Let’s Call it the Revenge of the Two Scoundrels

In the years to come, America and the whole world will have to live with the consequences of the disastrous politics of Bush and Cheney

When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney finally left the White House last month, they couldn’t fail to notice that an overwhelming majority of Americans, not to mention the rest of the world, was happy to see them go.

Two million people who according to some estimates were crowded standing for hours at almost seven degrees below zero to celebrate the inauguration of the presidency of Barack Obama – and to whistle in Bush’s face – have amply demonstrated it. (Didn’t it seem to you that Cheney, in a wheel chair and with a black hat on his head, perfectly embodied the gangster that his opponents have always said that he was?) Even President Obama did not use uncertain terms when he the promised the coming of a “new era of responsibility” that replaces the “greed” and the “false promises” of the last eight years.

The bitter truth is that it will not be so easy to leave Bush and Cheney behind us: Obama, America and the whole world in the years to come will have to live with the consequences of their disastrous politics. (They attribute the responsibility to each person equally and I speak as if they were one person because, as “Washington Post” journalist Barton Gellman documented in his book “Angler,” Cheney had exercised as much power as Bush did in the last eight years).

The prolonged influence of Bush-Cheney is even evident in the economy, where the massive tax cuts for the rich and privileged– which they wanted –have profoundly indebted the United States even before the failed system of regulation of Wall Street opened the doors to the worst economic crisis since the thirties. Now the only hope for Obama to bring back well-being lies in the approval of an imposing package of economic incentives that will end by further indebting Washington. With respect to this, what is much less clear is the very tortuous and steep mountain that Bush-Cheney have left Obama to climb in the fight against climate change: after having denied for over eight years the existence of the problem and having procrastinated over time whatever serious initiative geared at changing it, the United States finally has a president that has climate change deeply at heart. His first declarations on the subject indicate the right route: Obama has promised by 2020 to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to the levels of 1990, and by 2050 to reduce it up to 80 percent, bringing it to even lower levels than those of 1990.

Having perfectly understood that the battle against the climate will not be won if the battle for economic well-being is not connected to this, the new president intends to designate a significant percentage of the package of economic stimuli to investments for green jobs and for energy development. Obama has even promised to build environmentally friendly schools, to boost energy efficiency, to insulate millions of homes and in this way to create millions of new jobs for Americans at the same time. But here’s the mistake: considering America did less than nothing to reduce emissions with Bush-Cheney, making many of Obama’s proposals seem extraordinary after the deafening silence of the last eight years, they are in fact inadequate in terms of what scientists deem necessary in order to avert a catastrophic change of earth’s climate.

With Bush-Cheney, America’s emissions, and by consequence those of the entire planet, have increased to such a point that now drastic reductions are necessary to modify the path that was taken. Rajendra Pachauri, president of the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has raised this particular aspect of the problem in a recent conference in Washington sponsored by the Worldwatch Institute that publishes the fundamental annual environmental report titled “State of the World.” To intervene, the Earth now has a “very narrow time window,” if we want the human race to avoid the most serious repercussions of climate change. Pauchauri affirmed and then added that now the consequences already are serious and inevitable. But if we intend to prevent nightmare apocalyptic scenarios such as the total disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers, which would mean drought for over 500 million Asians, from becoming real, the increase in global temperatures has to at all costs be contained to 2.0 to 2.4 degrees Celsius above the levels of the pre-industrial era.

This means the global emissions have to reach their maximum level by 2015 and then begin to fall rapidly. From this point of view, continues Pachauri, the stated objective of Obama to bring U.S. emissions to the levels of 1990 by 2020, “is completely inappropriate for the type of intervention that is required by leaders of various countries” in preparation for the important negotiations that will be held in Copenhagen next December to sign a treaty that goes beyond the Kyoto Protocol.

Pachauri strongly urges Obama to instead sign the official target set by the EU to reduce emissions by 20 percent by 2020, bringing them below 1990 levels, a goal that the EU proposes to reach by increasing by 20 percent both energetic efficiency and the use of renewable energy. In other words, the Earth needs more drastic interventions and in much more rapid timeframes than those which Obama has officially approved. It is certainly not a small task, especially with a global economy in complete crisis, but the package of economic stimuli that Obama has just signed is already a good starting point. In fact, 71 billion dollars were provided to invest in green spending and 20 billion dollars for fiscal incentives that are tied to the environment and that should lead to the creation of two million jobs, according to the analysis of the Center of American progress and the World Resources Institute.

The insulation of buildings and their changes for energy saving, the installation of solar panels and the building of wind farms require both the skilled and the semi-skilled and the creation of jobs with more than respectful salaries that however cannot be relocated. In any case, if emissions will have to be drastically reduced in sufficiently rapid times in order to conserve the conditions of life of the planet, it will be necessary to do much more. Privately, President Obama probably realizes that the policy that he has launched is not farsighted enough although his scientific advisors are excellent – but for him it is probably more complex to defeat the forces of status quote without consistent help.

As the heated controversies over the approval of the economic stimulus have demonstrated, special interests that have paralyzed reform for years remain unchanged. It is now known that Republican senators and even the presumed centrists, whose proposal of compromise was approved at the end, have asked and achieved that the 4 billion dollars from the plan aimed at building or modernizing school buildings in full respect of the environment be removed. But Republicans are not the only problem: inside the Beltway, it is the allies of Obama who are lowering their expectations in the name of “political realism.”

A couple of days ago, I took part in a reserved briefing by a famous expert on climate change and a veteran of 30 years in this part of Washington: he insisted many times, before a public that is extremely interested and involved in the saving of the environment, how “complex” and “difficult” it will be to come to an agreement even on the current targets for emissions fixed by Obama. As if Obama had not already won an indisputable electoral mandate and the Democrats did not have control of both houses of Congress.

Republicans were opposed to it: it follows that saving the planet is too ambitious. In similar circumstances, nothing can replace the cold reflections and the strong pressure from public opinion, elements which together could take shape in the preparation period for the Copenhagen summit. “I cannot understand how there are not groups of young people ready to stop bulldozers, to stop in any way construction of new coal power plants,” Al Gore said last year.

On March 2nd of next year, Al Gore will see his desire fulfilled: James Hansen from NASA, the most famous and expert climatologist in America, join hundreds of activists, many of whom are college students, belonging to the movement “Power Shift for the Climate,” in a gesture of civil disobedience, programmed outside of the coal center that feeds the entire structure of Capitol Hill. Hansen maintains for a long time that in order to avoid the fulfillment of a catastrophic climate change, it is necessary to stop the construction of new coal centers. In days, to affirm this principle, he will go as far as getting himself arrested. Hansen himself has commented “If there are young people ready to expose themselves in any way, how can the crazy people who caused this problem pull back?”

A good question. However it would be better to direct it at Bush and Cheney, the two scoundrels who have just left the White House and did a lot to leave behind such devastation.

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