About the speeches at the "Forward on Climate" rally
of February 17, 2013

by Pete Brown

To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
March 23, 2013
Text of the talk at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group
meeting of March 17, 2013

On Feb. 17 there were environmental demonstrations at various places, especially in Washington, D.C. Fifteen-twenty thousand people rallied there against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline bringing heavy tar sands oil from Canada, through Nebraska and its aquifers, to Texas. The demonstrators also protested continued global warming and many other environmental issues.

Mainstream politicians tried to ignore the protesters. Right-wing Republicans made fun of the protesters for talking about global warming while their teeth were chattering from cold. President Obama was in Florida on a golf vacation paid for by corporate buddies of his who are leading tycoons in Texas oil and gas. But global warming and environmental disasters are becoming too glaring to ignore. The victims of storms, floods and droughts continue to suffer, but they're getting organized and angry. Obama mentioned them in his second inaugural and state of the union addresses, but he's done nothing to halt global warming. And Obama's energy policy is an "everything" policy based on failed market measures instead of focusing on the development of renewables and the phase-out of fossil fuels and nuclear.

Having large, militant demonstrations is important for building a movement for the transition to renewables. But militancy alone is not enough. Demonstrators should also advocate a plan or program for the transition. So far these large demonstrations have been dominated by the leadership of trends advocating market measures for the transition. Their political viewpoint is limited by their attachment to current forms of property. It's a positive thing that they're turning to more militant actions, actions that may popularize the issues and bring more of the masses to participate; but that by itself does not guarantee a progressive viewpoint. And some of their mass militancy is itself exaggerated. Like any typical opportunist, the environmentalist leaders doubled the number of people at the Washington demo, swearing to the media that there were 35,000 there. And they tried to present themselves as oppressed because they were supposedly ignored by the media; but in fact their demo was covered by the NY Times, LA Times, and other major media including TV networks like NBC and CNN.

The people invited to speak at the Feb. 17 rally are not exactly shut out from the corridors of power. Some of them are true-to-life bourgeois like Tom Steyer, a billionaire investor who's tried to get himself named Secretary of Energy. Steyer has set up a host of corporations, non-profits and charities dedicated to moving the U.S. away from fossil fuels to renewables. He provides seed money to new corporations to develop batteries, solar cells, wind turbines, etc., and he lobbies Congress to support clean energy companies. Steyer founded an energy institute at Stanford University and is on the board of directors there. He's a leading fundraiser for the Democratic Party and spoke at the 2012 Democratic convention, arguing that Romney would keep the U.S. stuck with fossil fuels, unlike Obama.

Another prominent speaker on Feb. 17 was Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island. Whitehouse is known for having sponsored various bills against global warming and for offshore prevention, to protect the oceans from pollution. But these were bills that were doomed from the start, and Whitehouse knew it. He sponsored them to gain credentials in a liberal seaside state. More recently Whitehouse has come out as cosponsor (with Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA) of a carbon tax bill. Again, this is a bill that doesn't have a prayer of passing either house of Congress; but Whitehouse and Waxman like the idea of accommodating the transition to renewables to the market system, and arranging to have ordinary workers pay for the transition.

Another prominent Democratic speaker at the rally was Van Jones, who was at one time an Assistant Secretary of Energy under Obama, but was forced out because of his environmental stands. In his speech Jones called on Obama to do three things: 1) negotiate a climate change treaty directly with China, bypassing the multilateral negotiations that have failed in Copenhagen, etc.; 2) stop the Keystone XL pipeline by executive order; 3) use his presidential powers to get around the obstructionist Republicans in Congress.

Jones was addressing supporters of Obama who say he can't do anything  because of various obstructions. Jones emphasized that Obama could go ahead and do a lot of things on his own. He emphasized that the decision on the XL pipeline is Obama's alone; Congress has nothing to do with it. And he said Obama could go ahead and negotiate a bilateral treaty with China, thus avoiding the wrangling that goes on at international multilateral meetings. Trouble is, this also avoids dealing with help to poor nations that are struggling to deal with climate change. And he said cap and trade, the same mechanism that was promoted at international meetings, is basic to carbon policy. One way or another, he said, the price of carbon must be raised; but he didn't explain who's going to be forced to pay for this.

All in all, Jones took a very respectful attitude toward "our  president", very unlike another prominent speaker, Jill Stein of the Green Party. Stein was her party's presidential candidate in 2012, and on her website she tries hard to distinguish her policies from those of Obama and the Democrats. Stein attacks Obama for his "everything" policy on energy. Obama insists the future must include a mix of energy -- fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear. Stein calls on people to oppose this and to make a stand for transition to renewables alone. This is fine, but how to make the transition? Stein tries to stress the positive points, that decarbonizing will create millions of green jobs. This may or may not be true, but in any case Stein tries to avoid the bitter pill of a carbon tax, which the Green Party actually makes prominent on their website. So it turns out that the Green Party has the same program as Van Jones, Senators Waxman, Whitehouse, Barbara Boxer and a host of other Democratic Party liberals.

The main sponsor of the Feb. 17 rally was an activist organization called 350.org, which became known for its confrontational demonstrations against the Keystone XL pipeline. 350.org took its name from a statement by James Hansen of NASA who said that 350 parts per million was the limit of the amount of allowable carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; anything more than that would lead to irretrievable climate change. (Currently we have 392 ppm; it's been above 350 since the 1980s.) 350.org organized a series of demonstrations against the XL pipeline in 2011 which heightened consciousness of the issue. These included a number of arrests and gained the support of many landowners, farmers and ranchers in Nebraska and Texas.

Their main leader is Bill McKibben. Back in the 90s McKibben wrote a popular book on global warming, The End of Nature. He's now a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. His salary there is paid by the Schuman Foundation, which pays him an additional salary for sitting on the Schuman Foundation board of directors. This foundation finances things on PBS about responsible journalism, truth in journalism, etc; its board is led by Bill Moyers. But the main financial backing for 350.org seems to come from the Rockefeller Foundation, which has given millions of dollars to McKibben's organization the last few years. So 350.org is a typical bourgeois liberal organization funded by liberal think tanks, some of them set up by petroleum millionaires themselves.

McKibben has been concerned about establishing environmental causes in mainstream politics. He wanted to take these causes out of the realm of tree-hugging radicals and push them into the face of bourgeois politicians. He insists that environmentalists are voters, not sideline radicals who can be ignored. This is the message he takes when he visits legislators. McKibben campaigned for Obama in 2008 and says he now expects Obama to live up to his promises. But he's short on specifics of how the transition to renewables should be done. 350.org doesn't get involved in specifics of carbon taxes, etc., but it does call on Obama to "put a price on all greenhouse gas pollution", which indicates they would support any carbon prices measure. But their main emphasis is on getting bodies out there demonstrating.

The Sierra Club was also present at Feb. 17 and tried to grab headlines by getting its members arrested chained to the White House fence. In past years the Sierra Club has become known as a very conservative environmental organization that's known mostly for the corporate agreements they make, thereby sanctioning further rape of the environment. But they realized they were being left behind in the movement by activist organizations like 350.org. So this year they changed their official policy on civil disobedience, sanctioning its use, and sent representatives to Washington to try a make a name for their organization.

State Dept. decision

Two weeks after the Feb. 17 protest, the State Dept. came out with their long-awaited report explaining their attitude to the XL pipeline. Since this is an international pipeline, Obama asked them to look into it and see if it served the interests of the U.S. to agree with Canada on this deal. Basically, the report said it's fine to have the pipeline, that it won't cause any irreparable harm to the environment. [The State Dept. report was written by Environment Resources Management, a private company under contract to TransCanada, the owner of the pipeline.] If we don't allow the pipeline, they said, Canada will just find other ways of sending its tar sands oil to ports -- for example by a pipeline to Vancouver, or by rail to the U.S. [Actually, there is quite a bit of protest in Canada against the transport of tar sands oil.] And if we don't burn tar sands oil, we'll just burn other fossil fuels, so we might as well use this resource.

This report was a kick in the teeth to Feb. 17 protesters, especially those who still had faith that Obama was on their side. It indicated that Obama is going to certify the pipeline, probably soon, and gave warning that protesters should get out of the way. But the main organizations against the pipeline stepped up their activity as a result: the Sierra Club called on its members to get active, and 350.org called for "rapid responders" to hound Obama and Sec. of State Kerry wherever they appeared. They also outlined a plan to train a grassroots army this spring to oppose the pipeline, and also called for a divestment campaign. So it looks like demonstrations are going to continue by the main organizations involved.

Working class trend

It's clear there is a widespread environmental movement that includes everyone from tree-hugging radicals to big bourgeois like Tom Steyer and  Mayor Bloomberg of New York. But what would a working class trend in this movement look like? First, it should be noted that this won't be led by the AFL-CIO bureaucrats. They have completely abdicated leadership by giving their wholehearted support to Obama's "everything" policy on energy. Journalists who have talked to Obama say that he's getting pressure from Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, to approve the XL pipeline right away to preserve the construction jobs involved.

Some of the more liberal trade union leaders such as those with UAW, Steelworkers, AFT, CWA, etc. have joined a group called the BlueGreen Alliance, which puts them in coalition with some environmentalist groups. But these are very conservative environmental groups like the NRDC, National Wildlife Federation, and Union of Concerned Scientists. Their political approach is mainstream Democratic Party, support for anything Obama does without being at all critical of the Republicans. Their main issue is jobs. They say they're for "green jobs", but they  also push "buy American" to save jobs and "invest in manufacturing" like government support for new battery technology plants in Michigan. So they interpret just about any jobs as "green."

Meanwhile, what are working class activists doing? They will no doubt be  in the forefront of militant mass actions, pushing forward the most  radical actions and putting forth the most radical demands. The fact  that bourgeois liberals are organizing mass demonstrations shows that  they understand the power of mass action and see the need to get the  masses involved, to some extent. But they will hang back when it comes  to supporting demands that endanger capitalist concentrations of wealth  and power. And they will try to accommodate environmental demands to  capitalist economics by constructing "carbon markets" and other market  measures like the carbon tax and try to sell these to the masses as the  way forward for getting rid of carbon.

But first of all, these measures don't work. This has been proven by the  failure of the Kyoto Protocol and its cap-and-trade system. Secondly,  they depend on raising carbon prices and making the masses pay. This is  stated forthrightly by liberals like Van Jones and Chris Hayes of MSNBC,  who argue that the only way to undercut the relatively cheap price of  carbon is to force the masses to pay more for it, thereby making solar  and wind power competitive. Similar support for the carbon tax comes from liberals like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.

Working class activists should support direct regulation of carbon to bring about decarbonization and the transition to renewables. But to  make these regulations effective and to bring the masses more in control  of their environment, oversight by the masses is also necessary. This  will put the working masses in better position to fight for socialism. <>

    50 copies of the following pamphlet were distributed at the Washington, DC demonstration: For a working-class environmental movement (four articles from the Communist Voice Organization
about the environmental crisis):

(It is available in PDF form at www.communistvoice.org/CVO-20130217-FourArticlesAboutTheEnv.pdf) <>

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