Environmentalists To Obama: Seize The Moment

With anger building over the BP oil spill, environmentalists are wondering if President Obama will stand up to Big Energy and get to work on climate change. Melissa Block talks to Bill McKibben, one such person waiting for a more forceful message from the White House. He wrote an op-ed in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, in which he writes: "Obama's barely broken a sweat on climate change ... We need someone to stand up and tell it the way it is, and in language so compelling and dramatic it sets us on a new path."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As anger builds over the BP spill, environmentalists are hoping to hear more forceful message from President Obama on climate change. They say this could provide the transformative moment for the country to commit to clean energy.

Bill McKibben has been writing along these lines. His most recent book is "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet."

Bill McKibben, welcome to the program.

Mr. BILL McKIBBEN (Author, "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet"): Good to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: You have written that President Obama has barely broken a sweat on climate change. And I'm wondering what it is exactly you have been waiting to hear him say.

Mr. McKIBBEN: We've been waiting for him, I think, to go stand there with his back against the Gulf and say: Look, as ugly as that is - that black mess that BP has left us in the Gulf - even if that oil had gotten safely ashore and been refined and put in the gas tanks of your cars and burned, it would have been an environmental disaster then too. It would have driven the even larger problem that we're facing, this runaway global warming that's really the largest challenge that he or any other president has ever come up against.

BLOCK: And on these three trips that he's made now to the Gulf, you're hearing something falling short of that.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Well, he's beginning to make some noises about working towards clean energy transition and things, and that's good. But if there was ever an opportunity to take this debate and change it once and for all, to do what John Kennedy did when he got us going to the moon, you know, this is that moment.

BLOCK: You use that example of President Kennedy's 10-year timetable to land a man on the moon. But there's a huge difference here, and that is that there are very powerful, entrenched interests that have huge economic stakes in this...

Mr. McKIBBEN: That's right.

BLOCK: ...oil and gas industry, not the same with the space program.

Mr. McKIBBEN: That's absolutely right. That's why we need him the movement-building, campaigning Obama that we saw in the election.

BLOCK: I think, though, President Obama's advisers would say: Look, he is going all the time to visit solar cell manufacturers, wind turbine plants, he's talking about green jobs, campaigned on that, saying that, you know, we can't...

Mr. McKIBBEN: He's done...

BLOCK: ...sustain fossil fuel use. Isn't that the message that he's putting out all the time?

Mr. McKIBBEN: He's done way more than all the other presidents of the global warming era combined. That's not the issue. The issue is, you know, we need not just a good beginning. We need an incredible level of effort if we're ever going to overcome that incredible barrier you described - the power of the most profitable enterprise, fossil fuel, that the world has ever seen.

BLOCK: And apart from standing, as you say, with the Gulf at his back and speechifying, is there more to it that you would...

Mr. McKIBBEN: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...need to hear him do?

Mr. McKIBBEN: He needs to knock heads in the Senate. He needs to get a much sharper bill than the one that's been proposed and then he needs to get it through. The rest of the world is waiting to see what the U.S. is going to do.

BLOCK: You know very well the alignment in Congress right now. I mean, they would have a hard time, I think, getting a watered down climate change bill through right now. What makes you think...

Mr. McKIBBEN: There is...

BLOCK: ...they could get something stronger through?

Mr. McKIBBEN: There is no question that the political reality is difficult. The only thing tougher is the reality, reality. I mean, we're not in the end debating Republicans versus Democrats. We've been debating human beings versus physics and chemistry.

And right now, that debate's going badly. We're losing this, and we need very much - despite the difficulties of the political reality, because of the difficulties of the political reality - that's why we need a real step up right now from our leader.

BLOCK: Have you been talking with the president's advisers on environmental issues?

Mr. McKIBBEN: I have not.

BLOCK: Do you get the sense that there's any receptiveness...

Mr. McKIBBEN: I think...

BLOCK: ...on their part?

Mr. McKIBBEN: I think - my sense from the few people that I do talk to there from time to time, my sense is that they haven't made up their minds yet. They're making the political calculation about what's beneficial, how much they can do, but boy, this is one moment to seize the opportunity that we've been given. The Gulf is a horror show, and the only good thing that can come out of it is a real renewed commitment to deep, serious, transformative change.

BLOCK: Bill McKibben is the author of "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." He's also scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Bill McKibben, thanks very much.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Thank you so much, Melissa. Take care.

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