In an interview, the Nobel winner and former vice-president talks about how to save the world
Mr. Vice President, you write in your new book, “Our Choice,” that we have at our fingertips all of the tools that we need to solve the climate crisis. The only missing ingredient would be collective will. What makes it so hard for governments to implement change even though most people know what needs to be done?
As human beings, we are vulnerable to confusing the unprecedented with the improbable. In our everyday experience, if something has never happened before, we are generally safe in assuming it is not going to happen in the future, but the exceptions can kill you and climate change is one of those exceptions. Neuroscientists point out that we are inherently better able to respond quickly to the kinds of threats that our evolutionary ancestors survived — like other humans with weapons, snakes and spiders or fire. Also, there is a real-time lag between the causes of the climate crisis and its full manifestation. That makes it seem less urgent to many people.
But America always took pride in being faster and more flexible than other nations. Does that no longer apply?
America’s political system has evolved over the last 50 years in ways that have enhanced the power of business lobbies. The power of television and of money has grown exponentially. Eighty percent of the campaign contributions that candidates and officials running for reelection raise and spend go to TV ads, so they are required to raise enormous amounts of money, mainly from business lobbies. In a way, that has “re-feudalized” the political power and it gave much more power to established interests. When Obama was elected, I said: “What an exciting moment in our history.” But his election did not cure all of the problems in the American system.
Seventeen years ago you, a young senator from Tennessee, and Bill Clinton, a young governor from Arkansas, moved into the White House on the promise of change. Clinton played the saxophone and there was a feeling of spring in the air. Why has it been so much tougher for Barack Obama?
It was hard for us, too. Just remember the resistance to our healthcare reform bill. Obama’s progress on healthcare has already surpassed what we were able to do on healthcare. He will get a climate change bill adopted. So I am optimistic. These are still the early days of the Obama presidency. He had a bad summer, but he is having a good fall.
Isn’t it getting harder and harder to remain an optimist?
I think there is a realistic basis for optimism. The Internet empowers individuals to play a more active role in the political process, as Obama’s campaign has manifested. They felt shut out of the conversation of democracy during the television age, but they are coming back. It is not an accident that virtually every progressive reform movement in the world is now based on the Internet. There are more than 1 million, perhaps as many as 2 million grass-roots organizations that have been established worldwide on the issue of the climate crisis, most of them on the Internet.
Obama’s political opponents also rely on the Internet, though. Could the reason for the resistance to his government be his skin color? Former President Jimmy Carter said many Americans still have a problem with a black man in the White House.
There is no doubt that the issue of race is always present in American politics and in the politics of any multiracial society. There is also no doubt that for some people it is an element in the manifested hostility to Obama. But I don’t think it is the major theme at all. Obama is right when he reminds people: By the way, I was black before the election.
Perhaps the aggressive reactions can be explained by the fact that he, you and large parts of the Democratic Party misinterpreted the will of voters. Perhaps the last election had less to do with a desire among voters to implement transformational change than just getting rid of Bush.
Isn’t that all related? The Bush-Cheney administration had betrayed some basic American values. So there was hunger for change. The difficulties the new government has encountered are in the Congress, and they are connected to the growing influence of business lobbies and people who are simply afraid of government.
Is that a new phenomenon?
People in Congress listen less to each other. The Senate chamber, for example, is now commonly empty when speeches are made. That was different in the past and I know why it has changed. The chamber is empty now because the senators have to be at cocktail parties and fundraisers to raise money. They feel as if they have to spend virtually all their time raising money.
“It is realistic to expect a treaty”
Isn’t Obama’s plate too full? He conducts war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he wants to close Guantánamo, he is trying to reform the healthcare system, he is promising progress on climate change and wants to strengthen, almost in passing, the rights of trade unions and homosexuals. Isn’t that too much change for a rather conservative country like the United States?
I disagree with that criticism. After eight years of retrogression, Obama would have been more bitterly criticized if he had chosen only one priority and had not tried to address the many challenges that need to be undertaken. So I do think there is a grain of truth to it, but I also know that his mandate was and is strongest at the beginning of his term.
But Obama hasn’t achieved much so far — most of the reforms he announced still haven’t been implemented. Many people already call him a sweet talker — all talk, but little action.
One of the tools that a president has is to command the attention of the American people. It has to be used judiciously. There is such a thing as overexposure when a president depreciates the welcome. I think it is too early to make that judgment. There have been times when I thought that President Obama maybe got close to that line — for instance, with regard to his television interviews. But it is the most powerful tool he has to make his direct presentation to the people.
The financial crisis hasn’t made the president’s job any easier. Are times of material want fundamentally bad for reform politicians?
The climate, financial and national security crises are all connected. They share the same cause: Our absurd dependency on foreign oil. As long as we need to spend billions of dollars each year to buy foreign oil from state-run oil companies in the Persian Gulf, our problems of a trade deficit, a budget deficit and a climate crisis will persist. Therefore, more and more Americans begin to realize that the right response to the climate challenge will also help with the economy and a more balanced budget.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was less optimistic after the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. She did not believe there would be a majority for a U.S. climate change law in Congress before the world climate summit in Copenhagen in December.
I am more optimistic. I do not think that we will have the final enactment of the Conference Committee Report in Congress before Copenhagen. But if President Obama is able to go to Copenhagen having passed legislation in the House and having passed it in the Senate, it will be inevitable that the legislation comes out even if the Conference Committee is still pending.
What are your expectations for Copenhagen ?
I think it is realistic to expect a treaty. It will not be as strong as I would like it to be. But it will put a price on carbon and change the forward planning of businesses and cities and states, provinces and nations. In 1986, when the first crisis of the global atmosphere emerged with the discovery of the ozone hole above Antarctica, one year later the nations of the world passed the Montreal Protocol. It was bitterly criticized by environmentalists as being too weak and insufficient. But then it was toughened and toughened, and it is working quite well, and we are on our way to solving that crisis. I am expecting a similar process for Copenhagen. We will produce a treaty that launches the beginning of a huge transformation process.
The U.S. is expecting more commitment from China. Should Obama use his upcoming Asia trip to increase pressure on Beijing?
They have to accept binding provisions. Many developing nations are still thinking that the wealthier countries will take binding obligations, and the developing countries will have non-binding provisions. That is not a formula for success. In an I.T.-empowered outsourcing world it is very easy to replicate the technological basis for production in low-wage countries. Workers in Germany and the United States and other wealthy nations fear for their jobs. We can’t tell them: “We are going to have these binding obligations, but the places that have already gotten some of your jobs are going to have no obligations at all.” That wouldn’t work.
Isn’t that even more of an incentive for developing nations not to accept any binding emission caps?
They are starting to feel the consequences of such a policy. India now faces the prospect of black carbon emissions greatly accelerating the melting of ice that forms the source of the majority of the water in the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers. They must cut back on black carbon for their own survival.
Do you see indications of a shift in awareness in China, which is the second greatest polluter in the world after the U.S.?
China has been changing fairly dramatically on this issue. While they are still opening a new coal-fired generating plant every eight or nine days, they will soon be the No. 1 power in wind and the No. 1 power in solar. In each of the last several years, they have planted two and a half times as many trees as the rest of the world put together. They are building an 800-kilovolt supergrid that, by 2020, will be the most advanced in the world. They have revised their new five-year plan, beginning a little over a year from now, to adapt the formula by which all bureaucrats and officials are evaluated for advancement or not. They have placed their success in reducing CO2 as one of the principal factors by which they pursue their career successfully or not. These are significant changes.
Will Obama travel to Copenhagen ?
He hasn’t told me that he will, and no one representing him has told me that he will. But I see the calendar, I see unfolding of events and I feel certain he will go.
The White House is currently dampening expectations, because if the American president travels to Copenhagen for the summit, the rest of the world will expect a binding agreement from the United States on emissions caps.
Yes, of course. President Obama has already enacted a binding set of regulations that require a cut in emissions. But the big difference will be whether or not the Senate legislation on climate change passes or not. I believe that the draft bill introduced by Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer really does open up very new prospects. They are likely to add a title to the draft that expands support for nuclear energy. I also think they will add some provisions accelerating the substitution of gas for coal. Gas has only half the CO2 emissions of coal and two-thirds of that from oil. I think that will also generate more support and split the energy lobbies somehow. Therefore, I think there is a very real prospect that the legislation will pass, and that as a result, Obama will have the ability to go to Copenhagen with a more substantive position.
How do you see your own role in this process?
Sometimes the language of Yiddish is the most expressive. I want to be a “nudge” in Copenhagen. Someone who is pushing for action.
The most effective way to “nudge” people into action is to be president of the United States of America. Will you ever run for this office again?
Well, I am trying to recover from politics. But of course there is always a danger of a relapse when you are in recovery.
Mr. Vice President, we thank you for this interview.
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