Janine Jackson interviewed Karen Orenstein about the climate disconnect for the November 17, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: A New York Times explainer in advance of the Bonn climate talks told readers the worst case scenario for the UN summit is it “could get bogged down by the traditional rift between richer and poorer nations.” That might “stall momentum right before the next big round of climate talks in 2018.” Of course, others may see different forces behind any stalled momentum, and might offer a different frame for questions of climate justice than that of a “traditional rift” between the world’s rich and poor.
Karen Orenstein is the deputy director of the Economic Policy Program at Friends of the Earth US where she works on issues of international public finance and climate finance in particular. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Karen Orenstein.
Karen Orenstein: Thank you for having me on.
JJ: I have to start with the event that inspired a statement from you, and that boggled so many. Here we’re at an international conference to address the reality of human-driven climate disruption. It’s in Germany, but it’s hosted by Fiji, in part to highlight the problems facing island nations, problems caused by other countries’ emissions. And the Trump administration does a presentation titled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.” What the heck?
KO: I think you introduced it correctly by talking about, this was in response to the reality of climate change, but Trump and his administration live in a parallel universe that is not based on reality, so it is not a surprise that the climate deniers, for them, upside is down and downside is up, so that they would go to a climate conference, the most important climate talks of the year, to try to promote climate pollution. It’s just what they do.
JJ: It’s truly strange. But Barry Worthington, the executive director of the United States Energy Association, who spoke at this panel, told the New York Times beforehand, he’s just going to be delivering a dose of reality. He says “no credible projection” shows fossil fuels meeting less than 40 percent of global energy needs. He says it’s going to be a “horrible experience”—for him—to have to deliver that message to climate activists, but “the reality of it is the world is going to continue to use fossil fuels, and if I can throw myself on the hand grenade to help people realize that, I’m willing to do it.” So their argument is they’re just being realistic.
KO: Well, isn’t he nice to make such sacrifices. I think, again, it comes down to the question of reality. His reality as a fossil fuel executive is one thing. The reality of, say, for example, someone living in Bangladesh, whose home is now getting inundated with water, or in Kiribati or Tuvalu or Marshall Islands or Fiji, Fiji which is hosting the conference, for them their reality is that their country faces an existential crisis, because it might not exist anymore. Or farmers in Malawi, whose crops aren’t working, or people in Houston or Florida or Puerto Rico, who just encountered storms that have unprecedented vigor to them and resulted in unprecedented destruction, that’s their reality. So I would believe more the farmer in Bangladesh than I would believe the coal and oil executive like Barry Worthington.
JJ: I want to bring you back to this question of climate finance. What does that mean; what questions are being addressed by that?
KO: Basically, that’s about the provision of money from rich countries to poor countries to help the poorer countries adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because to do that is A) very expensive and B) they’re not the ones responsible for causing the climate crisis, right?
The US, more than any other country in the history of the world, is most responsible for causing the climate crisis. So we abide by the idea of the “polluter pays” principle, the idea that if you walk into a shop and you break something, you’re in charge of paying for it. Well, we sort of broke the climate, we’re responsible for paying for it, the US and other rich countries. And so that’s really what climate finance is about. It’s both about justice, it’s about practicality, it’s about expense, and it’s about morality.
JJ: So what it sounds like it’s not about is an age-old “traditional rift,” that will always be with us, between the world’s rich and the world’s poor. You make it much more dynamic than that.
KO: Yeah, I really dislike that framing. The rift is caused because wealthy countries have damaged the climate in incredible ways, and it’s having the first and worst impact on countries, for example, in Africa, and so it’s about people in Africa saying we need to be able to live, we need—we deserve a life of dignity. The actions of people in richer countries have impinged on their ability to have a dignified life. I don’t know, I wouldn’t call that a rift, I would call that about fairness and justice and basically the right to livelihoods and to a quality life.
KO: It’s not a rift. “Rift” makes it sound like there’s people disagreeing over whether, you know, bananas are the best fruit.
KO: And it’s not. This is people’s lives.
JJ: Well, this event that we’re talking about, this fossil fuel, described as “surreal” event at the climate talks, it was interrupted. I want to be clear. Before it even started, two US governors from Washington and Oregon came in and said, we don’t agree with this, this is not our view. And then young activists who were there interrupted with a seven-minute song, and then left peacefully. At the same time, we saw the largest-ever climate protest in Germany. I feel that people understand that what we’re talking about is a matter of political will, and not some sort of arcane science question or technology question. It seems that activism really is going to be the core to moving forward here.
KO: Yeah, I agree. There’s not rocket science here, it is entirely political. The fact that 95 percent-plus of scientists agree that humans are causing climate change, climate change is causing global warming, etc. It’s a fact. It’s about entrenched interests in wealthier countries. The fossil fuel industry, for example, Wall Street, they want to maintain the status quo to their benefit. And I think we often see governments not necessarily acting in the best interest of their constituencies, but that’s certainly true of the Trump administration.
So to expect that governments with their own vested economic interests are going to necessarily do what is needed for the benefit of average ordinary people and the planet is probably not entirely in line with the history of civilization, which is to say that I think we’re going to find the answers in the streets, the demand will come from the streets, and from just everyday folks who take action, especially now people are so inspired to act because, I mean, Trump is just such an extreme villain in so many ways, including on the climate.
JJ: I have to note in this context a new study from Public Citizen that shows that media severely underreport activism at climate conferences, even though those demonstrations are really a primary way that the public is claiming a voice here. And that underreporting distorts public understanding. It gives the impression that there’s less support for this action than there actually is. I wonder what in general you might like to see from media, more or less of, not just on climate talks, but on this whole set of issues. What do you think journalism can do here?
KO: Yeah, I agree there’s a big problem looking at corporate-controlled media, and also this idea that they’re afraid to wade into the controversy of climate change, which isn’t actually a controversy. So I would, for example, like to see during weather reports, meteorologists talk about climate change, because that affects the weather in an extreme way. So that actually your daily nightly newscast, which a lot of people watch—you know, they have the Doppler radar and all that stuff, they can talk about climate change.
To be honest with you, most of my own news comes from Democracy Now! and alternative sources, and until I think we have less media consolidation and more local decentralized media, it’s going to be up to people on the ground to get their stories out and to pay attention to alternative sources of information.
But I think things are changing. I’m from Illinois, I go back home and talk to my family, and they think about climate change in a way that they didn’t before, and they’re not a bunch of very political people. So I think things are changing, especially with the devastation that’s happened in the United States, and especially with just how extreme Trump is.
JJ: So maybe not thanks to media or thanks to government, but things are nevertheless changing in terms of awareness.
KO: Yeah, maybe in spite of media and the government.
JJ: All right then, I’ll have to end it there. We’ve been speaking with Karen Orenstein of Friends of the Earth US. You can find their work online at FOE.org. Karen Orenstein, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
KO: Thank you very much.