Obama’s Climate Sham[e]: Empty Rhetoric in Copenhagen Speech

There was a time, say 12 months ago, when each speech by Obama was anticipated with a mix of excitement and hope. Despite myself, I felt that same mix of giddy expectation as he took the stage this morning at the Bella Center where the UN Climate Talks continue to stumble forward. All morning, news of secret meetings and leaked texts have been circulating around Copenhagen: the US and China are striking a deal! The Maldives is Backing down! China won’t budge! The Islands are standing strong! But the real focus has been on Obama and whether he can muster the leadership, courage, and, let’s face it, common sense to make the US commit to a real deal.

Don’t hold your breath. Obama’s speech this morning didn’t just lack substance, it even lacked good rhetoric: the address was met with only sporadic applause from the assembled delegates. Here are some reactions to the talk,

Bill McKibben, 350.org:  “In the face of leaked UN documents showing that this agreement is a sham, we were hoping for some movement from the President. Instead, his response was take it or leave it. 100 other nations are not making reasonable demands because they want to make the President’s life harder. It’s because they would like their countries to actually survive the century.”

Friends of the Earth U.S. President Erich Pica: “President Obama’s rhetoric is empty. The U.S. has failed to significantly improve upon the weak position it brought to these talks. This speech appears to be more of a face-saving exercise for President Obama than an attempt to unite countries around a truly planet-saving agreement. The United States came to these negotiations with a weak position, and now appears to be attempting to take the rest of the world down to our level. It simply must do better.”

Obama still has a chance to up his action, but it’s clear now that he’s not going to go the distance. What does it mean when the US President — someone many of us worked hard for — is selling out the survival of many nations?

This morning, Dessima Williams, the chairwoman of the Association of Small Island States, said: “The fact that more than 100 countries are calling for global warming to be limited to less than 1.5°C shatters the mythology that 2°C is an acceptable target, and instead highlights the broad consensus that climate mitigation goals should be based on up-to-date climate science.”

We’ve shattered a lot of mythologies at this climate conference. First, that rich countries are ever going to be willing to take on the necessary commitments without immense public pressure. And second — even more important — that we have an incredibly powerful movement building around the world that is ready to apply that pressure in powerful, effective, and yes, beautiful and creative ways.

Next time Obama gives a speech, he should have to face these women:

Or this lone girl in Iraq, who went through multiple US military check-points, to take this photo on October 24:

He should have to face a movement.

16 Responses to “Obama’s Climate Sham[e]: Empty Rhetoric in Copenhagen Speech”

  1. 1 judy Dec 18th, 2009 at 9:56 am

    i think obama isn’t the savior of the world, yet everyone acts like he should be. china should have to face these women. europe should have to face these women. you should have to face them and i should have to face them. it’s everyone. it isn’t ONE man. and speeches… speeches NEVER matter. what matters is how the world starts acting like we care. one man isn’t going to create intelligence or caring in people. he can help, but this is politics. politics aren’t going to fix the poles. humans have to.

    your anger for everything that’s wrong with climate change legislation shouldn’t rest on one man’s shoulders. be angry at yourself first.

  2. 2 Teryn Norris Dec 18th, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Jamie, I appreciate your perspectives on this blog, but I must say I’ve been disappointed with the ways you’ve attacked President Obama lately, declaring his negotiations with Ethiopia “corruption” and “conspiracy,” and now blasting him for “selling out the survival of many nations.” This is no way to inspire the administration to greatness on this front, and it fails to acknowledge any of the complexity at the heart of this process and the challenges facing the administration. Like it or not, we’ve known for a while now that nothing substantive was going to come out of Copenhagen, and there’s practically nothing Obama could have done to save it — that’s what you get from a global climate negotiation and policy framework that’s fundamentally flawed. Let’s acknowledge some of these nuances and not blame everything on the United States and the administration, capiche?

  3. 3 paul york Dec 18th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    I find this article fair and informative. Bill McKibben is certainly one of the most respected voices on this issue around and if he says that Obama failed to deliver, I believe it. It is entirely with the U.S. administration’s power to avert catastrophe and they are not doing what is needed. This president will not do anything more than what Gore did in Rio – which was nothing. When the critical moment was at hand, neither did what was needed, and instead protected narrow national self-interest ahead of global interest. Both Gore and Obama, while in office, are guilty of inspiring hope and failing to deliver on that promise. That has to be stated openly and clearly. Of the two, Obama’s failure is worse because Gore at least has the excuse of being a VP, with no power. The administration will not be “inspired” to do anything because it is dominated by realpolitik rather than solid moral principles – but Obama’s speechwriters know how to use the language of hope to convince us that he is standing up for the right thing, while at the same time he has no intention of delivering. It is a cruel charade. By sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and then delivering a speech to the Nobel committee invoking MLK and Gandhi he showed his true hypocrisy. The ability to twist their philosophies of non-violence to justify armed conflict and war demonstrates the lack of moral fibre on the part of this president. He is doing exactly what the Bush administration would do but is putting a fine face on it. There is nothing wrong with saying it is as it is. The only hope for humanity and the 80% of species faced with extinction from climate change is to build a powerful movement for change from the ground up, without the help of duplicitous governments. Let’s face it: this speech should have been the defining moment for the transition of humanity from the insanity of the fossil-fuel driven military-industrial complex to a more just and sustainable society. Instead, it exposes the moral failing of men with power to act courageously and justly for those who have no voice: the poor of the third world, future generations, and all the billions of other species whose lives matter but have no voice as they are driven to extinction by a single species who likes to play god. If MLK were here today he would be non-violently protesting this administration and this president.

  4. 4 quagmiremonkey Dec 18th, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    >This is no way to inspire the administration to greatness on this front

    What a ridiculous statement. As if politicians (a group Obama professionaly belongs to) are motivated to action by defensive praise for every action they take. And as if we haven’t seen this President deliver again and again to those who aggressively demand something in return for their cooperation.

  5. 5 Teryn Norris Dec 18th, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    “quagmiremonkey,” that’s obviously a misrepresentation of what I said. I was telling Jamie that I don’t think attacking President Obama in this way is going to motivate the administration or affect positive change on this issue, for a number of reasons. I never implied any kind of blanket statement that “politicians are motivated to action by defensive praise for every action they take.”

  6. 6 Casey Verdant Dec 18th, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Obama’s address at Copenhagen was harsh and all too vague about how America and the world can take a more progressive approach to global warming. Hopefully his private discussions and meetings with other global leaders will lead to more progress and clearer goals than his public address
    If you’re interested in global energy standards and creating green jobs, check out http://www.greencollareconomy.com. It has hundreds of case studies on emerging green technology and emissions standards. It’s also the largest b2b green directory on the web.

  7. 7 Danno Dec 18th, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Whatever happened to leading by example?? I cant imagine how the other world leaders felt when the great “Barrack Obama” enters the room late, while others worked hard overnight, and then begins by calling out all the nations to do something or the USA does nothing??

    I believe it is very important for America to stand in the forefront on climate change and not act like it is. This is not a choice it is critical to humanity. If USA leads the world in used emissions per capita, Should they not be the ones leading the way to change??

    We are the leading the world in pollution and we know it and want a change, but the government is supposed to represent the masses and that does not seem to be the case.

    I waited until 4 am to watch this speech, and let me tell you, I did not sleep so well. The first thing I heard was a “proposed” 100 mill to climate change this year. Problem, I think so !! I cant logistically figure out how 100 mill is even a step towards any major changes. 1 trillion+ on war since 2001, Oh I get it know there is no Profit to be made on fixing the planet. There is Definitely money to be made at war, There auctioning off The worlds 2nd largest oil field in Iraq, 115 billion barrels estimated to be down there and I heard a 30 sec story on the news. Please tell me I am missing something here.

    Love. peace and good health to all. Be aware of what is going on around the planet…knowledge is power. We all need to come together to make change since it appears our governments may be incapable of such a task..

  8. 8 shellyt Dec 19th, 2009 at 1:58 am

    He wasn’t there to get applause or give a campaign speech. The amount of times people applauded or how enthusiastically is irrelevant.

    Later on, Obama worked hard at hammering out something with China and India and he did what he could. He’s got more on his plate than just climate change, you know, and no matter how much we know this climate “deal” is inadequate, it’s unfair to blame the outcome on Obama. He’s been putting out fires since he took office due to the monster that was in office before him. Cut him some slack — he did more than Bush ever would have. Sure, that’s a low bar, but he needs support on what he did. He knows the science, he’s not stupid, and he has two young daughters he wants to grow up in a survivable world.

    At some point people need to stop criticizing and contribute something positive to the general knowledge about this issue. We have 2010, 2011 and 2012 to get better targets too. This did not all have to happen in Copenhagen. If the entire capitalistic system is going to have to change, it was asking way too much to expect that to happen in Copenhagen.

  9. 9 shellyt Dec 19th, 2009 at 2:02 am

    Paul york — “It is entirely with the U.S. administration’s power to avert catastrophe and they are not doing what is needed. ”

    Not true at all. The U.S. is only part of the world and we need to let go of this idea that the U.S. runs it or can save everything. That’s what the world is po’d about, after all. Obama was not there to save the day. He was there to help, not take control.

    And — China and India need to step up and do their parts. They are not “developing” countries. They are fully formed societies who are as greedy as the U.S. ever was and we have to stop giving them a free pass. They both need to do as much as the U.S. in reducing emissions.

    The poorer nations will be taken care of eventually. China is not a poor country and neither is India. We need to expect more of them as well as of the U.S.

  10. 10 marie s. Dec 19th, 2009 at 10:31 pm


    Obama has the power – not only under the CAA but even more important as someone the world and our own country has looked to for leadership – to change course and recognize that nations and many 100s of millions (and many credible scientists say billions) will perish b/c of unaddressed climate change (i.e. human-caused GHG emissions not being cut as science directs) and the climate profiteering provided as a remedy he has endorsed (through support for carbon trading, a global fund ($100 billion w/out ‘environmental and social impact safeguards for projects to receive $) and Waxman-Markey, Boxer-Kerry).

    The President has failed not only environmentalists but our country and the planet. No amount of window dressing or statements re. how much worse Bush was can change that basic fact. He did not stand up with the scientists against the polluters.

    And come to think of it, where in hot hell is Carl Pope on this? We know where the NRDC is:



    where Doctor Jim Hansen is:


  1. 1 Obama’s Copenhagen Speech: Some Reactions - Environmental Capital - WSJ Trackback on Dec 18th, 2009 at 11:51 am
  2. 2 Obama’s Copenhagen Speech: Some Reactions :: wpblog Trackback on Dec 18th, 2009 at 12:22 pm
  3. 3 Obama’s Climate Sham[e]: Empty Rhetoric in Copenhagen Speech | Amauta Trackback on Dec 18th, 2009 at 11:58 pm
  4. 4 Open Letter to Bill McKibben: Blaming Obama for Copenhagen Is Wrong « It’s Getting Hot In Here Trackback on Dec 19th, 2009 at 4:10 pm
  5. 5 Teryn Norris: Open Letter to Bill McKibben: Blaming Obama for Copenhagen Is Wrong | Old People News Trackback on Dec 20th, 2009 at 9:22 am
  6. 6 The official Copenhagen talks: A fraudulent farce | Toban Black Trackback on Dec 20th, 2009 at 6:25 pm
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About Jamie

Jamie is the co-coordinator of 350.org, an international global warming campaign. A recent college graduate, he lives in San Francisco, CA. In 2007, he co-organized Step It Up, a campaign that pulled together over 2,000 climate rallies across the United States to push for strong climate action at the federal level. He's also an early member of the youth climate movement, leading one of Energy Action's first campaigns in 2005: Road to Detroit, a nationwide veggie-oil bus tour to promote sustainable transportation. He's traveled to Montreal and Bali to lobby the UN with youth, but he's a strong believer that change happens in the streets not in meetings. Jamie received the Morris K. Udall award in 2007 and has been recognized by the mighty state of Vermont for his work on climate change. You can also find him blogging at Campus Progress' "Pushback," Changents.com, and 350.org.

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