Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘climate change’

The Perils of President Trump

The New Year greetings I sent to my friends and relatives this year included the hope that 2017 would be a better year for humanity than 2016.

That was from my heart rather than my head.

If I’d written “be afraid, very afraid” instead, it would have put a damper on New Year celebrations.

But as Donald Trump assumes presidency of United States – still the world’s most powerful country economically and militarily – it is difficult to avoid a sense of trepidation.

Trump’s inaugural address with its “From this day forward it’s going to be only America first, America first!” centrepiece was as crude and bombastic as his campaign speeches and gave no reassurance that the office of the presidency would moderate him.

So, all told, it’s difficult to envisage this year being better for the world than last year’s annus horribilis.

While the US and much of the western media have been obsessing about what Trump’s presidency will mean for relations with Russia, the much more alarming prospect of what it means for relations with China has taken a backseat.

During the transition, Trump and his Secretary of State-designate, Rex Tillerson, were deliberately baiting the world’s second most powerful country.

If the two men follow through on what they have been saying about slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, the one-China policy and blocking Chinese access to islands in the South China Sea, we may not only see a trade war between Washington and Beijing – damaging the global economy and making us all worse off – it could all end in a shooting war over Taiwan or the South China Sea.

Trump may well improve relations with Russia and end American attempts to prevent Moscow’s push back against western impingement on what the Russians see as their traditional sphere of influence.

But even there there’s an issue where it could all go south with the Kremlin – nuclear weapons. Trump has sent mixed signals: talking on the one hand about modernising the US arsenal and, on the other, the possibility of a deal with Russia to reduce the numbers of weapons.

Neither of these initiatives would likely be welcome in Moscow given its greater reliance on nuclear – as opposed to conventional – military forces for its security.

Then there’s the justified fear that President Trump – I have to pinch myself when I write that – is intemperate, impulsive and aggressive, and that rational discourse and policy-making will be eclipsed by the urges of this thin-skinned man.

We also have to remember that he’s surrounded himself with people who hold views that are, similarly, not always based in fact.

The most important area of policy this is likely to affect is climate change.

With climate change sceptics, and people with links to the fossil fuel industry, prominent in Trump’s incoming administration, the US contribution to fighting global warming is pretty certain to be undermined.

With NASA confirming in the past few days that 2016 was the hottest year yet on record – following 2015 which itself broke the record – action by all countries to honour the commitments they made under the Paris Climate Agreement just over a year ago are imperative.

The hope has to be that even if Trump’s “America First” sees him backsliding on climate change, other countries won’t follow suit.

China for one has indicated it will continue on the path it has set itself to reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions and many other countries should follow suit.

But can the world’s climate afford four – or possibly eight – years of Trump in the White House?

For the good of humanity and the planet, we can only hope so.

 

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The tyranny of the seemingly urgent: why the media neglects international development

 

George Monbiot – the environment commentator – wrote a recent cri de coeur on the failure of the media – by which I think he meant most mainstream outlets – to give sufficient coverage to climate change, despite the tumbling of global temperature records and accompanying floods and droughts that are hitting people all over the world.

He’s right of course.

It’s striking how little has been published or broadcast since last December’s United Nations Paris Climate summit agreed to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees.

Do editors think the pledges – and that’s all they were – made in Paris are the last word on climate change?

A recent conversation I had with a former colleague, and a respected environment journalist, suggests they may.

He lamented that he just couldn’t get climate stories on – even with the record temperatures and constant flow of natural disaster stories so-beloved of those same editors.

Surely giving climate change prominent coverage is in the public interest, I observed.

Unarguable you might think, whatever your views on the causes of rising global temperatures.

But then, it’s not just climate change where mainstream media journalists are failing the public.

There is also scant coverage of sustainable development.

As I wrote last year, when all UN member states came together in a historic agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals that aim to produce a fairer world which actually has a long-term future, there was barely a peep of interest.

And things haven’t changed since then.

The first high level meeting to review progress towards the SDGs a couple of weeks ago, where 22 countries reported what they have done and plan to do, was largely ignored by the media.

If you do an internet search you’ll find stories on specialist development blogs and a few niche business news sites, but little else.

The only mainstream media outlet I could find that published anything was The Guardian, which actually has a development sub-index on its website. Although, even that merits only a qualified welcome given the Guardian gets the Gates Foundation to subsidise this coverage, suggesting even the editors there still don’t see development as deserving of much coverage purely on its own merits.

So why are journalists largely ignoring sustainable development?

Well, partly it’s because they are subject to the tyranny of the urgent over the important – there always seems to be something more immediate they judge needs reporting.

But they also fail to see development as a story because they’re prone to what I’d call a tramline mentality. There are certain kinds of stories they’re used to covering – be it political rows, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or even changes in interest rates –  and they think they know how to cover them.

It means they stay in their comfort zone, but it’s a failure journalistic imagination.

How to break out of this compartmentalised thinking?

One way may be to create new indices on websites and in papers to encourage journalists to see the importance of sustainable development stories.

Many papers and news sites already have “environment” pages or indices – which is not just a way to help users navigate stories, but also, I’d argue, a reflection of how journalists categorise stories in their own minds.

So one suggestion I’ve heard – and will repeat here – is to rename those indices “people and planet”.This may help editors and reporters to think about environment and development, and their impact on people’s lives – the all-important human interest angle – as deeply entwined and interrelated.

Then there is the public interest argument.

What could be more important than the future of the planet we all depend on for our very existence?

Yet, many of the editors who respond to criticism of their coverage of the foibles – and worse – of politicians by citing the public interest (even when the scale of that coverage risks turning the public off) are the same ones who routinely ignore or underplay sustainable development.

If editors don’t see coverage of such existential matters as in the public interest, there is a more mundane, but perhaps more familiar, reason for covering the issue.

That old hoary chestnut “the way taxpayers’ money is spent”.

There has been a lot of media scrutiny over the past year in the UK of the foreign aid budget, including from outlets which, shall we say, are not well-known for their international coverage.

So there is already an appetite for covering development aid.

It’s also becoming clear that from now on much of that aid is going to be prioritised according to the commitments made in Sustainable Development Goals.

So, with a bit of joining up of the dots, there may be hope that editors, who up to now have had little interest in covering the SDGs and international development, could be persuaded that there are good reasons for changing their approach.

Climate Change: Merci

French may no longer be the language of international diplomacy, but French diplomats have not lost their touch.

The Paris climate deal reached at the weekend is a testament to their skill and endurance.

Many environmental activists and experts, among them the British climate economist Lord Stern, have been effusive in their praise for the French delegation led by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

According to Lord Stern “they have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted. There was a great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill.”

What Fabius, his colleague, Environment Minister Ségolène Royale, and their team have pulled off is the first ever agreement that all countries – rich or poor, developed or developing – will take action to tackle climate change by reducing their carbon emissions and reversing the deforestation and environmental degradation that is depriving the planet of its ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere naturally.

Of course, France did not do it alone.

At a time when the international system – and the United Nations in particular – has been written off by many as incapable of achieving the consensus needed for decisive action over conflicts like Syria and Ukraine, the success in Paris is a welcome reminder that the international community is capable of coming together for the common good.

The deal has allowed a rare moment of optimism over the climate change, which has been reinforced by research just published suggesting carbon emissions could have stalled this year despite the global economy growing.

The climate accord also builds on the momentum of September’s agreement by all UN members to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goals which aim to eradicate poverty by 2030 by meeting people’s economic, health, education and social needs while protecting the environment.

It’s a far cry from six years ago in Copenhagen when the last attempt to get all countries on board in the fight against climate change fell apart amongst rancour and recrimination between the world’s major powers – particularly China and the United States.

So it’s no coincidence that another of the contributors to success in Paris was the growing climate cooperation between Washington and Beijing which became public last year during President Obama’s visit to China and was reaffirmed a few weeks ago during President Xi’s visit to the US where the two leaders announced a shared vision for the Paris talks as well as how their countries would cut carbon emissions.

In the US, President Obama has broken with his predecessor’s skepticism – some might say cynicism – over climate change action and made it a signature issue of his second term. But given the Republican Party’s control of Congress, Obama has had to use executive powers, not legislation, to take action.

One of the key features of the Paris deal is how the French and UN negotiators were willing to work around the American President’s political obstacles and produce an agreement that would not have to be ratified by the US Senate.

That’s why the Paris accord avoids a legal commitment by countries to actually cut emissions. Instead countries have submitted voluntary plans of how they will reduce emissions and fight climate change called – in UN-speak – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.

The voluntary nature of these central commitments has been criticized as a major weakness of the deal, so in order to try to ensure countries keep their promises, the agreement legally requires all states to monitor their emissions performance and to come together every five years to review their progress.

The idea being that global peer pressure will encourage countries to do their bit.

Another obvious weakness of the deal is that, as things stand, when you total up all the INDCs it does not add up to preventing a temperature rise above 2 degrees Celsius, which most climate scientists agree is the tipping point where global warming will produce catastrophic climate change.

There is an aspiration in the preamble to the agreement to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees and the hope is the five-year review process and peer pressure will lead to countries committing to ever-deeper emissions cuts as they go along.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon – another leader who has made climate change a signature issue – described Paris as “a truly historic moment”.

It could be – if countries follow through.

What we can say for sure is that Paris has given humanity a fighting chance in the battle against climate change and for that a lot of the credit should go to France.

 

Britain’s China Debate: Does It Have To Be So Binary?

It was hard to miss that President Xi Jinping of China was in Britain this week being given the full red carpet treatment including dinner at Buckingham Palace and addressing parliament at Westminster.

Of course the visit was accompanied by a lot of discussion and analysis of the relationship between the two countries. It’s a debate that is welcome and necessary, but does it have to be so binary?

Rather than coming to us in glorious 3D, it’s been in limited 2D: in one corner it’s business and in the other human rights.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne – who recently toured China himself – clearly have a business agenda. They gave Xi the pomp of a sate visit, which will help his image back home, because they want cash-rich Beijing to invest in modernising Britain’s infrastructure.

The need to raise money means they are even prepared to brave American disapproval and put security concerns to one side (even if the technology is actually French) and sign a deal for a Chinese state firm to invest in new nuclear power stations.

They also want to boost trade and get China to use the City as the main centre for the growing international trade in its Renminbi currency.

The government’s critics, including one of Cameron’s former advisers, had a field day with accusations that it had gone soft on human rights and was kowtowing to China.

Human rights groups understandably were critical on this front. It’s their raison d’etre after all.

But in the extensive press and online commentary a more nuanced approach has been relatively hard to find, although as you might expect, the leading think tank, Chatham House, produced some of the more sophisticated analysis.

No doubt, President Xi could be forgiven quiet satisfaction that the country that started what the Chinese call the century of humiliation of foreign invasion by forcing its way into China in the 1839-42 Opium War, is now coming to them cap in hand.

Xi also dealt comfortably with human rights issues when they were raised, for instance in his meeting with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. In a press conference, the Chinese leader gave what is now Beijing’s boilerplate response that human rights in his country are in need of improvement but this will be done in line with “Chinese conditions”.

China’s human rights record is undoubtedly poor, but then no country’s, including Britain’s, is pristine.

Reading much of the commentary calling on London to be more forceful on human rights brought to mind the biblical quote “he that is without sin … let him first cast a stone …”

Western criticism of China’s record is also often selective, failing to encompass the full panoply of rights, which include economic and social rights, as well as the individual political and civil rights emphasised in the West. This leads to China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty being discounted.

An alternative approach would be to frame pressure on China – or any country for that matter – to improve its record by trying to hold its leaders to their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they themselves are signed up to.

But the relationship between Britain and China should be about more than either business or human rights.

There are a host of issues Britain and China need to engage on.

The two countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the World is in dire need of more international cooperation to try to end conflicts and prevent others breaking out.

Britain was right to defy American pressure and be the first western country to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The West has long been telling China its new-found wealth and power mean it has to do more for the international community and shunning the AIIB would have sent the message that Beijing is only really welcome as a follower rather than a leader.

Climate change is another pressing concern where the two countries play a crucial international role. Despite the recent backsliding by London, Britain is a centre of research, technology and advocacy for cutting carbon emissions and China has invested billions in clean energy and is now committed to reducing the greenhouse gases it produces.

Where the critics of Cameron and Osborne have a point is in the naiveté of their approach.

On his recent trip to China, Osborne chose to visit the western region of Xinjiang – a controversial choice given the China’s ongoing crackdown on protest and violence by the local Uighur population. The Chancellor ended up being praised by the official press for his pragmatism and criticised by Uighur groups.

So why is London willing to risk offending its main ally in Washington and appear craven in its attempt to win favour in Beijing? After all, both the US and Germany have strong economic links and broad diplomatic engagement with China, including on human rights.

The answer lies in the failure to establish a stable and consistent relationship with Beijing.

Since the return of Hong Kong to China, Britain has had a fitful approach and the present government seems to believe London has lost out to Berlin and others in capturing a share of the Chinese market.

In their very haste to catch up and the urgency they attach to attracting investment, Cameron and Osborne are prepared to ignore criticism – and I suspect the advice of their diplomats – and downplay human rights and wider foreign policy considerations to put their emphasis on the purely pecuniary dimension of relations with the Chinese.

Pope Francis: the nearest we have to a world statesman?

Pope Francis is pulling in the crowds on his tour of Latin America.

At his first stop in Ecuador, 800,000 people are estimated to have turned out for mass in the city of Guayaquil. Not bad for a country of only 16 million people.

Francis’s conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, were also capable of attracting large numbers of the faithful on their international trips, but the messages they delivered to their followers were somewhat different.

Where they were conservatives who took a hard-line on issues such as divorce and homosexuality, Francis seems intent on reaching out to Catholics who have become disillusioned with the Church’s rejection of contemporary social mores.

But the current Pope goes one step further, appealing to non-Catholics as well with his calls for action on issues of global importance, like climate change and what – on his recent visit to Bosnia – he called an atmosphere of war across the world which is shattering countless lives.

Francis lives modestly – in an overt kind of way – and has also identified himself with opponents of what he calls unbridled capitalism and inequality and had himself photographed for the International Labour Organisation’s campaign against child labour.

While continuing to oppose gay marriage, he also attracted attention when he indicated a more tolerant attitude to homosexuality when he told journalists: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

The Argentine pontiff has shown a gift for communication and memorable quotes, and with more than 12 million followers on Twitter he reaches the parts previous Popes couldn’t reach.

His sense of humour and penchant for self-deprecation was immediately apparent the night of his election when he toasted his fellow cardinals with “May God forgive you for what you’ve done”.

But he uses all this to serious ends and is provoking global discussion on things that matter, something that is attracting serious admiration from people, particularly progressives, who may well have run a mile the Catholic Church in the past.

Clearly, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has a sharp mind and is talking about issues close to many hearts. He also has charisma.

But I think Pope Francis also stands out because other world leaders have been found wanting.

Think of the alternatives.

President Obama was elected 7 years ago promising change and the audacity of hope, but has singularly failed to meet the expectations he raised. From the absurdly premature Nobel Peace Prize he got – seemingly for simply not being George W Bush – and the famous Cairo speech where he called for a new start with the world’s Muslims, it has been pretty much downhill. His appeal especially eroded by his preference for using drones to kill people in other countries he identifies as America’s enemies – as well as uncounted others who just happen to be nearby – and the world-wide, industrial-scale spying by US intelligence agency, the NSA, revealed by Edward Snowden.

Focussed as he seems to be on Russia’s narrow interests and lacking much in the way of soft power skills, President Putin attracts little admiration, if some grudging respect.

China’s President, Xi Jinping, has emerged as his country’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, but given his focus on national economic development and the re-assertion of Chinese influence, he is yet to show he has a message with global appeal.

Europe’s most powerful leader, Chancellor Merkel, may have a reassuring effect on German voters who have dubbed her Mutti (Mummy), but the Greek crisis has cruelly exposed her limitations as more than a national leader – and none of her European counterparts shows any more knack for statesmanship.

Then there’s the UN Secretary General who’s meant partly to embody the world’s conscience. Ban Ki-moon has been game for a bit of self-deprecation of his own – performing Gangnam style with his compatriot Psy and making a spoof film on the NSA revelations for the UN correspondents dinner – but his civil servant’s demeanour fails to inspire. How many remember Ban made climate change his signature issue in his first term?

If Pope Francis continues to sound relevant to Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and is able to see off the still powerful conservative forces in the Church before he steps down or dies – a big if as he is 78 after all – then he could act as a catalyst for social change and help the World find a way to deal with the challenges it faces from global warming to growing inequality.

The Pope and climate change – a pivotal intervention?

Pope Francis may not be infallible in many people’s eyes, but he is indefatigable when it comes to provoking debate on global issues that matter.

This week it has been climate change.

The Vatican has published the papal encyclical “Laudato Si” on the impact of human activity on the environment and especially the threat of climate change.

By doing so the Pope has got the world’s media talking about the single biggest challenge facing the human race – one that puts the crises in the Middle East or Ukraine in their proper context as serious geopolitical issues but not existential threats.

The letter sends a powerful message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics – as well as Francis’s 6.3 million followers on Twitter, not all of who will be of the same faith.

That message is simple: the world faces catastrophic climate change and we need to take urgent action to prevent further global warming.

The letter is perfectly timed to raise awareness of the issue and increase pressure on political leaders as governments prepare for two landmark global conferences later in the year.

In December, the next UN climate change summit takes place in Paris and the pressure is on to agree legally-binding limits to carbon emissions to prevent average global temperatures rising more by than 2 degrees Celsius – the level above which scientists agree climate change will have a disastrous effect.

Before that in September, world leaders will gather at the UN in New York to agree on new Sustainable Development Goals, which are intended to ensure the eradication of poverty through equitable economic development, but in a way that does not damage the environment.

Climate scientists and environmental activists have been sinking into despair at their seeming inability to get across to the world’s politicians and public the scale of the threat from climate change and the need to take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.

The message from the Pope should help raise their morale. Although, it calls for urgent action, it is clear from the encyclical the Pope believes there is still time to avert the worst effects of global warming and also – critically – that the solution lies in humanity’s hands.

So the Pope’s intervention in the climate change debate has come at a critical moment and will increase pressure on climate negotiators and their political masters to make the necessary compromises and commitments at the coming global summits to ensure action is taken to prevent catastrophic global warming.

It is no accident this Pope has gone further than his predecessors in raising the alarm about the impact of economic development on the environment. On his election by his fellow cardinals in 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, chose the name Francis to acknowledge the importance to him of St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology, who taught about the importance of the natural world and the need to respect it like a sister or mother.

In line with the social teachings of his namesake, Pope Francis is also alive to the need to ensure that when taking action to ensure the wellbeing of the environment, the impact does not fall disproportionately on the poor and he seems to be on the side of the developing countries which are pushing the richer, developed nations to make proportionately deeper cuts in carbon emissions and provide greater financial support to help poorer countries leapfrog to clean technologies as they develop.

The papal encyclical also notably bases its argument in the latest science on climate change demonstrating how religion and science can work hand in hand and need not be anathema to one another, as some atheists, like Richard Dawkins, argue.

It is doubtful the Pope’s intervention in the debate will prove decisive on its own, but it adds a powerful voice in favour of concerted action on climate change and should influence not only public opinion and governments, but also that other pivotal constituency – the people running carbon-emitting businesses.

 

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