Alex Massie

George Monbiot’s Alternative Universe

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George Monbiot isn't everyone's cup of char, not least in these parts. I don't write much about climate change because the subject* bores me and so I'm happy for Monbiot to promise that the end of the world is just around the corner and I don't spend too much time worrying about it. I suspect, for what little it's worth, that he's an anti-Cassandra: wrong but believed.

Anyway, I do write about American politics so I feel confident in saying that Monbiot doesn't appear to know anything about the realities of life in Washington. In his Guardian column this week he complains that Copenhagen was a dud and that:

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.

[...] Why would he do this? You have only to see the relief in Democratic circles to get your answer. Pushing a strong climate programme through the Senate, many of whose members are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the energy industry, would have been the political battle of his life. Yet again, the absence of effective campaign finance reform in the US makes global progress almost impossible.


Then again, what can one say to a man who seems to think that the President need only snap his fingers to have Congress, even when controlled by his own party, come to heel? It doesn't work like that and, as we've seen with health care, the final decision-making power is vested in the moderate centre - the 60th least liberal Senator - it is not held by the left. If Monbiot doesn't appreciate this it's time he did; if he does, he shouldn't mislead his readers.

Furthermore, notice his complaint about the "absence of effective campaign finance reform". Slippery that since, of course, a pretty substantial campaign finance bill was indeed passed this decade. Further restrictions on campaign finance would enjoy, I suspect, an excellent chance of being ruled unconstitutional. (That's the problem with written constitutions: sometimes, awkwardly, you have to pay some attention to what they say. Sometimes this can have unfortunate consequences but there you go. Trade-offs are everywhere.)

Anyway, the notion that the American president suffers a willpower deficit and that if only this were corrected anything and everythnig would be possible if precisely the sort of wishful, deluded thinking sometimes favoured - in foreign policy at least - by the types of neoconservative Monbiot, I suspect, despises. But he makes the same mistake they do. Willpower is not always enough.

And in any case, Obama does want a climate bill but it has to be one with some chance of passing. Hence his continuing disinclination to lose patience with Joe Lieberman, no matter how vexing Sanctimonious Joe may be. But while the Democrats have, more or less, been lined up behind health care, the administration is likely to lose at least a couple (Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu for instance) when it comes to debating the climate bill. Heck, it only passed the House by 219-212.

So the key player will be Lindsay Graham. Monbiot should consider himself lucky that Graham isn't up for re-election until 2014. Even so it will take some political courage (on his part) and finesse (on the part of Harry Reid and the White House) to keep Graham part of the negotiations. Without Graham, however, the path to 60 filibuster-proof votes begins to look more difficult. 

This would be difficult in happier times, it's even harder in a recession when unemployment has passed 10%. That makes the bill vulnerable too. And understandably so: politicians are always going to listen more carefully to their voters in an election year than to  their fears of something that might happen a hundred years from now. That's just one more good reason (among many) for doing health care before climate change. Monbiot would probably call that narrowly self-interested; the administration doesn't have the luxury of being quite so high-minded.

But if Graham stays on board then the chance of a bill requiring something like 15% reduction in emissions (2005 levels) by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050 has a chance of passing. McCain, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and perhaps a couple of others may cross the aisle and vote for it. Not enough for Monbiot, of course, but much more realistic than anything he's proposing himself and, therefore, much better from his point of view. You'd think this might make him happy. But apparently not. There's no pleasing some folk.

As a smart, centrist Democratic pal put it to me:

If Europeans want climate change passed they should hope for the elections of Carly Fiorna in California and Charlie Crist in Florida.

Electing Fiorina in California would remove the most caustic, politically tone deaf, unpopular, and insane Chairwoman of the Environment committee and replace her with a moderate Republican. You would automatically get a bipartisan bill, and maybe create enough votes to actually ratify an international treaty.  Maybe the Guardian should have its readers send letters to Californians. It might not have worked in Ohio for 2004, but... Get rid of Barbara Boxer (and elect Crist in Florida) there is a clear path to 60 votes.

Alternatively, of course, you can just keep whining about how Barack Obama has failed to deliver you the pony you thought he promised you. That's fine for columnists, of course, but it's not a very useful way of advancing your own goals, regardless of their wisdom or usefulness. And from the green movement's perspective they might perhaps consider that Kyoto had no chance of passing the Senate even if Bill Clinton had signed it. Now there might be 60 votes for a climate change bill vastly more ambitious than would have seemed in any way possible just a few years ago.

Meanwhile Monbiot concludes his column with this unintentionally hilarious gem:

So what happens now? That depends on the other non-player at Copenhagen: you. For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn't do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic. Demonstrations which should have brought millions on to the streets have struggled to mobilise a few thousand. As a result the political cost of the failure at Copenhagen is zero. Where are you.

Is this music not to your taste, sir, or madam? Perhaps you would like our little orchestra to play something louder, to drown out that horrible grinding noise.

No further comment required, methinks.


UPDATE: I see that Matt Zeitlin, blogging again, I'm pleased to say, after something of a hiatus, takes down the dreadful Naomi Klein who, like Monbiot, seems to be one of King Canute's courtiers and not half as wise as the leaders they exhort to do more than is actually possible. Canute, remember, ordered the tide to recede to demonstrate the limits of his power, not his omnipotence.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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