Yesterday four of the World Fellows held a panel discussion here at Yale as part of our Hot Coffee, Hot Issues series. This one was entitled: What does the world expect from the next US President? (Throughout this blog I will refer to the “next US President”, although of course the “next” one could be the same guy as the present one.) Martin was moderating the panel, Amine talked from the financial perspective, Sisonke on world health, and my remit was to discuss the environmental angle. I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you here.
First thing I said yesterday was to apologise that I might have to use some politically-loaded words, such as “environment” and “climate change” that some might find offensive. Then I asked for a show of hands, to gauge the temperature of the room (pun intended) with regard to climate change. The options were:
1. you believe that climate change is happening, and that it is at least partly related to human activity (almost every hand in the room went up)
2. you believe that climate change is happening, and it’s nothing to do with human activity (one hand)
3. you don’t believe that climate change is happening, and it is in fact a conspiracy by anti-business, anti-wealth, anti-population radicals who want to overthrow democracy and institute a socialist government (no hands but lots of laughter. It’s actually no joke, but an extract from a comment recently posted on one of my video blogs on YouTube.)
Having reassured myself that I was amongst friends, I went on to discuss two issues that need to be addressed in the next 10 years – climate change and oceans. A 4-year presidential term forms a significant chunk of those 10 years. After that there may not be much left worth fighting for.
According to the United Nations models (which historically have tended to be optimistic), carbon emissions need to peak by 2020 if we are to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit). Even 1 degree will have significant impacts: 5 to 10 percent less rain falls in the U.S. Southwest, the Mediterranean and southern Africa; 5 to 10 percent less streamflow in some river basins, including the Arkansas and Rio Grande; and 5 to 15 percent crop-yield declines in corn in the United States and Africa, and wheat in India. (Source: US National Academy of Sciences). Impacts will be even greater in vulnerable nations such as small island states, low-lying countries, and areas around expanding deserts.
If we all lived like US citizens (and most of the world wants to), we would need 5 Earths to support our 7 billion people. I am not for a moment demonising the US. I have spent more time in this country than in any other single country over the last 7 years, and many of my best and most enlightened friends live here. The US is only 12th in the global rankings of carbon emissions per capita.
But the US does punch above its weight when it comes to global influence. Through its role as self-appointed global policeman, and even more through the export of its culture, the US enjoys a privileged position, and with privilege comes responsibility. I would like to see the next US President take the lead on investment in renewables, incentivise resource-efficient houses and compact urban development, stop subsidising fossil fuels, say no to the Keystone pipeline and no to exploration and drilling in the Arctic. (This last development is poignant enough to make me cry – the retreating Arctic ice cap allowing exploitation of oil reserves, thus hastening the complete demise of the ice cap.) I would like to see an emphasis on reducing material consumption while still improving quality of life through better health, job creation, and poverty reduction.
Ocean acidification has been described as climate change’s evil twin. 30-40% of the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels is absorbed by the oceans, forming carbonic acid. Since 1750, the acidity of the ocean surface has increased by 30%, killing coral and some plankton, as well as affecting the ability of crustaceans to form their shells. Shellfish could become a thing of the past.
Then there is shark-finning, destruction of coastal habitats, bottom trawling (that’s your shrimp), overfishing, bycatch, fish farming (that’s your salmon) and pollution – plastic and otherwise. Vast as the oceans are, in just a short space of time we have managed to fundamentally alter their chemistry, to the detriment of marine life and ultimately, to human health.
I would like to see the next US President increase the number and size of marine protected areas. In his final weeks in office, George W Bush created the world’s biggest marine protected area – 200,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean. So protecting the environment is not the sole preserve of the Democrat party. In fact, as little as 4 years ago, John McCain declared that he would take action on climate change. What a difference 4 years makes. The contrast between the two sets of voters on climate change is stark – see this recent Huffington Post article, in which McCain’s daughter challenges the Republicans on climate change scepticism. Just because Al Gore is a Democrat, does this really mean that Republicans can’t embrace environmental causes too?
Where did it all go wrong?
I can see the challenges.
1. A 4-year election cycle does not promote long term thinking. The full benefits of green strategies are not felt during a single term of office. Saving people from disaster is a thankless task. This is not Hollywood. Bruce Willis blows up an asteroid on collision course with Earth and gets a hero’s welcome. But a likely sceptic response to successful action on climate change will be, “See! It was a hoax all along!”
2. Most of the benefits will be felt overseas. As Hurricane Sandy amply demonstrated, the US can be impacted by extreme weather events, but rising seas and desertification will be felt more keenly elsewhere, mostly affecting the world’s developing countries rather than the US or its trade partners. Helping impoverished foreigners does not win votes.
3. Money talks. The New York Times estimated 2 months ago that $153m had already been spent on pro-coal, anti clean energy TV ads, 4 times what Obama has been able to spend defending clean energy. (By the way, do you know how much US electricity is produced by the much-touted “clean coal”? Zero percent. Nada. Zilch.) The Koch brothers alone spent $60m supporting organisations that deny climate change, just between 1997 and 2010. It is estimated that the oil, gas and coal industries have poured $2.2 million into Romney’s presidential campaign, and I would bet he is unlikely to bite the hand that feeds him if he is elected.
Can appeals to morality and ethics drown out the demands of Big Money? Can we appeal to the next US President as a visionary, ask him to consider his legacy, and how history will regard his term in office? Personally, I am not optimistic. Researching my contribution to the panel caused me some serious despondency this week. Usually I am very focused on what I can to to make a difference, which keeps me plenty busy and hence positive rather than hopeless and helpless. When I start looking at things from the political perspective, however, my optimism falters.
It drives me crazy that protecting the continued existence of the human species has become a political issue. This isn’t about saving the polar bears, or the dolphins, or the rain forests – important though all those things are. It’s about saving our own sorry asses. For a supposedly intelligent species, we are proving to be remarkably slow on the uptake.
What does the world expect from the next US president is one question, but we also need to ask: What does the world NEED from the next US president?How do we give him the mandate to fulfil that need? I don’t have a vote in the US. Many of you reading this blog do. If you care not just about the local and the short term, but have a wider and longer perspective, please vote for the candidate who you believe will best serve the global community not just now, but for generations to come.