We need global leaders capable of interpreting science, nurturing innovation and building international alliances—not this pantomime Presidentby / June 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Summertime and the living is easy, fish are jumping and the cotton is high.” This was playing in the White House Rose Garden as President Donald Trump announced his withdrawal from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. Superficially, the song’s leitmotif couldn’t be a more perfect fit: he’s rich, his wife is good looking, so hush, Liberals, don’t you cry.
Politics as spectacle is nothing new but with Trump, it is more than just embellishment. It is the content. His speech has been labelled his most fraudulent yet, littered with errors, inconsistencies and unsubstantiated statements. To his base it was incredibly seductive; to his critics, nauseating and infuriating. Trump is not interested in the difficult nuances of geopolitics and climate risk, preferring a simplistic work of fiction, pitting the US against a vindictive rest of the world. This paranoid, angry framing is designed to chime with the worldview of core supporters.
But all good plays have a dramatic tension—a deeper theme underscoring the words and actions on stage—and the Rose Garden scene was laden with portents. “Summertime” was a hit from George Gershwin’s musical, Porgy and Bess, about African-American life. The reassuring lyrics of the opening lullaby contrast starkly with the later violent scenes. Warnings go unheeded and the fishing community is devastated by a raging storm, a woman is attacked by a sexual predator, lives are lost and the baby to whom the song is sung is orphaned. So the choice of “Summertime” perhaps showed that someone involved has a sense of irony: as does the eventual timing of the announcement which means the earliest Trump can actually withdraw is 2nd November 2020—the day after the next Presidential election.
Those who urged narrow short-term self-interest ahead of everyone’s long-term survival may have been celebrating that afternoon. They had won the tussle to influence the President. But for every action there is a reaction. Around the world Trump’s speech triggered strong reactions. His approval rating fell to an all-time low of 36 per cent. The media made Paris and climate change a headline story and many Americans became aware for the first time that there was a global agreement to tackle it, which only Syria and Nicaragua had not signed. Global leaders criticised the decision and dismissed his bid to renegotiate terms. The Vatican described it as a disaster. Elon Musk and the head of Disney resigned from Trump’s Economic Advisory Council. The largest US industrial union United Steelworkers deemed “an inexcusable blow to the US economy.”
In sum, people were fired up. Within days philanthropists like Mike Bloomberg pledged more support for climate action. Individual donations started pouring into advocacy organisations like the Environmental Defense Fund. The EU stepped up its diplomatic climate efforts with Climate Commissioner Canete embarking on a world tour of high-level meetings. In Bejing, Governor Jerry Brown of California met the Chinese President and signed two climate agreements with Chinese provinces. In France, President Emmanuel Macron promised to increase the pace on climate, to attract US climate innovators and experts to France, and vowed to use a financial transaction taxes to fund this agenda.
This fightback has only just started. We are now at the point where the balance of power rests with the clean energy disruptors: it is already possible to deploy it without subsidy in some countries, and will soon be in many others. The addition of carbon policies that make the cost of pollution explicit will unlock further investment and innovation. The shift to electric and autonomous vehicles is faster than predicted, led largely by California and China. Trump cannot roll any of this back, and America’s competitive edge will be blunted if the US is not at the forefront of these sectors.
There are still roadblocks—the anticipated climate deal between China and the EU on 2nd June didn’t materialise, sinking in a row over steel jobs. Eliminating greenhouse gases from such industrial sectors is a big challenge, and a mighty political problem, that all sides will have to keep grappling with. Ensuring the vulnerable are not excluded from the benefits or unduly loaded with costs is another real issue. But Trump’s response—to retreat, and look away—is no answer at all. Storm clouds are gathering and the reality of our situation will soon make itself felt.
We need global leaders capable of interpreting science, nurturing innovation, building international alliances, engaging in detailed policy debates and recognising special interest pleading seeking to hold back the tide of progress. Trump fails on every count. He is a pantomime president, blundering around, unaware of the complexities involved in the choices he makes. Most Americans and the rest of the world will move forward without him.