Obama was campaigning for the presidency, the financial crisis and economic crash of 2008 began. This was suddenly a situation in which any corporation or any country could go to the wall.

Massive government spending was suddenly a burden and a problem in global competition. It was not that governments were averse to spending money. Obama’s government, and every major power, were spending enormous amounts to rescue the banks, the financial sector and sometimes major corporations. The country that spent an enormous amount on climate action, on top of the economic spending of 2008, would be the country that lost out in international competition.

I think that’s why Obama did what he did. I may be wrong. You don’t have to accept my economic analysis. But it is the case that Obama and the other world leaders did do what they did. And that tells us something about what Biden may do in the White House.

Biden?

The indications are that on climate Biden plans to talk left and walk right. But there is a big danger when old activists like me tell stories of old defeats. All too often, we cannot see how the world has changed.

And 2021 is not 2009. Covid-19 has taught many people two bitter lessons. When the scientists say that something terrible is coming, believe them. And act now, not later, to save lives.

The pandemic has also forced governments all over the world into massive spending financed by public debt, and the old rules of austerity have been undermined. Wildfires, droughts, heatwaves and storms have shown people that climate change is already here. There is now a constant drumbeat of public support for action on climate.

And now, in many countries, including the United States, we are entering into a recession with mass unemployment. Biden’s administration, like governments all over the world, will be under intense pressure to do something about jobs. The longer he hesitates, the stronger the pressure will grow.

Biden has rejected the idea of a Green New Deal. But he has promised massive spending on green jobs. A space is open. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, PUSH.

But remember, the reason we have the idea of the Green New Deal in the United States is that back in 2013 the Sunrise Movement did not say how much they admired Speaker Pelosi – they occupied her office and demanded action.

But don’t forget the lesson of Copenhagen. Keep your wits about you, and never play poker with your back to the saloon door. DM

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All Comments 3

  • This is realy a very poor article .It is clear that the author does not understand the complexity of the politics of that time in the US. He also got his facts wrong on the meeting in Copenhagen . Congress was the obstacle domestically and China internationally . Read for yourself in Obama’s book .

  • Great article. Those like Andries who claim that the author does not understand US politics do not themselves understand the magnitude of the coming crisis. The more we delay now, the more upheavals, catastrophes, mass migrations, starvation, species extinctions, etc. there will be in the future.

  • Magical solutions don’t emerge from UN meetings. Decisions require consensus between governments not NGOs. Progress in Copenhagen was China’s call for equitable access to carbon space (= just transition) and Paul ‘anthropocene’ Crutzen warning that geoengineering was needed in case politics failed.

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