Friday 26 April 2019

Out of the mouths of babes and children

Don’t you just hate it when teenagers insist that they know the answers to all the world’s problems, but we oldies are too stupid to see that they are right?

They say things like this: ‘The scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.’ (‘Irreversible damage?’ ‘Collapse of our societies’? C’mon …)

Or this: ‘If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change.’ (‘Runaway climate change’? What’s that, for goodness sake?)

Typical teenage over-simplification. A failure to understand the complexities and uncertainties of climate science. And a millennial vision of an apocalypse that has more in common with cultish fanaticism than rational discourse among sensible adults.

Ah. Sorry. I may have misled you. Those quotes aren’t, in fact, from the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg but from the sage and living saint Sir David Attenborough, who’ll be marking his ninety-third birthday in a couple of weeks’ time, and the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, who will be seventy next week. Sprightly though they both undoubtedly are, neither could reasonably be labelled a teenager.

(By the way, if you haven’t yet watched Attenborough’s recent TV documentary Climate Change – The Facts, please do. You can find it by clicking here. But I should warn you: it is truly terrifying.)

My point is simply this: yes, Greta Thunberg is only a teenager, but her warnings about the urgency of the climate change crisis are precisely mirrored by what scientists have been saying for ages. Her youth, her pigtails, and her Asperger’s, which results in her speaking with unusual clarity and force, mean that she can capture the headlines and the front-page photos in a way that not even David Attenborough can match.

Take her much-misunderstood demand that governments should commit to zero carbon emissions within the next twenty years. In a speech to MPs this week, she said: ‘Our emissions have to stop if we are to stay below 1.5-2 degrees Celsius of warming. The “lowering of emissions” is of course necessary, but it is only the beginning of a fast process that must lead to a stop within a couple of decades or less.’

How absurd, say her critics, by whom I mean those who will not or cannot understand. How can anyone seriously believe that within two decades, the whole of humanity can simply stop using fossil fuels? Planes, cars, ships, power generation, industry?

After all, according to a report this week in the Financial Times, greenhouse gas emissions from planes more than doubled between 1990 and 2016, and if Heathrow gets its third runway, its capacity will rise from 480,000 to 740,000 flights per year by the mid-2020s. But perhaps Greta Thunberg’s critics and the cynics should try listening more carefully to what she actually said, because her next sentence was ‘By “stop”, I mean net zero.’

As it happens, I wrote about net zero carbon emissions six months ago. (The piece is here if you want to read it again.) All it means is that we aim to match the CO2 we pump out by burning fossil fuels with an equivalent amount that we remove from the atmosphere, either by planting lots more trees or by such technological means as generating electricity from burning plant material and then capturing and storing the CO2 that’s produced underground.

But of course that’s not what we are doing. Instead of planting more trees to act as the earth’s lungs, we’re chopping them down. According to a new analysis by the World Resources Institute, demand for beef (produced from cattle that are fed on soya, which is grown on land which has been deforested), palm oil (produced from trees grown on vast plantations where once tropical forests stood), and chocolate (produced from cocoa grown on land once occupied by forests in, for example, Ghana and Ivory Coast) means forests are still disappearing at a terrifying rate.

It’s nearly eight years now since I reported from the Amazon, at a time when the then Brazilian government was grappling with the dilemma of how to protect the environment while continuing to expand the economy. (My TV report from July 2011 is here.) But now, after the election of the populist, anti-environmentalist president Jair Bolsonaro, there’s no longer any doubt: agri-business interests have won, and the environmentalists have lost.

It’s hard, but not impossible, to find heroes in this dismal tale of impending doom. Greta Thunberg is one of them, for having forced the issue into the political arena. So too are the thousands of Extinction Rebellion protesters, who with immense good humour, discipline and imagination, have risked arrest to draw attention to the seriousness of the crisis.

I also think a round of applause is due to the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who over the past two years has contributed a total of $10 million to the United Nations Climate Change secretariat to cover the gap left by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2016 Paris climate change agreement.

Yes, I know his personal wealth is estimated at $60 billion, so he can certainly afford it. Even so, I applaud the gesture. On its own, of course, it won’t save the planet. But it might just help.

Friday 19 April 2019

Mueller and the threat to democracy

So Donald Trump (and/or his campaign) broke the law/may have broken the law/came close to breaking the law/didn’t break the law/has been totally exonerated.

Delete according to taste. That’s the joy of living in a post-truth world: you decide what you believe, and then you ignore all the facts that might contradict it.

Because once you’ve reached for the smelling salts and recovered from the shock of discovering that what you always knew to be true is indeed true – because Robert Mueller says so – here’s an uncomfortable fact for you to ponder.

Most people made up their minds about Donald Trump a long time ago – they either love him or hate him, and nothing in the Mueller report will change that. What’s more, there is good reason to suppose that even if Mueller had concluded that Trump did indeed, beyond doubt, break the law, it still wouldn’t have mattered a jot to his supporters.

Not if American voters are anything like British voters, anyway. Because according to the political research think-tank the Hansard Society, more than half the voters in Britain believe that what the country needs is ‘a strong leader willing to break the rules.’ A leader, perhaps, like, oh, I don’t know, what name immediately springs to mind?

After all, when the Gallup polling organisation asked US voters ahead of the mid-term elections last November which issues were most important to them, the Mueller Russia investigation ranked twelfth out of twelve. (Mind you, climate change came in at number eleven, so make of that what you will. Health care, the economy and immigration were the top three.)

There is much in the Mueller report that is truly shocking. Take just these two sentences, for example: ‘If we had confidence after a thorough examination of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.’

But do I think the report will make much difference to Trump’s hopes for re-election next year? No, I do not. It follows, therefore, that if I were a Democrat seeking to challenge him for the presidency, I wouldn’t spend too much time dwelling on the minutiae of who said what to whom back in 2016.

That’s not the same as saying it’s not important. Or that the law shouldn’t take its course. Or that the Democrats shouldn’t carry on demanding to know the full story of Trump’s dealings with Moscow, or indeed with the Internal Revenue Service.

These things matter, even if there’s little political advantage in pursuing them. But they don’t matter to many voters, for whom an expanding economy, full employment, and a president who tells them a dozen times every day what a great job he is doing all come closer to meeting their expectations of a political leader.

So how’s this for a quote? ‘The death dance of democracy has begun again, just like in the 20th century, by painting human rights, freedom of the press [and] judicial independence … to be political questions. By portraying facts and reality as a matter of threatened identity. And by depicting hate and violation of the law as moral obligations.’

That’s not about Trump, as it happens. It’s about the Hungarian president, Viktor Orbán, and it’s taken from a deeply worrying piece in the German newspaper Die Zeit (English translation here), by a Hungarian academic writing under the pen-name Beda Magyar.

It could equally have come from a piece by an academic in the US, or in Turkey, India or Brazil – or even, without wanting to push the analogy too far, from the UK, where our very own mini-Trump, Nigel Farage, launched his new political party a few days ago by threatening to ‘put the fear of God into our MPs.’

(This is the same man, you may recall, who barely a week after the fatal shooting of the Labour MP Jo Cox, exulted in the Brexit referendum result having been achieved ‘without a single bullet being fired.’)

Here’s some more from Beda Magyar: ‘Orbán’s main focus is that of creating wedge issues to distract from his conduct and maintain the social divide, usually by identifying scapegoats that make it easy for his followers to express their loyalty and identity.’

It’s uncanny, isn’t it? Substitute Trump or Farage for Orbán, and it would be equally true. Because populists know what works – and that it works wherever enough voters believe that traditional politics have failed to deliver. In the UK, for example, according to the Hansard Society, four out of every ten voters think that ‘many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament.’

Just think about that for a moment, and what follows from it. And then ask yourself again why so many American voters pay so little attention to what Congress or the ‘mainstream media’ allege are President Trump’s immoral – and arguably illegal – actions.

Last weekend, the former Tory deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine said on Channel 4 News: ‘You can’t escape this chilling thought: the extremes of the ’30s were born of economic stress, and the thing that is driving the extremism today is the fact that we have had since 2008 frozen living standards and people are looking for alibis.

‘If you put together the bureaucrats of Brussels, the immigrants and the foreigners and the elite … all that sort of stuff … it has a sort of basic, chilling appeal for people who are desperately looking for an alternative.’

Trump, Farage, Orbán, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro … It’s nearly a year now since I wrote a piece entitled ‘I hear the sound of jackboots’ in which I wrote: ‘The atmosphere is dangerous and ugly … Anger is rising, and there is surely no challenge more urgent than to confront the threat head on. In 1939, it took a world war; this time, we must find a better way.’

If the European parliament elections go ahead next month, we’ll all have a chance to cast a vote against populism, nativism and xenophobia. If you haven’t registered to vote yet, click here and register. Now.

And then use your vote well.