“Heroes of the Environment” gang up on Bill McKibben

A herd of climate change blogosphere heavyweights (Time Mag. “Heros of the environment” all) are pounding on Bill McKibben over his views on the outcome of Copenhagen, in particular, the role of the UN and small island nations in developing global climate policies. And this comes just weeks after a mild flogging by Andrew Revkin at the NYT and Gavin  Schmidt at Real Climate.

McKibben has been a highly influencial activists for decades.  His contributions include a series of acclaimed (and awesome) books including “The end of nature” and “Deep Economy“.  More recently Bill founded and leads the 350.org movement (see our posts on the importance of getting back to 350 ppm here and here).

McKibben just penned the following comments on Grist:

The President of the United States did several things with his agreement today with China, India, and South Africa:

  • He blew up the United Nations. The idea that there’s a world community that means something has disappeared tonight. The clear point is, you poor nations can spout off all you want on questions like human rights or the role of women or fighting polio or handling refugees. But when you get too close to the center of things that count—the fossil fuel that’s at the center of our economy—you can forget about it. We’re not interested. You’re a bother, and when you sink beneath the waves, we don’t want to hear much about it. The dearest hope of the American right for 50 years was essentially realized because in the end coal is at the center of America’s economy. We already did this with war and peace, and now we’ve done it with global warming. What exactly is the point of the U.N. now?
  • He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super-polluters. China, the U.S., and India don’t want anyone controlling their use of coal in any meaningful way. It is a coalition of foxes who will together govern the henhouse. It is no accident that the targets are weak to nonexistent. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves with targets, he said. Indeed. And now imagine what this agreement will look like with the next Republican president
  • He demonstrated the kind of firmness and resolve that Americans like to see. It will play well politically at home and that will be the worst part of the deal. Having spurned Europe and the poor countries of the world, he will reap domestic political benefit. George Bush couldn’t have done this—the reaction would have been too great. Obama has taken the mandate that progressives worked their hearts out to give him, and used it to gut the ideas that progressives have held most dear. The ice caps won’t be the only things we lose with this deal.

Joe Romm of ClimteProgress disagrees and is bashing poor Bill:

I have not been fond of how the United Nations has been running all things climate.   Both CAP’s Andrew Light and I have argued before, “we don’t need 192 nations to come to an agreement on mitigating carbon emissions in order to get the job done. We only need those countries responsible for 85% of emissions to move forward on the pathways identified by the IPCC with a promise to the world to do so in a responsible manner.”

That’s why much of what 350.0rg founder (and occasional CP guest blogger) Bill McKibben doesn’t like about the Copenhagen Accord is exactly what I like about it.  McKibben complains of Obama’s successful effort to prevent a complete failure at Copenhagen:

  • He blew up the United Nations….
  • He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super-polluters….


Most of the coverage and analysis on the Copenhagen Accord has been dreadful and devoid of important context, as I’ve said, and that includes McKibben’s analysis, which is, I believe, 100% backwards.

Ironically, for those who want to achieve a 2°C (3.6°F) target or better — as McKibben does — it was, arguably, China who was a bigger obstacle than America in the final days at Copenhagen. Still clinging to the Kyoto approach where developing countries don’t have to commit to anything for most of the two weeks…

A point I totally agree with.

Moreover, what happens after 2020 is probably even more important, and here the U.S. is on the verge of making a true leadership commitment, if the Senate passes the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill, as I expect they will.  And if we do, then I expect that should be enough to get China and the other big emitters to formalize a binding deal over the next year.

Ultimately, the point is not the friggin’ process, but the outcome, and if the UN could demonstrate its process could lead to a better outcome, I’d be all for it.  But I doubt it.

I think Obama showed the process that can work to get the best possible outcome:  High-level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters.

The Breakthrough Institute (of “The death of environmentalism” fame) has joined the fray and published “Open Letter to Bill McKibben: Blaming Obama for Copenhagen Is Wrong” on the Breakthrough blog (excerpted below):

Dear Bill,

Yesterday, in response to the end of the Copenhagen negotiations, you issued a press release with 350.org titled “The President has wrecked the UN (and the planet),” in which you wrote: “The president has wrecked the U.N. and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming. It may get Obama a reputation as a tough American leader, but it’s at the expense of everything progressives have held dear.”

Afterward, you published an article on the Grist homepage titled “With climate agreement, Obama guts progressive values,” in which you wrote: “He blew up the United Nations. The idea that there’s a world community that means something has disappeared tonight. The clear point is… when you sink beneath the waves we don’t want to hear much about it.” This followed a recent post by your organization accusing Obama of “corruption” and “conspiracy” for his climate negotiations with Ethiopia.

Bill, as one of the most prominent leaders of the global environmental movement, your words matter. Several of my friends, family, and colleagues – especially young climate leaders – have looked to you for guidance in this movement, placing faith in your judgment and passionately supporting your 350 campaign. As one young commenter remarked to me yesterday, “Bill McKibben is certainly one of the most respected voices on this issue around, and if he says that Obama failed to deliver, I believe it.”

That is why I was shocked and disappointed when you so harshly blamed President Obama for the outcome of Copenhagen and accused him of undermining efforts to achieve a meaningful international climate treaty. Your accusations are false. I understand the disappointment of you and many around the world, but the Obama administration has done more to promote climate change solutions than any U.S. administration in history, and it has demonstrated a clear commitment to advancing international negotiations.

We need to understand the heart of the problem in order to overcome it. So let us be clear: the failure at Copenhagen is not the Obama administration’s fault, nor that of any single leader or country. Rather it is primarily the result of a flawed UNFCCC framework, which relies on outdated distinctions between “developed” and “developing” countries and fails to focus on negotiations between major polluters. Most problematic, it depends on the establishment of abstract and “legally-binding” emissions reduction targets, instead of the immediate government investments we need to develop and deploy low-carbon energy and efficiency technologies.

Bill, I still believe you are capable of offering the leadership we need, and I welcome your response to this letter. I still believe in our president and our country’s ability to lead the world on this challenge. And I believe that with a new way forward, we can achieve the clean energy revolution we need.

Teryn Norris

Director, Americans for Energy Leadership
Founder, Breakthrough Generation

McKibben responds to BI here:

Somehow I doubt the president is waiting for an apology from me. Our job, as part of a global movement, is to push every player in the process to do much more than they are doing. That’s why 350.org organized in 181 countries, pushing all their leaders to do more. Obama is my president, I was one of the first leaders to join Environmentalists for Obama (back in the primaries when most were waiting to see which way the wind blew), and I worked hard for his election. That’s why I will try to keep pushing him to do much more than the small amount he’s done. He needs to work the Congress as hard as he can, or else we’ll end up with the climate equivalent of the current healthcare bill: a very modest advance if any. In healthcare maybe you can argue for that–his successor gets to come along in ten years and strengthen it. The physics of climate change makes me think that analysis won’t work for climate change.

Your organization has attacked me a good deal in the last little while, Teryn, and in increasingly personal terms. That’s your right, that’s how politics work. I’ve been wrong before, doubtless I’ll be wrong again. But I think I’m going to keep saying what I’ve been saying for a good long time now: 350 is where science tells us we have to go. Technology will help, and so will a “mitigation framework,” whatever that means. I’d call it cutting carbon.

But whatever. I’m an old guy at 49, and I feel older this week. No doubt younger generations will figure it all out, and good for you all. My only advice to young activists in general would be to not let yourselves get too marginalized as young. My colleagues at 350.org are all young, as it happens, but I don’t work with them because they’re young. I work with them because they’re the best in the world at what they do. Onwards


and via a comment on Climate Progress:
It’s all part of my secret campaign to get everyone working together–in the last 24 hours I’ve managed to get both the Breakthrough Institute and CP going after me for pretty much the same thing. You have to admit, that’s an accomplishment.

I very much hope you’re all correct. Since the outcome at Copenhagen was entirely unthreatening, it may indeed make it easier to get a bill through the Senate–and then of course the question will be whether that bill will be a big help in the fight to get us where we need to go, which is 350 parts per million.

But right now I’m actually too tired to really figure it all out. So I’m going to take my absurd self off to bed. It’s been an interesting year at 350.org–the part I’ve enjoyed most is working with people in precisely those nations that everyone seems to think are annoying obstructionists. Their demand that their survival be considered doesn’t strike me as analogous to the idea that each senator should be able to appease his favorite campaign contributor.

I don’t yet understand this new world order, but my guess is its first order of business will not be rapid, powerful cuts in carbon emissions. But I’m pleased by Joe’s confidence. Onward we go.

Who is right?  I am curious what you all think.

My first reactions is: for the love of god, can we quickly end the friendly fire!

Second, some background info may be in order.  One of Breakthrough Institutes major platforms is that the UNFCCC framework is flawed.

E.g., read the post here that argues:

If you were looking for a fitting illustration of why the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was doomed to fail you could have hardly asked for a better demonstration than the show put on by Tuvalu in Copenhagen last week.

For two days the tiny island nation of 12,000 successfully halted negotiations and demanded atmospheric carbon levels be kept to lower levels (350 parts per million) than what the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended (450 ppm).

That Tuvalu has the same power as China to shape global climate negotiations is a pretty good sign that whatever else happens in Copenhagen, the UNFCCC is unlikely to have much impact on the future of climate.

Two nations, the U.S. and China, create over 40 percent of the world’s emissions. Twenty nations collectively comprise over 80 percent of total global carbon emissions, 85 percent of global GDP, 80 percentage of world trade, and two-thirds of world population. Whatever progress we may make toward addressing climate change will be determined by these very few nations, representing the vast majority of humanity, not the cacophony of voices at the UNFCCC representing virtually no one.

And yet, animated by a lofty, early-20th Century idealism, the United Nations General Assembly — which is effectively what the UNFCCC has recreated to negotiate a global climate treaty — remains for many liberals in the West a powerful symbol of humankind’s shared global destiny. In reality, the General Assembly has become a kind of lobbying association for development, not a place of significant weight. Great questions of war and peace are, under the best of circumstances, negotiated by the Security Council, while the shape and trajectory of the global economy are negotiated by the G20, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank.

Ill blog about this issue soon…

But third, I agree completely with Bill Mckibben that President Obama has earned plenty of criticism and even scorn from the environmental community and liberals/progressives in general.  Personally, I am disappointed in his performance and many of his policies.  He has let us down on so many key issues: gay rights (he doesn’t even support gay marriage), other human rights issues (think China-Tibet), Afghanistan (i.e., war), torture, Guantanamo, financial regulatory reform, health care reform, and on and on.  I guess we should have believed him when he painted himself as a centrist during the campaign.

I think Obama is in for a drubbing in 2012.  Dissipointing his base on so many issues is going to cost him.  At this point I think it is likely he will be a one-termer and we will soon say hello to president Romney or Palin.

7 thoughts on ““Heroes of the Environment” gang up on Bill McKibben

  1. McKibben has a distinct disadvantage, he is constrained by compassion. BI’s statement expresses outrage at the idea that these nations have the right to exist. McKibben is unwilling to turn his back on Tuvalu, Bangladesh, the Maldives, the Sundarbans, and so many more that have a voice that will continue to “doom to fail the UNFCCC” process.
    I hope there are soon 500 million more standing with WIlliam McKibben challenging world leaders to resist pragmatic solutions for powerful nations that are death sentences for the most vulnerable.

  2. I find this whole discussion disheartening. I understand that the Breakthrough Institute explores structural flaws within the UNFCCC, and rightfully so – there are so many inefficiencies and shortcomings with the negotiation process. I also know the Breakthrough Institute has a strong affinity to rational choice thinking, but this doesn’t preclude their staff and thinkers from taking on a justice-based analysis. Or, if the demands of the poor and small nations do not make it into their studies then it would be great if they can accommodate the visionaries who do make this a priority. I find it most tiresome and lowly to see smart people focus their efforts on fragmenting a movement.

  3. McKibben is totally right. Obama really has let us down. Whoever is wasting their time writing critiques of other people’s comments should take their energy towards helping get the Senate Bill strengthened and passed. The Senate hasn’t acted, which has resulted in political effects that are being felt worldwide. Right now. Obama has not shown the leadership on climate and energy he has promised. Remember how he talked about stopping the seas from rising and promised a greener and more prosperous economy on the campaign trail in ’08? Where is that language now? When will he address a joint session of congress on energy, climate, jobs, and the implications if we do not act? THAT is real leadership, and it’s needed now more than ever. Let’s not waste time criticizing the people doing great work, and instead realize we’re all working towards the same goal. Let’s strap on our boots and get to work. The world depends on us, we’d better not disappoint.

  4. More and more I am convinced that we as a civilization will not survive unless we find a path to becoming the best human beings we can be.

    In this case, the “friendly fire” really must stop. Flame wars are not the way to strengthen the movement. Criticism of opinions and positions is an important way to work out our strategy and tactics, but if done the wrong way we weaken ourselves. Our challenge is to rise to the occasion and carefully, but sharply perhaps, explore our friend’s ideas.

    Who is “our friend?” The debate now is somewhat about “does Obama deserve that title?” I had hopes for him based on campaign positions and appointments like Secretary Chu. Since the early days we have had the population of the government by business as usual types and throwing Van Jones to the wolves. President Obama now seems like the usual fare– a “centrist” CEO with a bit of a heart. An upgraded Bill Clinton, more or less.

    We do need to establish a clear set of expectations: leadership for a program that will lead to survival. A display of leadership would involve plain talking to the American people and a mobilization of the base from the campaign. Surely if the Pentagon can mobilize a public opinion machine, the President of the United States could also do so. The minimum targets for survival lie at 350 and lower.

    What we see instead is maneuvering for national advantage and manipulation of the numbers where we are asked to believe that a 4% reduction is really a 17% reduction. (The Democrats switched the base year from the international standard of 1990 to 2005, but their claims resolve to the paltry 4%.) The only people who are fooled by this are the Democratic loyal base, which is a crying shame.

    What is missing is the movement of millions in the street. Whether Obama has “FDR potential” or not, that is the only way to get to where we need to go.

  5. The Breakthrough Institute has a consistent record of working very hard to be contrarian, fighting for whatever position they see as “non-mainstream environmentalist” whether it is right or wrong. They often do a decent job of spotting issues but have yet to really offer anything useful in the solutions department.

    The more interesting fact is that we are dealing with a “simultaneously true” problem here – McKibben and co. are right that what came out of Copenhagen was far too weak and dangerously undermined global civil society, meanwhile Romm is right that the opening of new negotiating pathways provides an opportunity the UN structures couldn’t offer and Obama et al. are right that they probably got as much out of Copenhagen as could be gotten. I tried to wrap this all up in the blog entry at http://www.clf.org/blog/?p=589 – it is all mess and doesn’t provide clear path forward. But that just means we have to do all we can in whatever our forum of choice is – as quickly as we can.

  6. A Functioning U.N.

    The U.N. has never successfully functioned as any one member of the security council has been able to veto all other members – its always been a lame duck.

    President Obama has shown true leadership and secured agreement to work together with other major players for the future, with players who actually can make a difference.

    These are the people who can do something – not just the fringe players who make noise and do not make a difference!

    Its quite clear cut.

    Peter Lionel Griffiths
    President Obama on Copenhagen Accord

  7. is this a call to scrap the unfcc?

    stop the cop16?

    from my pov, the world is experiencing governance related growing pains that occur from transitioning from one era (self-interested expansionism) to another (collaborative regimes). thus, i believe, we need to recognize the good intentions of the unfcc, as well as the controlled actions of the us and china. we’re in the middle of changing eras and world governance is immature, especially with respect to int’l policy.

    so there’s lot’s of opportunity here. one opportunity is to end the fatalistic attitude inherent to (arguably most) environmentalists. and then learn how to implement offensive strategies, such as incremental campaigns, and further institutionalization of environmental policies.


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