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.

Climate Change

A hotter world

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.

Oceans

The renowned US marine biologist, Dr Sylvia Earle, has said that we only have 10 years left to save the oceans.

 

Oceans in jeopardy

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.

Clean coal? No such thing in the US.

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.

 

23 Comments

  • You are right on the money, Roz and, unfortunately money trumps science in America today. Politically speaking, nothing short of a miracle stands between us (or, more accurately, our grandchildren) and catastrophe. Future generations will damn us for refusing to take action, when the science was crystal clear. They will curse us for the mountains we destroyed and the costs we left them to pay. Who could blame them?

  • I think you’ve hit the nail(s) on the head, Roz. Nicely summed up. Allow, me, however, to restore a glimmer of hope in the state of things to come.

    Saving our asses has become political as you’ve pointed out. Politics is corrupted by money. The richest corporations these days are oil companies. Oil companies have an undue influence on the political process of the the most powerful nations. Oil companies have become wealthy because they control a declining resource which has become ubiquitous in all of our systems and processes because it was very inexpensive for far too long. In addition we have an economic system (which we humans invented) which ignores the value of nature (or the true value of oil, for example), and therefore makes it economic to destroy the world which sustains our life.

    As fossil fuels get more expensive and the cost of it becomes prohibitive, there is room for alternatives to be introduced, because, using our own crazy economic system, it becomes economic to do so. Whale hunting for oil went out of fashion long before the whales went extinct, because other alternatives became cheaper.

    So, one can only hope that the growth in alternatives will continue at an accelerated pace with the rising cost of oil and there will be a tipping point (soon enough) where the oil companies quickly lose relevance and influence and are cast aside to yield to the very powerful alternative fuel industry (and then we can worry about other things!).

    • Thank you Steve, I really appreciate your effort to cheer me up!

      I suppose the key issue is timing. Timing is everything. Given the in-built time lag between what we do and the earth’s response, I just really hope that we wise up in time. I really want to believe that it is all self-correcting, but remain to be convinced.
      To be totally hard-nosed about it, human beings WILL go extinct at some point. The earth has been through so many convulsions over its existence, and so many natural climate changes, we will eventually go the way of so many species before us.
      I just seriously hope that we are not the authors of our own destruction. That would be just plain embarrassing!

      • I believe we will go extinct – but to take responsibility for this single-handedly is a heavy and unnecessary burden to take on. Ideally our role is to do everything possible now to ensure that are on a new path and that we prepare the next generation so that it doesn’t happen on their watch either. If we all do this, I think we will go far.

        Personally I think the current economic system, which has produced the results we have today is unsustainable anyway and eventually (soon) it will collapse, at which point there is great opportunity for change. ( Shock doctrine can work both ways).

        It cannot be our job to change people’s minds today as this is an impossible task, but rather we need to be prepared for the day when the change will come and be the leaders today with the ideas, thinking, processes and systems when such a vacuum produces itself.

        • Steve – I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll refer again to The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding, which presents this kind of a scenario. The important thing is to start visioning a better way of doing things. Whether it ends up being born out of chaos or a more gradual transition, we need to know where we want to go.

  • Let me get this straight; seven billion people at an average of 98.6 F (37.1 C) with many of them burning fossil fuels that took more than 10,000 years to create, and still we have climate change deniers? …

    (No dolphins were killed in The Cove, Taiji, Japan this weekend… 🙂

  • Thanks Roz for waving the flag for changing the way we behave.
    Sadly, you are so right re the four year term in office….way too short to change much (mind you, four years under the wrong regime could be way too long I guess!) Appalling waste in a throwaway society, grotesque and unnecessary packaging, greed for “growth” and mans inability to focus on sustainable food production is not outside the remit of politicians…but the likes of oil, fast food producers etc.etc seem to carry much too much weight. As long as politicians get sponsored by big business…nowt will change !
    David Church

  • Here’s an idea to perhaps overcome the influence of corporate money in politics. There are about 150 million working americans, perhaps most of whom could be convinced that corporate control of our government is a bad thing. If each one of those people donated just $10 to our “American People to put the people back in charge of America” superPAC (maybe you can think of a catchier name), we would have enough money to outspend the Koch Bros, Exxon-Mobil, big Coal, etc. We could buy every lobbyist in D.C., an we could buy enough influence to strip corporations of their so-called “personhood”, and outlaw corporate money in politics. What do you think? Perhaps once that is done, then a government of the people by the people and for the people would be possible, and since most people would probably get behind trying to stop climate change, we could start to really make some progress. Anybody want to get it started?

  • Unfortunately you overestimate the influence of the US on the rest of the world. During the past four years it has been deliberately diminished and that trend is only set to continue if the incumbent is reelected (he who promised all kinds of benefits, none of which have even been attempted).

    If the Keystone pipeline is not built then Canada will still sell its oil; probably to China which has far lower environmental standards than has the US. The reason that the oil companies exert strong influence is that they are essential to modern civilization (there will always be some industry at the top; a couple of generations ago it was the horse “industry”). We cannot yet manage without oil. Wind turbines and solar panels are simply not nearly efficient enough even at theoretically optimum levels. The “Big Oil” companies do not drive demand, they respond to it.

    You wish to “see an emphasis on reducing material consumption”. By whom exactly? Much of the World’s population aspires to the standards enjoyed by the US. How do you suggest modifying those aspirations? How, indeed, do you suggest persuading the US population – as well as most of Europe’s – to reduce their consumption except by fiat? By what authority and how will that authority be selected? By politicians?

    You mention that four years is too short a time for a [US President] to be effective. What alternative that people at large will tolerate do you suggest?

    It’s been said before many times, that politics is not the answer but the problem. New York and San Francisco have more homeless people and more empty homes than anywhere else in the US simply because they limit the amount of rent that can be charged.

    Anyone who has studied history; social, political, economic, and not just by reading preferred sources, but many that conflict, should be able to see that only a grass-roots effort has any chance of success and even that is likely to have limited long-term value.

    I’m sorry to take up so much space, Roz, I do so want you to succeed and fear that you may get side-tracked onto ineffective ways.

      • Cute and emotional but ineffective. As far as hurricanes are concerned, the increase in temperature will tend to reduce their energy; this recent one was unusual only in that it moved a little more to the West than is usual.

        • John, I had not heard this until now: “the increase in temperature will tend to reduce [hurricanes’] energy” … can you please post a link where I can read up on it and understand how that works?
          Thanks,
          UncaDoug

          • Hi UncaDoug,

            This is a late response–don’t know if you’ll get it. Warming could reduce hurricane frequency (but not magnitude) by increasing wind shear (windiness). Hurricanes require surface, mid-level- and stratospheric winds to more or less flow in the same direction. A warmer atmosphere has more energy, more wind, and potentially fewer hurricanes.

            None of this is based on observation. It’s theory. The climate models do agree that hurricanes can become more powerful once they form under warmer atmo and oceans.

            Bruce

          • Thanks, Bruce. I am no expert, but the experts are now saying it is worse than the models have been built to predict based on scientific understanding of the complexities of our natural world … newly acquired knowledge shows the significance of what we did not know before … time to pull out all the stops and reduce CO2 emissions. The arctic ice melt and the methane release in the tundra are the “wild cards” we don’t want to be played.

        • Just as I thought. On November 5, three climate experts wrote “We know that a warming climate puts more energy into storms, including hurricanes, loading them with more rainfall and the stronger winds pushing more of a storm surge.” (Dr. Corell, Dr. Masters and Dr. Trenberth) http://bit.ly/CurbCarbon.

          And read what Dr. Hayhoe said. Read http://bit.ly/HayhoeSandy “Hurricanes get their power, or their energy, from warm ocean waters,” Hayhoe says. “And as the planet warms, ocean temperatures have also been warming.” Off the coast where Sandy struck this week, October surface ocean temperatures have warmed by two degrees over the last hundred years, Hayhoe says. “So when any given hurricane comes along, on average there’s warmer water than there would have been otherwise,” she notes. “Which gives it more energy, and gives it more strength.” Learn about Katharine Hayhoe at http://bit.ly/HayhoeBio

          But my original point was that we should trust the next generations to develop life styles different from ours, which you seem to believe is the only way: continued unsustainable and unfettered growth of consumerism, capitalism as we know it, bully corporations and unrepresentative governments … the new generation can create life styles much easier than our generation can change our life styles. Listen to Collin and Kathryn who represent the up and coming. We need to get out of the way and let them run with the ball. They see the goal line clearly. I am not counting on Congress to allow any effective legislation. The President is shackled by filibusters a hundred fold normal in the Senate. However, I will not cut Obama any slack if he does not step up and tell it like it is, and talk bold courageous moral stance on carbon-based fuels and climate. Nothing else matters if we the populous don’t demand action. Young and old alike need to be rallying Obama to talk openly about what he certainly understands the science demands. Write to http://WhiteHouse.gov/contact and encourage the President to lead on climate. Demand the President be frank and pull no punches. And all the while, push your mayor and city council to adopt PACE (google “Property Assessed Clean Energy”) programs in every town so we can get distributed energy on every rooftop.

  • “What does the world expect from the next US President?”

    Wow! Interesting question … or is it a conundrum? You differentiated “expect” and “need” aptly, Roz. What we need is what we “should” expect. The problem as you explain is that our expectations are jaded by the reality of the “system” as it has evolved.

    It is naive to expect the U.S. President to take a bold, courageous stand on the moral issues surrounding climate inaction; to use the “bully pulpit” to compel our U.S. Congress and other lackadaisical complacent governing bodies to regroup and get cracking on the most urgent of human crises … although that is my expectation.

    And how do we give a mandate, when the popular vote is pretty much split right down the middle … as well as Congress … fractured along party lines. What represents a mandate? Perhaps the mandate would be clear if those with passion were to “take solutions into own own hands” collaborating locally in our communities with local initiatives. I have little optimism that Federal politicians will enact the required overarching policies unless we “storm the bastille” so to speak with a demonstration of what we want with demonstrable successful working projects. If enough mayors, governors, city councils and local organizations band together to demand the President and Congress follow suit, then we might actually be able to present a mandate.

    I am not counting on the President or Congress. I voted, but am convinced that it does not matter, given the current political climate. My advice is:

    1) Vote, and then …
    2) Find what makes your heart sing, and do it every day.

    “Everything each of us does for the planet counts.”
    -Olivia Bouler (age 11) http://bit.ly/OliviasBirdsVideo

    • Wise advice, Doug. I agree that the man at the top matters less than what we are making happen locally at the grassroots. As the Hopi Elders would say, “Do not look outside yourself for the leader”.

  • Climate change is like a new religion. But in the most perverse way. Just as people pray more in the aftermath of horrors that provide evidence that either no God exists or that God doesn’t care about us individually, in the aftermath of climate horrors the climate denialists get more vehement in asserting their faith that, as one
    person commented on my CNN piece on Hurricane Sandy, “Climate change is crap.”

    No amount of science, no measurements of a melting arctic or shrinking
    glaciers, nor physics, can shake this matter of faith. The corollary, of course
    is that scientists are “profit driven,” while the oil and coal and gas
    industries and those funding the denial apparatus, are somehow suffering
    discrimination. It’s a bit like Stockholm Syndrome, in which people taken captive
    identify with and defend their captors.

    I find the case for climate change merely extremely convincing. (And I’ve seen a lot of it first hand in polar regions.) I don’t accept it on faith or ideology. I
    wish it wasn’t true. I wish it wasn’t so convincing, because the
    implications of climate change go against my interests and the things I hold
    dear. But not only do science, images from space, and thermometers show that
    human activities are changing the atmosphere and the climate, ongoing evidence reinforces that proof.

    • Hi Carl – great to get your insights on this. Do you have any ideas how we can jolt people out of these entrenched positions? I don’t even mind if they look at all the evidence and still conclude that they don’t want to believe in climate change, but I fear that too many have jumped to a conclusion based on political affiliation, without actually considering the science.

Leave a Reply to John Kay Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *