Friedman and Sachs unmoved by Obama’s climate conversion

Speaking today at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, two eminent Americans have lambasted the US political system and cast doubt on President Obama’s supposedly reawakened interest in climate change.

“Our Congress is a forum for legalised bribery ……climate was completely missing (from the presidential election debates) because of the corrupt duopolies that we have now,” was the verdict of New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. He referred to the overwhelming influence of lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry and the big banks on both Democratic and Republican representatives.

Also pulling no punches in Delhi was Professor Jeffrey D.Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, who said: “American presidents have almost literally said nothing about this issue (of climate change) for 20 years because they are under the weight of big oil in a US political system which is completely dominated by money – so it is a legalised corruption system that has overtaken every aspect of common sense and action.”

Professor Sachs is a regular speaker at this annual event organised by The Energy and Resources Institute, under the leadership of Dr Rajendra Pachauri who also heads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Addressing the conference in separate sessions, both Sachs and Friedman poured cold water on the gleeful response of climate activists to Obama’s exaggerated concern for global warming in his inauguration speech last month.

“It is not evidence of real movement,” warned Sachs. Friedman was scornful at the naivety of campaigners: “people are so excited because he mentioned climate change in his inaugural address!……. How backward we have gone.”

The title of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, That Used To Be Us, refers disparagingly to his own country and it was clear in this Delhi debate that President Obama has lost the columnist’s confidence. “Climate change became a four-letter word in America … have a president for four years who does not use the term climate change because some knucklehead consultant did a poll somewhere that told him it was a loser. You have wasted four years. That is unforgiveable at this moment.”

Friedman’s views about the process for international action on emissions will however greatly alarm climate justice campaigners. “I think these multilateral agreements are not the way to go,” he said, referring favourably to the idea of former President Bush to limit negotiations to the 15 biggest emitters, dumping fundamental justice principles of the UN Convention in the process.

“When you get into these endless arguments with countries about wealth transfer, that’s just a loser…..remember we promised the world $100 billion in wealth transfer as part of a global agreement? There is no planet on which that’s going to happen.”

As special adviser to the UN on the Millennium Development Goals – which are seriously impeded by global warming – Professor Sachs is unlikely to have any time for such views.

The two will be closer on their analysis of the links between climate change and conflict. Sachs reeled off a list of the world’s troubled arid zones, from Mali to Afghanistan via Yemen, making the explicit connection with the ineffectiveness of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

Perhaps more controversially, Friedman placed the Syrian tragedy in the context of the country’s unprecedented 10-year drought. This has provoked a torrent of migration to the cities whose infrastructure has been unable to defuse inevitable tensions.

Both speakers expressed their sense of unreality at the collective human lunacy of allowing the time for action to go down to the wire. “We have exactly enough time starting now,” said Friedman, “we don’t have 20 years to wait for Senator Inhofe to retire.”

Sachs preferred more vital imagery: “will the planet collapse before humanity uses its know-how to save it? The damsel is tied to the tracks and a high-speed 400kph train is rushing towards her and we don’t know the outcome yet..…This is our essential race against time. If we were just spectators it would be a great movie.”

Thomas Friedman offers his views on a corrupt US Congress, the madness of citing economic recession as an excuse for delaying environmental action, the role of our children’s generation and why the consequences of inaction “will be worse than if the Soviets had won the Cold War.”
For the full session, click on the YouTube link.


background briefings on Climate Justice