Bill Moyers talks with two environmental activists, Erich Pica and Mary Sweeters, who are disappointed with President Obama’s progress on climate change and other environmental initiatives.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
Some young and agile environmental activists tried to get Abraham Lincoln’s ear last week. And George Washington’s. And Thomas Jefferson’s. And Teddy Roosevelt’s. That’s because, they say, President Obama is not listening. In the Black Hills of South Dakota, protestors from Greenpeace USA made a dangerous rappel down Mount Rushmore to unfurl a banner alongside the carved faces of the four American icons. “America honors leaders, not politicians,” it read. “Stop global warming.” The protestors were arrested, of course. They were trespassing, breaking the law. Much like the non-violent acts of disobedience during the Civil Rights movement.
The willfulness of their act points to the frustration building among the new generation of environmentalist activists. Many of them poured their hearts and souls into Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and worked to elect what they hoped would be a greener House and Senate. But now they say President Obama and Congress have been making too many compromises on the environment. Especially the climate bill that was recently and narrowly passed by the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate.
They’re not alone, the ECONOMIST magazine has observed that “Rather than shaping public opinion, he is running scared of it. And so, even more, is Congress.” That’s why those protesters conquered Mount Rushmore last week, trying to wake the public up to what’s really happening behind the scenes in Washington.
Mary Sweeters was there, as the organizing manager of Greenpeace USA. She graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, just five years ago and has worked as an organizer for CALPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group, and as Canvass Director of the Fund for Public Interest Research, training grass roots activists.
While Mary was at Mount Rushmore, Erich Pica was back in Washington. Erich is Director of Domestic Programs for Friends of the Earth, the environmental organization that was among the first to endorse Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries last year.
A graduate of Western Michigan University, he has served on environmental planning boards and has experience in political campaigning and on Capitol Hill. Welcome to you both.
ERICH PICA: Thank you.
MARY SWEETERS: Thanks very much.
BILL MOYERS: What did you hope to accomplish with the Mount Rushmore protest? And what was your strategy? Why Mount Rushmore and why now?
MARY SWEETERS: Well, we felt like it was a very appropriate backdrop to do a civil disobedience act. I mean, here you have four great presidents who really stepped up when they were faced with some of the biggest challenges that our nation has seen. And we felt like we wanted to send President Obama the same message. That we want him to step up in a similar manner and really lead the country the way that it needs to be led. You know, the timing seemed to be right. He was at the G8 Summit that day in Italy. And I think he definitely got our message.
ERICH PICA: We were highly supportive of Greenpeace’s efforts to prod the president to be more aggressive. It’s actually quite surprising to hear his campaign rhetoric, campaigning on health care and global warming and a new economic future for the United States. And then see him as president. Well, he’s talking about health care, but he’s deafly silent on global warming.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think that is?
ERICH PICA: I think that there’s a lot of moneyed interest in Washington DC that don’t want to see a strong climate bill passed. I think, his administration’s essentially been kind of convinced that they can’t do anything aggressive. That will help solve the problem. Because of the moneyed interest, and I think some of the political appointees he has are not as strong as we’d like them to be. And I think he’s been convinced that Congress just isn’t willing to go as far as he wants to go.
BILL MOYERS: But, just last week, he did call for a special session at the G8 on climate change. And he himself described this bill that you think is so weak, as extraordinary.
ERICH PICA: Friends of the Earth has 77 member groups around the world. And we’ve been a part of these negotiations. And what we’re hearing for our from our member groups, who were attending these conferences, you know, the Bonn meeting, the G8, the G20, they’re saying the negotiators that are being directed by the Obama Administration sound very much like the Bush Administration.
In that there is a slight nuance. But the outcome is the same. They’re slow peddling the fact that the United States has to get more aggressive when it comes to our global warming reduction. And they need to lead. You know, when we have France, and we have the developing world, and China and India, telling the United States that what we’re what we’re negotiating on, which is the Waxman-Markey Bill, is not strong enough, that means that we’re not leading the world. We’re still following behind.
BILL MOYERS: Give me a simple summary of what you think is wrong with this bill.
ERICH PICA: There’s a number of things. But the big ones are, one, the bill doesn’t reduce global warming emissions in the United States fast enough. And the emission reduction targets are just inadequate. Particularly if we’re trying to be a global leader. Two, it strips away the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
BILL MOYERS: The Environmental Protection Agency.
ERICH PICA: The Environmental Protection Agency. Which is a key tool that environmentalists have been using to shut down coal plants. Three, it gives away a tremendous amount of money. Hundreds of billions of dollars to the polluting industries that have, essentially, caused the problem of global warming. The Duke Energies, Shells, Conocos of the world. Gives a lot of a lot of free giveaways in the in terms of permits. Four, and this is kind of overwhelming the entire system, is that it relies on Wall Street to help solve the problem of global warming.
BILL MOYERS: By?
ERICH PICA: By allowing them to manage the trading system that’s created underneath this bill:
BILL MOYERS: A derivative, right?
ERICH PICA: Subprime mortgages. We feel there’s going to be subprime carbon in this market. Where they’re going to be trading these derivatives and these various securities that may have global warming emission reductions associated with them. May not. But it’s going to be so large. And Wall Street is going to work feverishly to erode any of the standards and protections that are put into this bill to prevent Wall Street from gaming the system. Then, a matter of time, it’s not going to matter what we put in this bill, ’cause Wall Street, as we’ve seen over the last 20 years, seems to always win. When it comes to deregulating the very agencies that are responsible for monitoring and enforcing the rules.
MARY SWEETERS: You know, it’s just it’s been an entrenched system. They’re there to, just further their profits. To continue business as usual. And they see this as potentially a threat. So they’ve turned this bill into something that’s a gain for them.
You know, I think I heard, just a week or two ago, the American Enterprise Institute called this the Coal Preservation Act. So that just kind of gives you an indication of they’re very excited for this bill because they don’t think that it’s going to harm business as usual.
BILL MOYERS: But some people are going to say, “If it’s good for business, it has to be good.”
ERICH PICA: I don’t necessarily disagree if it’s good for business. But it’s got to be good for the environment. And it’s got to be good for the people of this country. And it’s got to be good for the world. I cannot conceive of trusting Wall Street to solve global warming.
They’ve been responsible, over the last 150 years, for many of the resource, environmental destruction that has occurred in this country, and around the world. It’s been for profit and greed. This system, will try to utilize that profit and greed for an environmental good. And I think it’s naive, at best, that we think we can steer Wall Street in that direction. And, at worse, I just think it’s at worst it’s just being an outright disingenuous.
BILL MOYERS: But, when so many of your environmental allies, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change support this bill, how can it be as bad as you think it is?
MARY SWEETERS: Oh, well, I think some groups have decided that making some compromises will get us further. Is actually a step in the right direction. And Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and many other groups across the country disagree with that. We’re looking at what the science is saying and what it’s recommending to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And we’re sticking with that. And looking at this bill and saying, “This doesn’t measure up.”
MARY SWEETERS: A big part of the frustration, I think, is that during his campaigning, President Obama committed to restoring science to its rightful place within the government. And, you know, emission reduction targets that we’re seeing in this bill, this is not based on science.
MARY SWEETERS: Scientists have recommended to us to reduce our emissions a certain amount. 25 to 40 percent before 1990 levels by 2020. And this bill doesn’t do it.
BILL MOYERS: But even Al Gore supports this bill.
ERICH PICA: Which is unfortunate. I mean, he’s been a leader in this on this issue for, you know, his Vice Presidential career, when he was in the Senate, and now as a private citizen. And I think he’s looking at the politics. And he thinks he needs to compromise to get something done. Anything done. The US can’t do this by ourselves. And it’s going to require a global agreement and global initiative. And this is where President Obama has, you know, in our in our minds, has failed us. He’s not leading the globe in solving this problem. And the bill that he is backing actually, we believe, undermines the ability of our negotiators in the United States, and the rest of the world, to actually agree on on a treaty that will allow us to solve this problem.
MARY SWEETERS: This problem cannot be addressed with, you know, half measures. You can’t go halfway. And say, “Oh, we’ve done some, and now we’ve solved this problem.” This is this issue you know, climate change is so urgent right now. The timeframe that we have is so critical. That we have to take the strongest steps possible.
BILL MOYERS: But you’ve been in Washington ten years now, with Friends of the Earth, right? What do you say to people who argue that, given the culture of Washington, you can’t have a perfect bill.
ERICH PICA: I don’t think that we’re looking for a perfect bill. You can have a compromise bill that still gets what needs to be done through science. And the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good, but the perfect can’t be below what science is telling us. So if it’s not getting the job done, then it’s, you know, why are we, you know, then we need to fight harder to do it.
BILL MOYERS: So let me see if I understand this. You’re saying that the bill that the House passed sets target levels for emissions that are far below what’s needed for global warming.
ERICH PICA: Yeah.
MARY SWEETERS: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And far below what the European countries have already adopted as their goals, right? And the consequence of that would be?
MARY SWEETERS: We’re going to be seeing you know, climate catastrophes globally. Increased drought. Flooding in places. Already there are coastal areas, island nations, that are considering moving to higher ground. Because the sea levels are rising around them. You know, so some scientists are predicting that certain infectious diseases that are spread by things like mosquitoes are going to be moving to places they’ve never been before. Because of higher temperatures.
BILL MOYERS: And you honestly believe this bill does not address those symptoms, those conditions?
MARY SWEETERS: No, this doesn’t. Some people see that a compromise any step forward, as, you know, a good thing. I just, I can’t reconcile I can’t tell my two year old nephew, in 25 years, that we kind of did it. We went part way. You know? That just that doesn’t add up. And I want to say to him, “We looked at the science, and we did what was right. So that, you know, you’re going to grow up in a better world.”
BILL MOYERS: So, what’s at stake, in your judgment?
MARY SWEETERS: I remember standing in Grant Park on election night. And feeling absolutely hopeful. And just waiting for the days to count down ’til inauguration when Obama could, you know, get to work. And, really, what’s at stake, to me as a grassroots organizer I have talked to retired school teachers who are concerned about, you know, their students’ futures. I’ve talked to parents who are concerned for their children and the world that they’re going to grow up in. Farmers in the Midwest who are facing another year of flooding. You know, firefighters in California. My brother is a firefighter who has gone to Southern California three years in a row now to fight record breaking fires. These are the things that are at stake. To me, there’s a balance you know, ecologically, economically. And we are not addressing it properly. And that’s why we really feel like President Obama needs to step up. He needs to be the leader that we’re waiting for him to be.
ERICH PICA: And if he were stronger, and if he were out there more, I think he could break through this kind of special interest den that controls Washington DC. And he just hasn’t done it.
BILL MOYERS: The special interest den you talk about has been spending, I mean, the energy companies have been spending, I read, just this week, almost $24 million already in the first quarter of this year. That’s about $260 thousand a day on lobbying. Is it conceivable to you that he didn’t realize the powerful interests that gridlock Washington?
ERICH PICA: I think that’s part of it. And I think that, you know, when you have so much on his agenda, you know, the economic recovery, health care, global warming, terrorism, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, you know, things happen. Agendas shift around. And I think global warming has just been one of those pieces that he’s spending his political capital elsewhere. And he’s not spending it on this very key issue to the United States and to the planet.
BILL MOYERS: But hasn’t Barack Obama, in six months, done more to address climate change than George W. Bush did in eight years?
ERICH PICA: He has. I mean, in the recovery package, it was one of the largest investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy that this country’s ever seen. But, when you have eight years of doing nothing, and, in fact, taken us backwards, and when you have Congress, a Republican Congress before that, essentially eviscerating and gutting many of the programs that the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency, that are supposed that were supposed to be working to solve global warming, we our benchmark and our measurements can’t be, oh, he’s better than President Bush. His benchmarks and measurements need to be is he leading the world and this country using the bully pulpit of the presidency to lead this country to make the reductions necessary to solve this problem?
BILL MOYERS: This bill, by the way, was shepherded by two prominent liberals in the House. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey. Now it goes to the Senate. What do you hope happens then? What do you think will happen then?
ERICH PICA: Hope and think, I think, are maybe two different things. Unfortunately there are the same regional special interests that help undermine the Waxman-Markey in the House are probably stronger in the Senate at this point. And so it I think we need to really think about the implications that this bill, coming out of the Senate, unless the environmental community and President Obama and, you know, the progressive environmental champions of the Senate, and the general public, unless we start speaking out now this bill could end up being worse than what came out of the House.
BILL MOYERS: So, Mary, what could the President do immediately to affect the outcome in the Senate that would restore the faith you had in him that night at Grant Park when he won the election?
MARY SWEETERS: I mean, I think that he needs to sit down and have some serious conversations with members of the Senate. With the leadership that’s in the Senate. And, you know, refer to his meetings that he’s having at the G8 and his international talks. Expressing the concern that, you know, the rest of the world has.
Globally this bill was not received very well. It was seen as really a half measure, and something that is not going very far. And I think that it’s up to President Obama to have a heavier hand in this legislation. And to really weigh in on, you know, what needs to be done based on, you know, what the United States needs to commit to. What we’re obligated to do, both as a major player, internationally. Both as a major emitter. And then, also, just as a major economic force.
BILL MOYERS: And, if it doesn’t, are you all going back to Mount Rushmore?
MARY SWEETERS: I don’t know that we’ll be so welcome back to Mount Rushmore. But Greenpeace is definitely not going away
BILL MOYERS: What do you say to your what do you say to your allies in the in the environmental industry who say, “Well, publicity stunts like that don’t really affect, in fact, they distract from the dialogue, the serious dialogue in Washington”?
MARY SWEETERS: Civil disobedience like this, protests like what we did on Mount Rushmore, I think underscore the seriousness of this issue. That we are willing to, you know, put ourselves out there. We are willing to take risks. Because we do see that this is such a critical issue. They need to be responding to the seriousness as well.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I want to thank both of you for being with me on the Journal. We’ll be following you know, what happens in the Senate with the big interest. Thank you very much.
MARY SWEETERS: Thank you.
ERICH PICA: Thank you.
This transcript was entered on May 16, 2015.