Between the Lines Q&A

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Dec. 23, 2009

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Failure of Copenhagen Climate Talks
Portends Grim Future

 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben,
conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Most governments and environmental groups believe the two-week United Nations Copenhagen climate failed to accomplish what's necessary to turn back catastrophic climate change. Even U.S. President Barack Obama, in declaring his so-called, "breakthrough" on the last day of the conference, which reached an agreement for voluntary reductions among five key generators of greenhouse gasses, acknowledged that it's still not enough to avert disaster, but it's a beginning.

Bill McKibben was in Copenhagen with the group he co-founded. The writer and environmental activist spurred a global movement culminating in demonstrations Oct. 24 in almost every country on the planet calling for a reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, from the current 387 -- the level climate scientists say is necessary to avert the consequences of unchecked global warming.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with McKibben about the role played at the conference by small nations most threatened by climate change as well as that of the U.S. and China, the two largest emitters of carbon dioxide, and of his waning hopes of implementing the urgent action necessary to save the planet.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Definitely had much stronger demands from poor countries than we've ever seen before, and that was one of the reasons the talks broke down, in the end - they couldn't be as easily bought off.

BETWEEN THE LINES: A lot of people on the left are totally trashing Obama for his role in the failure of the talks, and I think maybe that's based at least partly on their high hopes for change after George Bush did worse than nothing for eight years. How do you allocate responsibility for the failure of the talks?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Look, Obama's in a very tough place. He's got a very difficult Congress to deal with. We always knew this was an extra problem to begin with - the toughest problem the world has ever faced. There are lots and lots of other countries involved; China is a particular problem, partly because, though they're not historically responsible for carbon, they will be in the future, so it's hard both politically and logistically to figure out how to engage them. I think Obama's failure isn't what he did or didn't do in Copenhagen; his failure is mainly that he hasn't done anything in the first year of his presidency to prepare the ground. He hasn't made any significant effort to change American public opinion on this question. He chose to make health care his priority, which was his right, obviously, but I think in the end it was a bad call, because this is even more fundamental. And he's been willing to constantly make the case that we should take small incremental gains. In health care that makes sense, perhaps. Here I think it doesn't, because the physics of things are getting deeply out of control.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Bill McKibben, as I'm sure you know, he's done some important things, unilaterally, without needing buy-in from the Congress, such as raising fuel efficiency standards and announcing that the Environmental Protection Agency will regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant...

BILL MCKIBBEN: He's done more in a year than all the presidents before him of the global warming era combined. The trouble is that the bar was set remarkably low. So the things he's done so far are wonderful and we salute him; and they're not doing anything to change the basic trajectory of carbon in the atmosphere.

BETWEEN THE LINES: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar and many other people have talked about cities and regions around the world taking a leading role in reducing carbon emissions, in the absence of an international agreement. What do you think about that idea?

BILL MCKIBBEN: The problem is you just can't make the math add up fast enough without some kind of global agreement. Everybody can do the right thing in their cities or towns, whatever, but if China continues to pour carbon into the atmosphere, if the U.S. doesn't dramatically reverse its carbon flow, on and on and on, I just think it won't happen. So I'm all for those things; I think we need a local/global strategy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There are 30 countries that are responsible for 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and they're supposedly going to be getting together and doing something about it. Do you know anything about that?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Nobody knows anything about it. There are 30 countries that are responsible for 90 percent of emissions. Probably the U.S. or someone will try to rally them into some kind of emitters' forum, something that George Bush talked about and started. That's kind of what this Copenhagen Accord envisions: you can go off and do this without any pesky interference from all the countries that will be the biggest and first victims of climate change. I think it's unlikely that at a meeting of the main addicts you're going to find tough solutions, but hope springs eternal.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, what about you...hope springs eternal. You've poured your life into this issue for the past three years, and then you were at the climate talks in Copenhagen for two weeks. Are you hopeful?

BILL MCKIBBEN: And we kept organizing the whole time. We had 3,000 vigils organized with others on the middle weekend, and it was very good to hear the main cathedral in Copenhagen ring its bells 350 times, followed by 4,000 churches around the world that same afternoon. The good news is we have a very new, very powerfully interesting, creative and impassioned grassroots movement on climate. We have to figure out how to make it tell, how to make it really come to bear. I don't know quite how we're going to do that. It's time to regroup, wait for the dust to settle a little bit, see what opportunities there are. We can't very well walk away. That's the one thing that's not an option because the stakes are so high. But it does, I must say, get harder with each passing year when we do nothing significant, because the momentum of this heating is very real and very powerful.

Writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben is co-founder of the group For more information about the group's continuing efforts, visit their website at

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Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine,Between The Lines for the week ending Jan. 1, 2010. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

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