Speaking Truth to Power

The Kyoto Protocol is an agreement negotiated in 1997 which went into effect on Feb. 16, 2005. Under it industrial countries which have signed on — which is all of them except for the U.S. and Australia — pledge to reduce their earth-heating carbon emissions by between roughly 5 and 7% below 1990 amounts by 2012. Some countries are going to make or exceed those pledges, and others are not.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the 5.2% average reduction of emissions is nowhere near enough. There is also a problem because formerly colonized, now industrializing countries like China and India are not part of this first phase of carbon reductions. That is justifiable; it is the industrialized west that is responsible for the vast majority of the carbon that’s in the atmosphere now, and it is the industrialized west that needs to lead the turn away from its past and present dirty, polluting, energy production processes. But it is not a good thing at all that China and India are following in the west’s footsteps by building far too many polluting coal plants.

We need a much, much stronger international agreement to accelerate the critically-needed transition away from coal, oil and natural gas and toward a world economy that is energy efficient and based upon clean, renewable energy sources — the wind, the sun, the earth, the tides and currents and, for a transitional period, certain fairly-produced, energy-efficient bio-fuels.

It was a good thing that Al Gore included as point 1 of his Live Earth Pledge a “demand that my country join an international treaty within the next 2 years that cuts global warming pollution by 90% in developed countries and by more than half worldwide in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy earth.” The short two-year time frame is good, as is the objective of 90% cuts. It’s also good that, rather than projecting a 43-year time frame, to 2050, he articulates a time frame that is appropriate: “in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy earth.”

Unfortunately, powerful energy companies in the USA, supported by the AFL-CIO and other unions thinking extremely short-term and short-sightedly, have just joined with Democratic and Republican Senators to unveil a so-called

“Low Carbon Economy Act” which will have the “radical” goal of reducing U.S. carbon emissions to last year’s level by 2020.

That’s not a mistake. According to the July 11th N.Y. Times, this bill gives the energy companies 13 years to get emissions to the level they were at LAST YEAR!!!. By 2030 they would be at 1990 levels.

Outrageous, truly outrageous.

If the U.S. were to ratify and then implement the Kyoto Protocol, on the other hand, a truly revolutionary set of changes would have to take place if the USA were to meet its objectives. Because current carbon emissions are about 16% higher than they were in 1990, we would need to reduce emissions by about 23% by 2012 to meet the U.S.’s Kyoto-negotiated objective of 7% reductions.

Some local municipalities get it on the climate crisis and have been working to meet these objectives. There are now over 500 city, town and county governments representing over 50 million people that have signed onto the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. As explained on the website of Greg Nickels, the Seattle mayor who initiated this effort over two years ago:

“Under the Agreement, participating cities commit to take the following three actions:

Strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities, through actions ranging from anti-sprawl land-use policies to urban forest restoration projects to public information campaigns;

Urge their state governments, and the federal government, to enact policies and programs to meet or beat the greenhouse gas emission reduction target suggested for the United States in the Kyoto Protocol — 7% reduction from 1990 levels by 2012; and

Urge the U.S. Congress to pass the bipartisan greenhouse gas reduction legislation, which would establish a national emission trading system.”

As is true for the nations that have signed the Kyoto Protocol, some of the cities and towns are on track to meet these reduction objectives, and others will probably not.

Meanwhile, while important action to reduce emissions is taking place on local levels, it remains to be seen what is going to happen with the sham “Low Carbon Economy Act.”

It is possible that some of the national environmental groups, particularly those who take corporate contributions to meet their budgets, will grudgingly go along with this, seeing it as better than nothing.

Most groups, I would expect, will respond in a way similar to that of Dan Becker of the Sierra Club, quoted in the July 11th Times story as saying, “It’s too weak. It would be better to wait until more members of Congress understand that the heat is on them to act, and that may have to wait until the next Congress and the next president.”

But there is another way to respond to this latest capitulation to the oil, coal, automobile and other corporate interests by Democrats, Republicans and groups which really should know better. That is to publicly, creatively and massively express our outrage and anger, our determination to stand up for our threatened ecosystem, its people, animals, plants and all life forms, by stepping up our movement for climate justice and a [take note, labor leaders] jobs-creating, clean energy revolution.

Becker may be right that it won’t be until 2009 that we can get what is needed out of Congress and the White House, but if we accept that, if we don’t bring maximum pressure to bear in support of what the science is telling us is needed now, our children and grandchildren might end up cursing us for our fear and “political realism.” A climate movement which is afraid to get out in the streets and up the ante, afraid to rock the boat, unwilling to speak truth to power, is a climate movement that could be defanged, unable to bring much pressure to bear in 2009, if we have to wait that long, for the kind of climate legislation needed, for the kind of widespread cultural and social change at the grassroots needed to push forward and accelerate the clean energy revolution.

In the words of martyred World War II German resistance fighter Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Ted Glick is the National Campaign Coordinator of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick Read other articles by Ted, or visit Ted's website.

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  1. Michael Dawson said on July 16th, 2007 at 10:42am #

    As Chomsky says, “speaking truth to power” is a bone-headed phrase, despite its wide currency. We’re not addressing power. We’re fighting it. The right phrase is “Speaking Truth About Power.” The idea is to convince more ordinary people to join us. Power never listens to reason. Read your MLK and your Lord Acton…

  2. Eric Patton said on July 16th, 2007 at 7:36pm #

    Everyone on the left speaks truth about power. What we need is to speak POWER to power. That requires strategic thinking, and goals. It requires a movement that is fighting for a revolution. But I have NEVER seen Glick use the “R” word. I can only assume that Glick, like George Monbiot, thinks we’re going to retain a market-based economy and magically transform it into a green one. It’s total bullshit, but that’s what they seem to think.