“She took me half the way there…”

Bill McKibben has come up with a striking metaphor for the US stance in climate change negotiations. In a Huffington Post article he describes it as a tease – “it shows some leg, but it never ends up in your arms.

Twice before US negotiators have persuaded the world into a watered-down agreement – the Kyoto pact and the Copenhagen accord – and in both cases the Senate didn’t come through – it didn’t ratify Kyoto, and it didn’t pass the climate legislation last summer. “All the watering down was for nought – you might as well have done the right thing.”

Now, says McKibben, we’re into Climate Tease Part III.


“This time the U.S. is demanding that the poor countries of the world stop thinking of themselves as poor. Before there can be any agreement on stopping deforestation, or on aid to help poor countries cope with climate change, Mr. Stern said last week, those nations have to agree to start cutting carbon more or less as if they were the U.S.”

It isn’t fair, but McKibben acknowledges that there’s a logic to it, in that the developing world’s emissions will need to be reined in like everyone’s if we’re to slow down climate change. It would make sense if the developed world sent them the aid that lets them move past coal.

“But since we’ve seen this movie twice already, we know how it ends. The rest of the world gives in, and then the Senate doesn’t come through with the money — indeed, just yesterday four GOP solons offered a preview of coming attractions. They sent a letter to Secretary of State Clinton demanding that she freeze the relatively small sum of climate aid we’d already pledged — less than $2 billion next year. They were, they said, opposed to the deal Obama struck last year which would ‘transfer billions of US taxpayer dollars to developing nations in the name of climate change’. In other words, even the small sums we’ve promised are unlikely to be forthcoming.”

Don’t be deceived, he says. Washington is “playing the world for suckers”. In conclusion he reiterates his consistent theme.  “If we actually want to stop global warming, then we have to build a movement big enough to force change. Otherwise we’re suckers too.”

McKibben is no cynic. Although he can write light heartedly and with humour he’s very much in earnest. Indeed the idealism of the 350.org movement he co-founded is about as far from cynicism as you can get.   “Our theory of change is simple: if an international grassroots movement holds our leaders accountable to the latest climate science, we can start the global transformation we so desperately need.”  Their latest effort is an exhibition of art (an Indian one pictured) large enough to be seen from space.

Another humorous look at the intransigence of US lawmakers was provided by Thomas Friedman in his New York Times column a week ago. He imagined a Chinese WikiLeaker publishing a cable from the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

“Americans just had what they call an ‘election’. Best we could tell it involved one congressman trying to raise more money than the other (all from businesses they are supposed to be regulating) so he could tell bigger lies on TV more often about the other guy before the other guy could do it to him.”

Among the results:

“Most of the Republicans just elected to Congress do not believe what their scientists tell them about man-made climate change. America’s politicians are mostly lawyers — not engineers or scientists like ours — so they’ll just say crazy things about science and nobody calls them on it. It’s good. It means they will not support any bill to spur clean energy innovation, which is central to our next five-year plan.”

Friedman’s no cynic either, as is apparent from his climate change book Hot, Flat and Crowded. But like McKibben he’s exasperated by the seeming inability of the American political system, at least on the federal level, to even acknowledge the seriousness of the problem let alone address it. It’s certainly difficult to see the US leading us anywhere promising while they’re stuck with their current mix of legislators. Any meaningful agreements at Cancún, which Barry Coates’s latest blog considers possible, will still have to survive the bluster and bombast which substitute for science back home.

[The Fabs]

37 thoughts on ““She took me half the way there…””

  1. “If we actually want to stop global warming, then we have to build a movement big enough to force change.”

    I came to that realization a long time ago. Don’t expect the politicians do accomplish anything, they’re not smart enough and too self centered. If we leave it to the “pollies” we (and much of life on the planet) are doomed.

    I think we (followers of science) need a co-ordinated worldwide approach, because seriously there’s enough of us in the world that recognize were hurtling toward big, big trouble. If those numbers can corralled into a collective force, maybe we can save this world.

    Be interested to hear what other rational readers might have to say on the topic (so that excludes you “skeptics”), because I have a few thoughts that have been percolating around for a while.

    1. This is pretty much Bill McKibben’s position — trying to build a global popular movement that gives politicians permission to take action on climate change. Whilst the scientific case for action has been clear for at least 15 years, practical policy has effectively stalled since the Kyoto Protocol.

      You either have to have leaders who will lead on the issue, building consensus as they go, or you have voters demanding action, forcing politicians to take notice. Preferably both.

      1. ” If we leave it to the “pollies” we (and much of life on the planet) are doomed.”

        ” If those numbers can corralled into a collective force, maybe we can save this world.”

        Those two positions are basically inconsistent.

        As soon as you attempt to corall a large number of people into a collective force your will be essentially involving the “pollies” in the debate.

        You can’t engage in politics without playing the political game. It is not something you can bypass.

        1. As soon as you attempt to corall a large number of people into a collective force your will be essentially involving the “pollies” in the debate

          I don’t think Marie Antoinette was exactly “involved” in the debate, other than having her head place on the Guillotine.

          Hopefully, we can look forward to these “heady” days once again.

  2. I an appalled at the cynicism of America. They dropped off my Christmas card list when their president lied to the world over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
    It is, however a country of contrasts. their universities and government department supply us with the best information on climate change. Seven states have a form of carbon trading. Despite the well organised denial-ism there are many Americans who know the reality of the situation and their numbers are growing. It is frustrating but eventually even Republicans can not believe it is a virtue to ridicule science and will start to put things right.

  3. Putting Naomi Oreskes’s book Merchants of Doubt under a few key peoples Xmas trees might be helpful. I bought the book and its still shocking in its well referenced revelations even though I had been aware of whats went on before reading it.

    1. “congressmen who question the veracity of climate change”

      That is appalling! People who question ‘science’ shouldn’t even be allowed to hold public office. Who are they to disagree with scientists who are experts in this field?

      Democracy cannot work because the majority of people either are selfish or silly enough to be tricked by the energy lobby propaganda. We need a new science based system of government. Having non experts question and criticise scientists only serves to slow our transition to a new ‘green’ economy. We need to move yesterday if we are to prevent a climate catastrophe.

      1. “That is appalling! People who question ‘science’ shouldn’t even be allowed to hold public office. Who are they to disagree with scientists who are experts in this field?”

        Are you being sarcastic? The politicians “questioning” the science are only taking that position for the sake of political opportunism. The “questioning” is in reality an attack and serves only the delaying tactics of special interests it also stems from profound ignorance of the issues – I wish they would ask some actual hard questions of the denier so-called experts.

        1. Skeptical evaluation of science is one thing. A responsible adult intellectual enterprise.

          Repeating Why? Why? Why? in response to every answer given is far too reminiscent of an irritating toddler.

      2. R2 quotes himself in order to create a strawman he feels comfortable with. It’s amazing how much he manages to sound like a couple of our other regulars in the process! Remember the conversation we were having about different Troll species a few posts back?

        Imagine criticising politicians for ignoring expert advice given by their own departments and scientific foundations! It’s Tyrannyâ„¢ , I tells, ya, Tyrannyâ„¢ – they must be Freeâ„¢ to believe whatever nonsense they might choose, and if that miraculously just happens to chime with Exxon and the Koch’s desires, all the better!

        These fiercely independent* Free Thinkersâ„¢, like R2, know that the only thing that is really true is the Free Marketâ„¢, whose sacred laws transcend mere physics and chemistry…

        * of everything, including reality

        1. The quote was from the article linked by Thomas.

          I thought my response was the one the article was after. It seemed to be upset that Congressmen would “question” climate science. Who are Congress(people) to question scientists???Thomas linked to it so I gave him the response I thought he wanted.

    2. Yes every day – the news from the US political scene is more gloomy – Obama has been an abject failure with regards Climate change. Big EMPTY words is all we got. The resurgence of the greedy right has had something to do with this. But as I have stated elsewhere – the inequality that is endemic in the States is perhaps the most major stumbling block. Those who have and who continue to gain more each day (there is even talk of further tax breaks for the rich) want it all. They cannot see that it hurts them as much as it hurts the poor.

  4. Thomas
    “In a preview what the 2012 elections might “accomplish” for the US efforts to kill the planet the GOP is about to use their new powers after the mid term elections to shift GW skeptics into key positions:”

    I agree it looks bad, but I am holding out hope that it is the GOP’s undoing by 2012.
    Of course it will take more than hope. It will take a massive campaign to inform the American public about the strength of the science, and what is really going on in climate change denialism, especially regarding the GOP. All you need is enough moderates to get it. They would run from the flat earthers, one would hope.

    1. Yes I have held this hope for a long time. Yet when it comes down to it, the influence of Fox news and their peers is strong.
      Eventually things might change but it might need a major revelation or event that shakes up their political system and unmasks the right wingers and their motives.

  5. In using that metaphor to advance one issue (climate change), Bill McKibben is trashing another important issue (women’s rights). I agree that Climate Tease Part III rolls off the tongue but a far better image would be the rich bloke who asks a date out to dinner, buys an hors d’ouvre, and expects the date to a) swoon and b) pay for the main course.

      1. Can I submit these – sorry if any one finds them a bit lame

        Q: How many climate change sceptics does it take to change a light bulb?
        A: None, they’ll say there’s been a power cut.

        Q: How many climate change scientists does it take to change a light bulb?
        A: Two, one to change the light bulb, the other to point out to the climate change sceptics that the television is still on.

        Q: How many climate change sceptics does it take to change a light bulb?
        A: None, they’ll say either the wiring is bad or there’s been a power cut.

        Q: How many climate change scientists does it take to change a light bulb?
        A: Three, one to change the light bulb, one to inspect the wiring, and one to connect the logic for the deniers “that as the television is still on there cannot possibly be a power cut”.

        Q: How many climate change sceptics does it take to change a light bulb?
        A: None, they’ll say the scientists are lying, it could be the wiring or a power cut and why spend money on a new bulb anyway and in any case you can easily adapt by opening the fridge door?

        Q: How many climate change scientists does it take to change a light bulb?
        A: None, they’ve got better things to do than change a bloody light bulb.

        1. How many climate-change scientists does it take to change a light bulb?

          One to assess that the light bulb is actually broken, and if not,
          find a broken one and splice the dataset to give the impression of broken-ness.

          One to assess the energy context of the light bulb, and its carbon footprint with respect to renewables and fossil fuel usage during the entire lifecycle of the lightbulb.

          One to assess the socio-economic context of changing the light bulb in the context of gender and indigenous rights (in the context of climate change)

          One to apply for a grant for research into light bulb changing
          so that the others are funded for their work.

          One to supervise the PhD student who is studying the climate impacts of light bulbs

          One to investigate the effect of the light bulb on sea level rises in Tuvalu.

          One to evaluate the health and safety implications of light bulb changing (in the context of climate change)

          One to hold the step ladder.

          One to hold the person holding the step ladder.

          One to file the lightbulb usage under the appropriate ETS documentation.

          One to chastise the person wanting the lightbulb changed in the first place as being greedy and addicted to fossil fuel, probably influenced by denialist organisations funded by the Koch brothers.

  6. This is typical of the self-centred nature of the USA. It seems endemic to their psyche. From the Munro position onwards, it’s been only what’s best for us, and we will lean on, and bully, and meddle with, other less powerful states (vis Wikileaks) to do our bidding. They can not see that we are all in this together.
    The inequality that is ingrained into the USA Society (the most unequal country in the world bar none) blinds them from perceiving the injustice and immorality of their stance.Not only is it unfair, it is also counter-productive. Poor states will never be able to limit population growth, move effectively to alternative energies, or educate themselves if they are forced into cutting productive growth as the USA must. Countries which struggle with high levels of poverty and starvation, and whose total consumption is less than 2 ha per capita, should not be asked to reduce their development plans.

    1. I just don’t see how the US “must” reduce productive growth. Surely they can maintain living standards at European levels with the same emissions as Europe – they’re approximately double the emissions at the moment for much the same standard of living.

      1. US National Income per Person is approx $US38,000 , NZ Approx $US20,000, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Belgium, France Approx $US27,000 – 28,000 (Figures from UN sources).
        But the standard of living is lower in USA than all of the others. USA when measured on Health and Social statistics performs near the bottom of developed countries – Portugal excepted.
        UNICEF index of child well being – 4th to bottom (above UK NZ and Israel)
        % of population with mental illness – Highest percentage USA 25%
        Index of Drug use – 3rd greatest
        Life expectancy – 3rd to bottom and decreasing
        Infant deaths – Highest rate (7 per 1000 live births) of all developed countries
        Percentage of Obese – Highest of all developed countries 30%
        Percentage of obese teens – 25% next worse Canada 20%
        Math and literacy – 6th lowest of all developed countries
        Worst performance of teens aspiring to low skilled work.
        Highest rate of teen births (50 per thousand) UK, NZ next with 29 per thousand.
        Homicides per million: USA > 60 next Portugal around 40
        Children’s experiences of Conflict 3rd worse after UK and France.
        Prisoners per 100,000 USA > 400, NZ 4th worst > 175
        Social Mobility worst performance USA (35% of sons income explained by fathers income in 2000)
        And the list goes on..
        Despite having by far the greatest income per capita of all developed countries – the inequality endemic in the USA society counteracts almost all the “benefits” of development.
        Yes they can maintain living standards – with much less emissions than Europe. And so can Europe too. Based on the UN Human Development Index and the WWF Ecological Footprint per capita referred to elsewhere Cuba manages to score as well as USA and NZ on the HDI and has less than 2 Ha per capita footprint compared to USA’s 9 Ha – and this without resource to fuel efficient advanced technology.

      2. I don’t either. What is needed is ‘smart growth’, and if the difference in energy consumption per capita between the old and the new world is useful for anything, it is for showing that there are degrees of freedom for this that are not being used.

        We need more talk about ‘smart growth’. Fixing the climate should not, and will not, drive us bankrupt. It should not, and will not, prevent us from using cars, aircraft, comfortable homes etc. We have to get much smarter about all this, and we haven’t even started. What we need is the political will.

  7. I’ll point out that DemocracyNow is broadcasting from Cancun all this week. Today, Pablo Solón, Mary Robinson – well worth a look. Of particular interest is the documented striking absence of media attention – another pyrrhic victory for the devotees of Planet Stupid…

  8. It took me so long to find out
    And I found out..

    (…how Mann had massaged his data, eventually, after FOI requests , threatened lawsuits)

    Day tripper, Day tripper, Yeah

          1. I rather think of ‘The End’ by The Doors… (or ‘Aenema’ by Tool)

            And incidentally how many pedants does it take to change a light bulb?

            We don’t change lightbulbs, we replace them.

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