The dangerous paradox of neoliberal environmentalism: Why global warming can't be solved by the free market"

Establishment Dems are trying to take climate action while still satisfying corporate interests. That won't work

Published August 29, 2015 10:30AM (EDT)

  (AP/Seth Wenig/Jacquelyn Martin/<a href=''>homydesign</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Seth Wenig/Jacquelyn Martin/homydesign via Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)

On July 17, the White House announced that President Obama will visit Alaska visit at the end of August, attending a conference “to discuss how climate change is reshaping the Arctic” and what can be done about it. On Aug. 13, Obama released a video about the trip.

“I'm going because Alaskans are on the front lines of one of the greatest challenges we face this century — climate change," Obama began his brief message. “What’s happening in Alaska isn’t just a preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don’t take action,” he said. “It’s our wakeup call. The alarm bells are ringing. And as long as I’m president, America will lead the world to meet this threat before it’s too late.”

But just four days later, he directly undermined his own message, when his administration issued the final permit allowing Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic, despite the administration's own assessment that the chances of a significant oil spill in the area were 75% — not to mention that a good deal of existing known oil reserves must be left in the ground to protect against global warming. A recent article in Nature found that “development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius."

The sharp contradiction did not go unnoticed. “It’s perplexing and depressing, quite frankly, to hear President Obama say he wants to fix climate change but then approve Arctic drilling,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an AP story highlighting environmentalists' concerns. “It’s like a doctor diagnosing a patient but then refusing to write a prescription.”

"It sends a terrible signal to the rest of the world for the United States to be using public resources to promote that development," AP quoted Niel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We have to make clear to the rest of the world that we are all in on a clean energy future. And we've got to stop giving the rest of the world license to go exploring by permitting Shell to do it."

"The president cannot have it both ways," Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard chimed in. “Announcing a tour of Alaska to highlight climate change days before giving Shell the final approval to drill in the Arctic ocean is deeply hypocritical."

But these contradictory mixed signals are nothing new. Indeed, they typify the ambiguity not only of the Obama administration (recall their sluggish response and muted criticism of BP — even expressions of trust — during the Gulf oil spill) but of neoliberalism more generally, which looks at the world through business-friendly eyes, no matter what the subject, no matter what the goal it says it's trying to achieve. It can never even begin to contemplate the idea of a “green New Deal,” as George Soros discusssed with Bill Moyers just weeks before the 2008 election. Such a vision would burst the limits of neoliberalism's worldview, and so we're left with a profound disconnect between the recognized problem and the policies offered in response. This disconnect represents yet another dimension in which there's not just tension but a deep divide between activists in their communities and Democratic politicians supposedly representing them.

This helps explain why Hillary Clinton quickly criticized the decision, tweeting, “The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it's not worth the risk of drilling.” Yet, Clinton — also a neoliberal, like her husband — has ambiguity problems of her own, as seen by her refusal to take a stand on the Keystone XL pipeline (“If it’s undecided when I become president I will answer your question”), despite the fact Bernie Sanders has drawn a sharp contrast, (“It is totally crazy for the Congress to support the production and transportation of some of the dirtiest oil on the planet.")

The contradiction was further sharpened by Obama's Aug. 3 announcement of his Clean Power Plan, devoted to lowering greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, which he called, “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change.”

"I think that what we’re seeing from Obama is a really good example of what a climate leader sounds like," author/journalist Naomi Klein responded on Democracy Now. "But I’m afraid we’ve got a long way to go before we see what a climate leader acts like, because there is a huge gap ... the measures that have been unveiled are simply inadequate." She went on to explain:

If we were to stay below two degrees, we would need to be cutting emissions by around 8 to 10 percent a year. Those are numbers from the Tyndall Centre on Climate Research in Manchester. And this plan would lower emissions in the United States by around 6 percent overall — I’m not just talking about the power sector, but overall emissions by 6 percent by 2030. So compare what we should be doing — 8 to 10 percent a year — with 6 percent by 2030. That’s the carbon gap, and it’s huge.

It's a stunning disconnect, and it's rooted in the neoliberal's acceptance of the marketplace as reality-defining, with all the institutional limits from existing oligopoly-dominated markets baked in, regardless of how little those markets may resemble the textbook ideals. Grassroots environmentalists — moved by nature, facts and concern for future generations — see one kind of pragmatism: what works to create a livable future. Neoliberal environmentalists see a very different kind of pragmatism: what's politically achievable, whether or not it actually solves the underlying problems. Fundamentally changing the rules, so that polluting oligopolies no longer control the system, is simply unthinkable for them. The tensions between the two types of environmentalists have rarely been so stark — but they've long been consequential.

Similar tensions contributed to Gore losing voters to Nader in 2000 — witness the formation of Environmentalists Against Gore by 61 grassroots environmental leaders from 18 states in July 2000 — and they could cut into the Democratic Party's ability to mobilize 2008 and 2012 levels of support in 2016. This means there's a real, practical, political price to be paid for the supposedly "practical" "adult" politics of neoliberalism, of which Hillary Clinton has long been a part.

Pundits, campaign activists and the like resist even considering this price — or if they do, they treat it as a matter of “perception,” “image,” “communication,” “trust” or anything else, really, except for what it actually is: a consequence of bad policies — and bad faith. So it's helpful to recall what it actually entails, and just how long it's been that neoliberals continue to ignore it.

Let's go back to July 1992, on the first leg of the Clinton-Gore campaign bus tour following the Democratic Convention, in Weirton, West Virginia, where the candidates were asked for their assistance, “to stop Waste Technologies Incorporated, the largest toxic waste incinerator in the world, being built 20 miles north of here on the Ohio River.” Gore began, "I'd like to say that I admired your fight, I'm familiar with exactly what you're fighting against and I think that its important for us as a nation to learn from the struggle that you are now engaged in.” After discussing various details, he concluded, “I'll tell you this, a Clinton/Gore Administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems. We'll be on your side for a change instead of the side of the garbage generators the way they have been.” Clinton added, “When we're in office we will have real meaningful national standards about the permitting of these sort of incinerators."

After the election, this early environmental promise went on to become the subject of Gore's first press release on the environment in December 1992, which included the subtitle “Clinton-Gore Administration Would Not Issue Test Burn Permit.” Yet, in the end, Greenpeace would come to call it "Al Gore's First Broken Promise."

In April 2000, Jake Tapper wrote a story here looking back at what happened and the stain it left on Gore's environmental reputation. “Al Gore was supposed to be the environmental hero, but meanwhile I have a toxic-waste incinerator in my backyard,” said Terri Swearingen, a nurse living less than two miles from the incinerator.

Tapper went on to quote Gore on the campaign trail that month, back in Ohio, claiming that “Most of the options available to us were taken away from us by a last-minute decision by the Bush-Quayle administration,” but pledging to get EPA to “do a full-scale review.” However, Tapper noted, “Clinton-Gore overturned other last-minute decisions by the Bush administration,” according to his critics, who “say Gore had plenty of opportunities to hinder the process.” Greenpeace Toxics Campaigner Rick Hind added further points questioning Gore's profession of helplessness in a letter responding to Tapper's story.

The bottom line was that manipulations of government bureaucracy for private interests were deemed insurmountable, while manipulations in the public interest were barely even mentioned. That's just how neoliberal governance works. It typified the atmosphere which led to the aforementioned creation of Environmentalists Against Gore. Of course, Bush's environmental record was so disastrous as to obliterate any memory of Gore's environmental shortcomings. Yet, if Gore hadn't let grassroots environmental activists down as VP, he likely would have won the 2000 election, despite the Supreme Court.

Fast forward to December 2008, and something remarkably similar took place: the outgoing GOP administration put a rush on screwing over the environment. A number of last-minute measures were rushed through, with varying degrees of disregard for proper process, as well as the environment. One such measure was the Election Day announcement of a lease sale of drilling rights to hundreds of parcels totalling 360,000 acres in Utah's scenic redrock desert. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, objections came “from the National Park Service, members of Congress and John Podesta, the head of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, who said the lease sale should be halted or altered to accommodate environmental concerns.”

On Dec. 19, when bids were taken on 116 parcels, a 27-year old graduate student, Tim DeChristopher, intervened in the bidding process, driving up the prices and winning bids on more than 10 parcels, as a form of non-violent action to disrupt the process which legal actions had been unable to stop. His actions were possible, in part, because of the rushed, haphazard nature of the process. He had no advance plans to engage in the bidding, but saw it was possible once he was there.

The Obama administration's reaction was tellingly split. On the one hand, it acted quickly to reverse the leasing decisions, canceling 77 of the leases that had already been bid in early February 2009.

The LA Times reported that it was just one of several last-minute Bush actions being questioned by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:

Salazar has said he wants to revisit Bush-era regulations that open much of the West to oil shale development, the delisting of the gray wolf as an endangered species, and a rule that allows federal agencies to avoid consulting scientists on whether the Endangered Species Act applies to certain projects.

On the other hand, the prosecution of DeChristopher continued under Obama, as if Bush were still in office. He was charged with two felonies, and sentenced to two years in prison in July 2011 — a remarkably severe sentence for an act of civil disobedience. At his trial, DeChristopher was essentially prevented from mounting his defense in several key respects — he was not allowed to use a necessity defense or to present evidence the lease auction was deemed unlawful, that he was motivated by moral convictions about climate change, that he had raised sufficient funds for the initial lease payment to the BLM (refused by the BLM) or that he was being subject to selective prosecution.

The arguments excluded were a de facto roadmap to the borderline between grassroots and neoliberal environmentalism: only arguments congruent with private business interests are allowed on the latter side of the line. It should also be noted that a single bidder pushing prices up like DeChristopher did clearly demonstrates that the bidding market was rigged — and not just for those drilling leases, but for all such leases. The Obama administration showed no interest in exploring this, any more than they were interested in exploring and prosecuting rigged markets on Wall Street.

A year after DeChristopher's one-man intervention, in December 2009, the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Copenhagen. As the conference got underway, a controversial secretly-negotiated document (“The Danish Text”) was leaked to the Guardian, sparking an uproar, as developing nations denounced it for both its substance — shifting costs onto them — and for its subversion of the open deliberative UN process. In the end, nothing was agreed to at the conference — a non-binding document was merely “taken note of.” Afterwards, British author/journalist George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian:

The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama.

The man elected to put aside childish things proved to be as susceptible to immediate self-interest as any other politician. Just as George Bush did in the approach to the Iraq war, Obama went behind the backs of the UN and most of its member states and assembled a coalition of the willing to strike a deal that outraged the rest of the world. This was then presented to poorer nations without negotiation: either they signed it or they lost the adaptation funds required to help them survive the first few decades of climate breakdown.

In addition, activists from Friends of the Earth and other mainstream environmental groups were denied access to the UN conference center as world leaders started to arrive, while years later it was revealed in documents leaked by Edward Snowden that the NSA had been spying on conference participants, much as the U.S. spied on other countries in the run-up to the Iraq war. These were two further signs of the deep disconnect between neoliberal environmentalism and those it claims to represent.

There's no doubt, of course, that the Obama administration felt politically hemmed in. Monbiot's article was even titled, “If you want to know who's to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US Senate,” and it traced the blame back to the lack of campaign finance reform. But the Obama administration's response to feeling hemmed in was not to fight back with everything they had, forging alliances with natural allies in the fight against global warming — including those it claimed to represent. Instead, they waged a multi-front covert war against the very people they ought to have been forging alliances with. Such is the “logic” of neoliberal environmentalism — and the result, not surprisingly, is contradiction, confusion and paralysis.

More of the same was on display a few months later, when the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred on April 20, 2010. While Obama argued that "Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts,” a Rolling Stone story, “The Spill, The Scandal and the President,” argued that the problem went much deeper than the questions of response:

Like the attacks by Al Qaeda, the disaster in the Gulf was preceded by ample warnings – yet the administration had ignored them. Instead of cracking down on MMS [Minerals Management Service], as he had vowed to do even before taking office, Obama left in place many of the top officials who oversaw the agency's culture of corruption. He permitted it to rubber-stamp dangerous drilling operations by BP — a firm with the worst safety record of any oil company — with virtually no environmental safeguards, using industry-friendly regulations drafted during the Bush years. He calibrated his response to the Gulf spill based on flawed and misleading estimates from BP — and then deployed his top aides to lowball the flow rate at a laughable 5,000 barrels a day, long after the best science made clear this catastrophe would eclipse the Exxon Valdez.

Again and again, Obama has put himself in the position of fighting against the very people he should be allied with — both experts and activists who would much rather being mobilizing a movement in support of his leadership, rather than clashing with him repeatedly.

But this is not a personal criticism. It's not just Obama, it's the neoliberal mindset, and the real-world power relationships behind that mindset. That's why the same sorts of problems were seen with Clinton-Gore, and why the same problems persist with Hillary Clinton as well. She was, after all, Obama's secretary of state, and it was under her that the State Department issued a draft review approving Keystone XL that was sharply criticized by Obama's own EPA, but still approved in final form, despite the objection of expert critics such as James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has argued that the big-picture global warming concerns mean that tar sands must be left in the ground:

An overwhelming objection is that exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts....[I]f emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels including tar sands are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize earth’s climate.

Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over. There is no practical way to capture the CO2 emitted while burning oil, which is used principally in vehicles.

So, in short, it's nice that Hillary Clinton has shown herself willing to break with Obama's self-contradictory actions around Artic drilling. But it's even more necessary to say “no” to Keystone XL, if she's at all serious about her commitment to protecting the climate — and environmental activists know it. Bernie Sanders certainly knows it. The political press remains blissfully ignorant. But if Clinton does win the nomination, and she remains ignorant as well, it will be that much harder for her galvanize the activist base support she needs. She should check in with Al Gore about that. If Bernie Sanders gets the nomination he will have no such problem.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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