One of the things that has fascinated me for the last seven years has been to try and understand President Obama’s views on the politics of power and change. Often we get glimpses of that from extended one-on-one interviews he does with journalists. His conversation in Alaska earlier this month with Jeff Goodell on climate change is full of gold mines on that topic. But the one that stood out to me came in the President’s response to a question about how he will define success at the UN’s Global Climate Conference in Paris.
For us to be able to get the basic architecture in place with aggressive-enough targets from the major emitters that the smaller countries say, “This is serious” — that will be a success.
I’m less concerned about the precise number, because let’s stipulate right now, whatever various country targets are, it’s still going to fall short of what the science requires. So a percent here or a percent there coming from various countries is not going to be a deal-breaker. But making sure everybody is making serious efforts and that we are making a joint international commitment that is well-defined and can be measured will create the basis for us each year, then, to evaluate, “How are we doing?” and will allow us, five years from now, to say the science is new, we need to ratchet it up, and by the way, because of the research and development that we’ve put in, we can achieve more ambitious goals…
And the key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, “We’re going to do this.” Once we get to that point, then we can turn the dials. But there will be a momentum that is built, and I’m confident that we will then be in a position to listen more carefully to the science — partly because people, I think, will be not as fearful of the consequences or as cynical about what can be achieved. Hope builds on itself. Success breeds success.
Here’s how Goodell summarized his take on that at the end of the article:
The two biggest take-aways from my time with the president were these: First, he is laser-focused on the Paris climate talks and is playing a multidimensional chess game with other nations to build alliances and cut deals to reach a meaningful agreement later this year. Second, whatever deals he cuts, it won’t be enough…This is a long war, with everything at stake. “I do what I can do and as much as I can do,” the president told me as we walked along Kotzebue Bay.
This approach of being strategic about change has often been the source of tension between President Obama and many on the left. He addresses some of those particulars during this interview: the stimulus was too small, Obamacare instead of single payer, the failure of cap and trade. I am sure that before the ink has dried on any deal negotiated in Paris, we’ll be hearing the same thing…it’s not enough.
I am often reminded of a conversation between Pete Seeger and Majora Carter about the pace of change. Here’s what Seeger said about why Martin Luther King, Jr. started with a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
Why did he start with a bus boycott? Why didn’t he start with something like schools, or jobs, or voting? Couldn’t a bus boycott come later?
When you face an opponent over a broad front, you don’t aim at the opponent’s strong points. You aim for something a little off to the side. But you win it. And having won that bus boycott…13 months it took him to do it…then he moved on to other things.
That’s a perfect example of how “hope builds on itself” and “success breeds success.” The only other ingredients that are necessary are patience and a sustained commitment.