Open Letter to Bill McKibben: Blaming Obama for Copenhagen Is Wrong

Update 12/20/09: Joe Romm responds to McKibben, link below
Update 12/20/09: Bill McKibben has responded below

Open Letter to Bill McKibben: Blaming Obama for Copenhagen Is Wrong
December 19th, 2009

Dear Bill,

Yesterday, in response to the end of the Copenhagen negotiations, you issued a press release with titled “The President has wrecked the UN (and the planet),” in which you wrote: “The president has wrecked the U.N. and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming. It may get Obama a reputation as a tough American leader, but it’s at the expense of everything progressives have held dear.”

Afterward, you published an article on the Grist homepage titled “With climate agreement, Obama guts progressive values,” in which you wrote: “He blew up the United Nations. The idea that there’s a world community that means something has disappeared tonight. The clear point is… when you sink beneath the waves we don’t want to hear much about it.” This followed a recent post by your organization accusing Obama of “corruption” and “conspiracy” for his climate negotiations with Ethiopia.

I’m writing you today because, as a young clean energy and climate advocate, I believe these words are wrong and irresponsible, and I would like to respectfully request that you issue a public apology to President Obama and young climate leaders across the country.

Bill, as one of the most prominent leaders of the global environmental movement, your words matter. Several of my friends, family, and colleagues – especially young climate leaders – have looked to you for guidance in this movement, placing faith in your judgment and passionately supporting your 350 campaign. As one young commenter remarked to me yesterday, “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.”

That is why I was shocked and disappointed when you so harshly blamed President Obama for the outcome of Copenhagen and accused him of undermining efforts to achieve a meaningful international climate treaty. Your accusations are false. I understand the disappointment of you and many around the world, but the Obama administration has done more to promote climate change solutions than any U.S. administration in history, and it has demonstrated a clear commitment to advancing international negotiations.

We need to understand the heart of the problem in order to overcome it.  So let us be clear: the failure at Copenhagen is not the Obama administration’s fault, nor that of any single leader or country. Rather it is primarily the result of a flawed UNFCCC framework, which relies on outdated distinctions between “developed” and “developing” countries and fails to focus on negotiations between major polluters. Most problematic, it depends on the establishment of abstract and “legally-binding” emissions reduction targets, instead of the immediate government investments we need to develop and deploy low-carbon energy and efficiency technologies.

Today, in the wake of this historic summit, the writing is on the wall: the Kyoto Protocol failed, even with a “legally-binding” agreement among its signatories. Copenhagen has failed, even with the support of the Obama administration and overwhelming effort by the global climate movement. And as one of the world’s most active and vocal supporters of this established framework, it is all the more disappointing that you would lash out and blame others for its failure.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I know this: the time has come for a radical departure from the mitigation framework of the past to a renewed focus on international investments in low-carbon technology and efficiency – on the scale of $10.5 trillion the International Energy Agency has called for over the next twenty years – without which we will fail to achieve a treaty capable of avoiding the worst consequences of global warming, including the devastation of many poor and island nations you have so passionately represented.

Bill, I still believe you are capable of offering the leadership we need, and I welcome your response to this letter. I still believe in our president and our country’s ability to lead the world on this challenge. And I believe that with a new way forward, we can achieve the clean energy revolution we need.

Teryn Norris

Director, Americans for Energy Leadership
Founder, Breakthrough Generation

31 Responses to “Open Letter to Bill McKibben: Blaming Obama for Copenhagen Is Wrong”

  1. 1 Zach Dec 19th, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Teryn, I think that you are right in we cannot singly blame President Obama for failure, nor any single individual, and that the process for brokering a deal is very flawed. But I still think that we have to call out Obama on this matter because frankly I don’t think he has shown enough commitment in his actions. Yes, he speaks of his support for environmentalism, and he did end up going to Copenhagen. But when he got there he failed to show the leadership we know he can execute; instead of meeting with leaders from all nations, he went backstage with only a few leaders, and came up with a shoddy deal that is nowhere near “meaningful” and is hardly a step at all. So although failure is not Obama’s fault, I’m still not going to let him get away with a weak deal and rhetoric, because it is times like these that were the reason we elected him, and so far he has not lived up to expectations.


  2. 2 ceti Dec 19th, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    If you look at Obama’s track record over this past year, he has gutted every process towards progressive goals, by either being a fish out of water, or actively colluding with and supporting corporate interests. And Obama does deserve a lot of the blame for not leading on this or many other issues. The bad taste comes from Obama beginning his December wrecking tour by sending more troops and money to Afghanistan, and then having Hillary Clinton play the bully in Copenhagen. The hypocrisy of the American position is apparent to everyone in the world.

    Also basically your argument flies in the face of the position of most of the world. Just because the UN process does not suit the most rich and powerful countries, means it should be gutted. Indeed, it is only undermined because of this power imbalance between the rich and poor just like the UN itself where the Security Council calls the shots, never mind the general assembly.

  3. 3 Casey Verdant Dec 19th, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    A beginning is the most hopeful word you could use for the unsuccessful Copenhagen Accords. With no one voting to adopt the resolutions, and no strong consensus about how to make the accords binding it’s hard to know how much international collaboration will come out of the conference. But even if there’s no international movement, you can work to set national and state standards in your community.
    If you’re interested in energy standards, check out It has hundreds of case studies on emerging green technology and emissions standards. It’s also the largest b2b green directory on the web.

  4. 4 nickengelfried Dec 19th, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    You raise some good points, Teryn, and there’s certainly plenty of blame to go around. It’s not just the Obama administration at fault here. All the same, I’m a bit cautious about assuming that embracing a strategy of investment would solve the problem by itself. It seems to me that the pitiful financial commitment the US offered in Copenhagen suggests that an investment-based strategy might not receive much more support from the US administration than did emissions caps. The real problem, as I see it, is the power which fossil fuel industries – particularly coal – hold in US and international politics. Because the coal industry does not want to submit to regulation, ambitious emissions caps failed in Copenhagen. But Big Coal is not going to melt away if we turn to embrace an investment strategy wholeheartedly; coal and other fossil fuel industries will continue to water down any proposals that come forward, and policymakers will be reluctant to invest in renewables and efficiency to the degree needed to truly displace coal. In my view, the real problem with Obama’s climate advocacy (or lack thereof) may be that he’s been unwilling to crack down hard enough on coal. Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why it’s hard for Obama to get tough with the coal industry, and again there’s plenty of blame to go around. But this has to start somewhere, and Obama was elected in no small part thanks to young voters who were expecting him to take global warming head-on. If it’s added pressure from progressive voices that he needs, let’s increase the pressure – and that means holding Obama accountable for where he went wrong in Copenhagen. Coal has too strong a grip on our political system for it to be displaced by renewable investments without a fight. It’s time for that fight to start.

  5. 5 Carlos Rymer Dec 19th, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Good arguments. I agree that Obama is not the only person to blame for all of this. One thing to keep in mind is that Obama and his negotiators were all tied with a rope that was being pulled back every time they tried to move forward. We all know that in the US it’s going to come down to Congress, particularly the Senate, and not to President Obama. Kyoto died because the Senate killed it, and I have no doubt they would do the same if Obama decided to go ahead and commit hundreds of billions per year to pay climate debt and stick to European-like emission targets (40% by 2020). Somewhere around the web is an interview with Stern where he explains that the Obama administration wanted to make sure they didn’t commit the same mistake as the Clinton administration, just to have legislation killed by the Senate.

    On the other hand, I think Obama clearly disrespected the rest of the world when he decided to come up with an “accord” with only a few nations (those that in the first place were holding back any agreement). It doesn’t matter whether you’re a major polluter or not; as a sovereign nation working under a framework that includes everybody’s opinion, you have to respect what others think and not just sideline them. If you heard the discussions that went on from heads of state, you noticed that people were very angry for very good reasons… their people were becoming victims of a problem they did not create. And so for Obama to ignore that, I think it’s extremely disrespectful, no matter if you’re one of the two big polluters. After all, I think it was the U.S. that got the rest of the world working under the “framework” that you mention here.

    So, if we want all of this to change, I think we’ve taken away two things. The first is that the rest of the world is really ready to do what it takes. The second is that the U.S. really isn’t… because of the Senate. So we have to really try to change how the Senate thinks if we want to get on the right path. I don’t see hundreds of billions coming out of the Senate for clean energy and energy efficiency the way you see $125 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. That in itself is also a disrespect to the rest of the world and to all Americans. It means that unnecessary, special interest based wars are bigger priorities than survival, and that’s just wrong.

    We can’t blame Obama for everything, but Obama needs to step up his efforts on climate like he did on health care. He has done very little to rally people to make, for example, the 1 million phone calls to Congress he’s getting from Americans in support of health reform. He needs to do the same for climate change, and we haven’t seen the beginning of that yet. I hope 2010 is all about that.

  6. 6 matt w Dec 19th, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    ” theObama administration has done more to promote climate change solutions than any U.S. administration in history”, .
    Unfortunately not being Bush is not good enough. Climate change is all or nothing, and Obama offers next to nothing

  7. 7 Brian Kelly Dec 19th, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Let’s not forget that Obama SURGING the gas war in Afghanistan (and expanding it to Pakistan) and the oil war in Iraq. This is a climate issue! maintaining U.S. access to fossil fuels must be actively opposed. Our movement must start connecting the dots and raising the social costs for elites who are selling us up the river!

    If Obama really cared about stopping global warming, he’d use the MASSIVE political capital he’s amassed to promote and push through a collectively-decided upon climate bill in this country and a real climate treaty across the world. Plenty of countries would sign on. Then we’d have a real climate treaty that we’d have to push straggler countries to sign onto, instead of a sham “accord”[sic] that is meaningless and only has some of the heaviest polluters!

    I really hope Mr. McKibben doesn’t capitulate to Teryn’s ridiculous request for an “apology” to Obama.

  8. 8 bill mckibben Dec 20th, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Somehow I doubt the president is waiting for an apology from me. Our job, as part of a global movement, is to push every player in the process to do much more than they are doing. That’s why organized in 181 countries, pushing all their leaders to do more. Obama is my president, I was one of the first leaders to join Environmentalists for Obama (back in the primaries when most were waiting to see which way the wind blew), and I worked hard for his election. That’s why I will try to keep pushing him to do much more than the small amount he’s done. He needs to work the Congress as hard as he can, or else we’ll end up with the climate equivalent of the current healthcare bill: a very modest advance if any. In healthcare maybe you can argue for that–his successor gets to come along in ten years and strengthen it. The physics of climate change makes me think that analysis won’t work for climate change.

    Your organization has attacked me a good deal in the last little while, Teryn, and in increasingly personal terms. That’s your right, that’s how politics work. I’ve been wrong before, doubtless I’ll be wrong again. But I think I’m going to keep saying what I’ve been saying for a good long time now: 350 is where science tells us we have to go. Technology will help, and so will a “mitigation framework,” whatever that means. I’d call it cutting carbon.

    But whatever. I’m an old guy at 49, and I feel older this week. No doubt younger generations will figure it all out, and good for you all. My only advice to young activists in general would be to not let yourselves get too marginalized as young. My colleagues at are all young, as it happens, but I don’t work with them because they’re young. I work with them because they’re the best in the world at what they do. Onwards

  9. 9 Richard Hudak Dec 20th, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    To me it seems that Teryn Norris would have us expend all of our efforts and political capital on technological fixes. This is a view of the world in which all will be well if only the right buttons are pushed. Similarly, the Breakthrough Institute, in its pursuit of “climate realpolitik” would have us ignore global stratification, which in climate change terms means a disproportionate effects on less powerful nations. Lastly, Norris purports to speak for an entire generation.

    I would propose that appropriately massed political can support needed technological change alongside social, political, and economic change that will be required for common survival. Would hybrid cars, for instance, have had relatively widespread adoption in the absence of such scaffolding? Further,to discard an emerging global consensus in a display of typical US heavy-handedness is truly irresponsible. Lastly, I think the words of Frederick Douglass (1857) are important here.

    “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

  10. 10 Teryn Norris Dec 20th, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Richard, I welcome your thoughts here, but please don’t try to misrepresent what I’ve said here. I never claimed to “speak for an entire generation.” The only time I even mentioned other youth climate leaders was in the context of Bill’s role as a climate leader, and when I asked him to apologize to youth climate leaders, who I don’t believe should be misled by several of these false accusations.

  11. 11 dan kellar Dec 20th, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    This is an open letter to all those involved in the “climate justice” movement,

    Bill McKibben is right, Obama was responsible for the total failure of Copenhagen, as was Stephen Harper, Gordon Brown, and all of the other G8 and G20 leaders. Every other politician that bases their solution on capitalism is also to blame. We will not have “climate justice” with an economic system built on the injustice and destruction that is wrought through colonialism.

    However, Bill and Co’s 350 “movement” and all liberal reformists must now admit their methods have brought no change and there is none coming on the chaotic horizon – the situation will continue to worsen. At this point in time we are barely willing to slow down the rate at which we continue to increase our GHG and other toxic emissions into the earth’s systems. In Copenhagen thousands of people were calling for “system change not climate change” and it is time to really think of what that means.

    It is time to change the socio-economic system – not through reform, as we know those with power are not willing to act fast enough to save us – but through revolution (as we have seen in Bolivia). As long as we support their system they will continue to relinquish the least amount of power they can at the last possible moment… We can not wait for broad-scale ecological collapse to bring a catastrophe to capitalism. Ecosystem resiliency will be too weakened by the time the 2 degree rise triggers the breach of the next wave of threshold limits cascading into 4-10 degree rises which will be globally devastating for the human species and most other slow adapting species (i.e. mammals).

    If we keep this capitalist system – founded in oppression – and techno fixes do get us back to 350ppm carbon…what then? are the social inequities solved? will the ocean have less plastic choking it? will the current rate of species extinction reverse? No! Getting back to 350 will happen after industrial capitalism has been stopped, and it is the responsibility of those whose cultures’ have instituted this system and propagated it to stop it.

    To think that we are avoiding a 2 degree rise at this point is to keep ones head in the sand (climate models are not even keeping up with the rate of change the world’s systems are experiencing). Mitigation is the issue, and one of the first measures taken will be to create the space for the marginalized and oppressed of the world to have their voices heard, their cultures respected. The world has for too long been ruled by individualistic, patriarchal, class and race based powers. We need to decolonize our thoughts, and let ‘the others’ (campaigns) show us how to lead a just life.

    We will have climate justice when we have social justice – overthrow capitalism, smash imperialism, fight for the land – solidarity with the indigenous resurgence!

  12. 12 Teryn Norris Dec 20th, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks Bill for your response, I appreciate you sharing these thoughts. I understand the importance of pressuring Obama, but I find these tactics destructive for the climate movement, the administration, and our overall discourse and politics. That’s why I felt an apology (or at least an acknowledgment) on your part was important, especially for the sake of young climate activists, many of whom have looked to you for leadership. My intention was not to embarrass you, but to try and blunt the impact of 350’s reaction, encourage you to embrace more constructive tactics, and highlight what I believe are critical lessons from Copenhagen and Kyoto.

    We cannot move forward successfully from Copenhagen without understanding the source of the problem. I think as you reflect on what happened, you’ll increasingly realize that it was not simply President Obama’s fault as you asserted. The UNFCCC framework is seriously flawed, and the negotiation process and policy framework must be reformed. We have to grapple with these overarching questions if we’re to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming. I didn’t see an indication in your response that you’re considering these larger issues, but I trust that you will in the days and weeks ahead, and I look forward to more of your thoughts.


  13. 13 Meg Boyle Dec 21st, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Here’s what I’m interested in talking about: What must the Obama administration absolutely do next, and how are we going to hold them accountable to that? What must WE do next? And what part of that effort is each of us going to own?

  14. 14 Ben Dec 21st, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    I have to say that while I disagree with you on many points (such as the urgency of climate change and the value of carbon reductions, which I find have nearly-zero benefit for the investment versus any other humanitarian or ecological effort), I have to agree with you to say Obama is not responsible for the Copenhagen failure. Obama did his best to support Copenhagen, despite knowledge that his own country was highly against any deal that he could possibly make. He even went so far as to make questionably constitutional threats against Congress if they failed to support the Copenhagen conference.

    The true people who sunk the conference were:
    1: The IPCC, CRU, and the alarmists. The Climategate release was merely the peak of a wave coming for years. By overstating climate change in order to increase the urgency, they undermined their own points. While it is rational to say that CO2 may be a problem in the next century, writing down “X days to act” so many times without any justification has caused the public to distrust climate science. If the true threat (which is distant and uncertain, but worth examining and preparing for) had been publicized instead of overly sensationalized and splashed in headlines, then we could get a growing support over time instead of the growing resentment building in the populace.

    2: Those who politicized the effort. CO2 reduction was replaced by anti-capitalism at this conference. Why else would Hugo Chavez, an oil-baron greater than Exxon could ever hope to be be, and dictator of an environmentally unregulated country, be given a standing ovation while Obama, head of the most environmentally regulated country in the world be booed?

    3: Those looking for a handout. The “climate debt” arguments overshadowed any rational discussion of mitigation or reduction. The west is arguably offended by such claims of debts (after all, if not for those emissions, how would we have reduced starvation by over 90% this past century, and how would average lifespans have increased by over 20 years in ALL countries), and it has left a sour taste in the mouth of everyone.

    These are the true villains.

  15. 15 wesonline Dec 21st, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Would the moderator of this forum please explain why my totally inoffensive request for Teryn Norris to apologize was deleted??

  16. 16 wesonline Dec 21st, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    LOL @ Ben’s post.

    According to Ben the true Villain of Copenhagen was…the truth.

    On his #1: I’m hoping you understand why it’s significant to understand the climate as a non-linear complex system. This means you’re right to say assigning an arbitrary number of days before ‘X catastrophe’ occurs is impossible. But worse would be assuming that we HAVE a certain amount of time before catastrophe occurs. You cannot predict the outcomes of a complex non-linear system with any sort of confidence. I would suggest the only difference between ‘alaramists’ and you is that ‘alarmists’ care more about the people who are going to suffer if we fail to act immediately and decisively.

    On #2: Right. There is no substantive link or productive discussion that links CO2 emissions and profit motive. Best to simply focus on the emissions and not the blind and devastating logic that allows it to continue threatening our collective fates.

    On #3: You resent that the developing world is asking for assistance to deal with climate change? What, do you really believe in ‘the rising tide that lifts all boats’? If so, I hope you don’t live in the coastal area where soon the only way to avoid the rising tide will be to live on a boat!

  17. 17 Teryn Norris Dec 21st, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Wes, I think the problem is you posted your letter on the wrong post. It is here:

  18. 18 wesonline Dec 22nd, 2009 at 2:03 am

    Haha I suppose that is the problem ;)

    I eagerly await your response.

    Asking for an apology from a respected member of the environmental movement who is willing to directly confront the failure of the Obama administration to treat this issue with the effort and sacrifice that it requires and supporting that request for an apology with a few lines of unsupported assertions seems to imply you had warrants and evidence for those assertions. I’m giving you the opportunity to clarify (or state) those.

    I’ll happily become another voice forwarding your plans for reforming the UNFCCC frameworks you criticize…although I’m still unclear on whether or not you are even advocating reform since your advocacy still seems to center around the ‘alternative’ of investing in green energy.

    I’ll happily also become a voice supporting that investment, assuming you clarify why you think the two (criticizing political frameworks in order to improve them and increasing investment and education in green energy) are mutually exclusive.

    I’m not a nutty, Bill McKibben-obsessed enviro-freak. I’m just someone that was insulted you asked Bill for an apology for venting frustration that was both warranted and necessary.

  19. 19 wesonline Dec 22nd, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    *Taps foot*

    *Looks at watch*

    *Writes off Teryn for someone who injected himself into a critical debate using a bad argument merely so that he could gain exposure for himself, insulted a substantial group of thoughtful and kind people and refused to apologize for it*

    *And calls it a day*

  20. 20 Teryn Norris Dec 22nd, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Wes, I was just about to sit down and write a response (I’ve been out all day doing my Christmas shopping), but it sounds like you were pretty eager to jump to that conclusion anyway. Regardless, I think between my letter, my response to Bill, and my contribution to the BBC program, I’ve provided enough context for you to understand where I’m coming from. I’m also not the only one making these points, so maybe it would help to look at others, including coverage at the Breakthrough Institute. Joe Romm and I certainly don’t see eye to eye very often, but he offered a similar response to McKibben yesterday:

  21. 21 wesonline Dec 22nd, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Hm. Interesting response. I don’t think you addressed a single question I had, all of which were formulated after I read your letter, your response and watched the BBC program.

    You want money for green technology. You are very sensitive that criticism of Obama will prevent you from getting it. You seem uninterested in finding political solutions to accompany your market-based approach. You publicly called out a key player in the civil society response to Copenhagen for doing what we can assume was inevitable; harshly criticizing the key players involved. You offered little to no support legitimizing the absolving of responsibility of our political leaders due to this ‘terminally flawed framework’.

    So that is the ‘context’ I have.

    I’ll leave this encounter concerned about what appears to be free-market fundamentalism attaching itself to the green movement (symbolized by this counter-producitve criticism of the political sphere as it is joined with repeated claims that ‘market-solutions’ are the only means to address the problem), a lack of respect for both the potential power and efficacy of civil society as a key part of addressing climate change (represented by your unwillingness to hold political leaders accountable even if it is to some extent symbolic) and kicking a particularly valuable and important player in this terrifying race to address potential catastrophe when he was ‘down’…and getting yourself on the front page of huffpo for doing it.

    That last one was why I decided it was ‘cute’ to demand your apology but talking with people on Grist and other boards today it actually seems to have validated Bill in many eyes…an almost totally unsubstantiated criticism from some green energy entrepreneur afraid he’s going to lose his money if we point out that our president-tasked with representing our interests and acting to protecting our lives-has failed to capitalize on what could have been the greatest opportunity our species will ever get to prevent and alleviate great suffering seems just to validate the fundamental problem: the old political system is falling away and being met by a surging of civil society that must inevitably reshape it…and the old system is trying to hang on through appearing to act and the market is concerned/ambitious to offer it’s assistance (and find itself with more power from a diminished model of governance worldwide).

    But my criticism and several others on Grist have been met with silence or a few weak assertions…so I appreciate that you have clarified your response with “context”.

    Everyone seems for big increases in Green Energy too, of course. So I guess everybody wins. Except Bill. And me. And anyone else who would prefer not abandoning the admittedly unprecedented and inevitably massive challenge of bringing together an international political structure to address climate change and instead putting the market in charge. I sure hope the “Green Capitalism” movement is more thorough about justifying it’s actions than you have been. I completely agree that using the market to create a coordinated set of standards and practices to deal with climate change sounds more potentially effective in securing concrete responses than the impotent and obscure mechanisms of international diplomacy. Unfortunately I don’t think you have done anything to assuage fears that many have about putting confidence in the market mechanism to actually set ADEQUATE standards to deal with the problem without a strong, reformed political institution based on the principles of civil society to drive and when appropriate restrain the market from producing the cheapest possible nuclear reactors or solar panels that last as long as a knock-off brand television or millions of other permutations of ways the ‘Green’ brand can be exploited for profit at the expense of sustainability (without a strong political influence to prevent it).

    But you’ve probably ignored my questions and concerns because of how long my messages have been and how wordy they seem to become as a result of my intense concern for our collective fate. Honestly I’m fully aware how painful it is to read what I’m writing lately. So I guess we’re done here. But please don’t forget:

    This is about the problem. This is about 350 or less. This is about people who take on great responsibilities like Barack Obama and treating them with the respect they deserve which I believe means supporting and praising them when they fulfill those responsibilities and criticizing and seeking improvement when they fail to meet them. It means we speak truth to power (Bill not being exempt of course if we have good reasons) and we clamor, fight and claw for the terrifyingly short amount of time we may have left to make a huge difference.

    350 or less. If your green tech does it, I’m in. If Obama sacrificing his political career does it, I’m in. If kicking Bill McKibben in the balls does it (sorry, Bill, you understand), I’m in.

    Does that sound pretty extreme? Yeah. That’s pretty much the idea.

  22. 22 Tenney Naumer Dec 22nd, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    “If we keep this capitalist system – founded in oppression…”

    Oh, brother! What a bunch of hooey!

    Dear Dan,

    Next I suppose the Bolivians will ride to our rescue and save the day with new technology to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere while they raise the price of the gas they sell to Brazil.

  23. 23 Kyle Dec 23rd, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I’d like to suggest having another look at Meg Boyle’s comment.

    Rather than fighting with each other, let’s focus on solutions and positive next steps.

    Movements should be improved by losses, not fractured by them. I don’t think these arguments are helping us to improve.

  24. 24 Teryn Norris Dec 23rd, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Another perspective from The Guardian worth reading, “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room.” I think blaming China is too simplistic (just as is blaming Obama or any single country), but based on what I’m hearing from those closest to the negotiation table, this is a much more accurate picture than what Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein are saying:

    “The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen…

    To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.”

  25. 25 Teryn Norris Dec 23rd, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Joe Romm (from Climate Progress) and I rarely see eye to eye, so the similarity of our responses to McKibben is worth noting (his coming a couple days after this letter). In a post titled “What Bill McKibben doesn’t like about the Copenhagen Accord is precisely what I like about it,” Romm writes:

    “McKibben complains of Obama’s successful effort to prevent a complete failure at Copenhagen:

    * He blew up the United Nations….
    * He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super-polluters….


    Most of the coverage and analysis on the Copenhagen Accord has been dreadful and devoid of important context, as I’ve said, and that includes McKibben’s analysis, which is, I believe, 100% backwards.

    Today Nobelist Paul Krugman wrote of the Congressional debate over health care, “the fact that it was such a close thing shows that the Senate — and, therefore, the U.S. government as a whole — has become ominously dysfunctional.” And yet this “dangerous dysfunction,” as he puts it, is solely due to the need for a modest 60% supermajority that could only be dreamed of by those hoping for progress in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where any single nation can veto the outcome:

    But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter. And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.

    Now imagine how much the United States would accomplish if every single member of Congress had a veto! Well, that’s the UNFCCC process. So that process needed to be changed significantly or ended entirely. Kudos to Clinton and Obama for realizing that and working to bring it about, even if it meant sacrificing the possibility that Copenhagen achieved a unanimous and binding deal.”

    Bill McKibben responds in the comments:

    “It’s all part of my secret campaign to get everyone working together–in the last 24 hours I’ve managed to get both the Breakthrough Institute and CP going after me for pretty much the same thing. You have to admit, that’s an accomplishment.

    I very much hope you’re all correct. Since the outcome at Copenhagen was entirely unthreatening, it may indeed make it easier to get a bill through the Senate–and then of course the question will be whether that bill will be a big help in the fight to get us where we need to go, which is 350 parts per million.

    But right now I’m actually too tired to really figure it all out. So I’m going to take my absurd self off to bed. It’s been an interesting year at–the part I’ve enjoyed most is working with people in precisely those nations that everyone seems to think are annoying obstructionists. Their demand that their survival be considered doesn’t strike me as analogous to the idea that each senator should be able to appease his favorite campaign contributor.

    I don’t yet understand this new world order, but my guess is its first order of business will not be rapid, powerful cuts in carbon emissions. But I’m pleased by Joe’s confidence. Onward we go.”

  26. 26 Brian Kelly Dec 23rd, 2009 at 8:56 pm


    “But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter. And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.”

    Hopefully you don’t believe this. The Democrats could re-write the Senate rules tomorrow and pass whatever they want – healthcare, a climate bill, approving a climate treaty – with a simple majority (in this case they’d have a simple majority plus 9-10 votes).

    But they, like the GOP, are part of the problem. Their vested interests with dirty energy and the capitalist, white supremacist system would prevent any such move – not because they can’t procedurally, but because they believe in compromising with other power elites.

    It doesn’t matter what China does or doesn’t do, did or didn’t do. In this country our job is to force OUR government and the corporations that dominant THIS country to capitulate to reforms and investments needed to save our planet and the people of the world.

    Answer us this: why are you defending the power elites instead of the people?

  27. 27 wesonline Dec 23rd, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    I love Bill’s most recent response…what a devious and talented coalition builder! ;)

    I realize my contributions have seemed to be excessively long and confrontational of Teryn and I recognize as Kyle and Meg point out that our focus clearly shouldn’t be expending time and effort nipping at each others heels over demanding of apologies etc.

    Believe it or not I was essentially trying to respect that principle by channeling my resentment and frustration with what still appears to be Teryn’s attempt to protect political leaders from criticism and functionally absolve them of their responsibilities to their constituents (which I’ve pointed out frightens me if it allows political leaders to respond to business interests at the expense of the people they represent). I was trying to get Teryn to restate his objection to Bill’s reaction by dropping the request that Bill ‘humble himself and apologize’ and get Teryn to use a more positive platform for his talking points about focus on investment. My negativity and tactics may have been unwarranted or inefficient but my purpose is still legitimate.

    Reading Brian’s comment (despite the fact it will probably be marginalized by most readers for sounding too radical ends with precisely the concern that I was expressing.

    I was never asking Teryn to justify “Capitalism”. I was trying to get him to at least pay lip service to the notion that condemning the criticism of political leaders without concrete justifications for why that criticism is dangerous or results in concrete, negative consequences is unacceptable. I would have preferred even more than lip service but I pursued my criticism because I didn’t even get that.

    Even though my first, long post was mostly the result of frustration with Copenhagen, sympathy with Bill’s response, anger at Teryn’s demand for an apology (not criticism, but demand for an apology) and an entire bottle of very cheap, very bad wine…I’m still wholly unsatisfied with this situation.

    I don’t want to endorse or assist advocates of “Green Capitalism” who don’t explicitly defend and justify the basic political structures of liberal democracy and the rights of all individuals to be free from oppression from the state, from other individuals and from corporations. It’s not the best system by any means but it’s the best one we have (for now).

    One of a thousand different checks against that oppression is the right to openly and aggressively criticize your political leaders and institutions in order to galvanize support and initiate reforms.

    Unfortunately sobriety doesn’t appear to make me any less wordy :(

  28. 28 wesonline Dec 23rd, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    And finally let me point out:

    Placing blame is only relevant if it helps us properly assign responsibility. There’s no one or even a dozen parties exclusively worthy of blame for the continued lack of sufficient action on climate change. There are several places where we must call for renewed responsibility because while things are getting better in some ways they’re clearly nowhere close to even being adequate.

  29. 29 Meg Dec 24th, 2009 at 12:12 am

    I encourage anyone interested in continuing the discussion to take it to an offblog conversation.

  1. 1 Response to Letter for McKibben « Carlos Rymer's Personal Blog Trackback on Dec 19th, 2009 at 9:33 pm
  2. 2 Response to Letter for McKibben | WTF?! Obama Trackback on Dec 19th, 2009 at 9:45 pm
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About Teryn

Teryn Norris is a leading young policy strategist and currently serves as President and Founder of Americans for Energy Leadership.

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