Below, my article, as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine (ok, apart from adding in the referencing, there were a few other tweaks and alternate adjectives I had probably wished I’d completed with for one final round of amends before submitting the magazine version; guess the web means never having to say you’re sorry!).
No sooner had the reality of having the execrable Donald J Trump as US president begun to truly sink in than the rationalising began. All those awful things he said and did were all really just campaign rhetoric for his hard-core supporters. He’ll pivot to the centre. The system is bigger than one man. American institutions are strong. The Republican Party will rein him in. Besides, it can’t happen here.
Well, it did and it has. While Trump’s staggeringly clumsy overreach in trying to dismember Obamacare led to an embarrassing setback, this was a rare bump in the road to ruin that Trump’s new kleptocracy of billionaire bandits and ideologues have been busy mapping out.
This cesspit of partisanship stirred up by the Republican Party’s takeover by Tea Party extremists incubated the conditions that would lead to the Grand Old Party (GOP) falling for a bullying shyster and demagogue with a nasty authoritarian streak.
Just as fungus doesn’t grow and spread on a healthy tree, the rise of the Trump regime is a symptom of the diseased state of US politics, rotten across the both sides of the aisle from the poisonous spread of corporate cash into every nook and orifice of the system. This is evidenced when you consider that candidates running in the 2016 federal elections, including the presidential race, spent almost $7 billion buying their seats.
This contamination has also soured public trust in the whole political process. IN the lead-in to last November’s election, a solid majority of Americans had negative views of both presidential candidates. Only 31% thought the election process itself was satisfactory, or felt the orgy of spending was justified.
Anyone planning to run for the US Senate will need a war chest of no less than $10 million per campaign. This stupendous outlay ensures democracy is, once again, strictly the preserve of the gilded classes and their corporate paymasters.
While there are clear limits to what difference any one president can make, the system was simply never designed to deal with a truly rogue individual and the long-term harm they could, if so minded, inflict. It takes little imagination to figure out that Trump’s clumsy prodding of his stubby middle finger in the direction of the equally deranged leadership of the nuclear-armed North Korea could rapidly escalate into a thermonuclear conflagration.
However, either through blind luck or providence, this existential bullet may well be dodged, as it was back in the early 1960s, and again in the 1980s. In a sense, avoiding a nuclear apocalypse has always been a straightforward matter of not starting one in the first place. The one catastrophe that is no less fatal to human civilisation than all-out nuclear war is runaway climate change. The catch is that for climate change to obliterate most of life on Earth at some point this century, all we have to do is…nothing at all.
Under the weight of its own carbon-fuelled momentum, the Earth is already shifting from the long-term stability that has been the hallmark of the 11,000-year recent post-glacial period known as the Holocene, into a new, dramatically hotter phase. Scientists have in recent decades been frantically waving red flags to warn us that the fossil fuel-powered locomotive comprising all of human civilisation is careering towards a climate cliff and drastic action is needed to avert calamity.
Now, however, with Engineer Trump at the controls, it’s full steam ahead and let the devil take the hindmost. In March 2017 he took the political equivalent of a lump hammer to both the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and the country’s nascent role as an international leader on climate action.
Trump’s executive order involves rewriting rules to reduce CO2 emissions, while lifting a ban on coal leases on federal lands. He also scrapped the mandate that government officials consider climate impacts in decision-making. And, in a move that seemed mainly motivated by sheer spite, he scrapped an Obama era rule that blocked coal-mining operations from dumping waste into the very rivers and streams that many poor Trump voters get their drinking water from.
Trump also approved oil pipelines, removed a raft of restrictions on of fossil fuels and eliminated planned increases in federal royalties payable to energy companies.
The EPA was instructed to send out a press release applauding its own evisceration by Trump, but due to what was undoubtedly an unfortunate technical error, the press statement’s opening paragraph read as follows: “this Order calls into question America’s credibility and our commitment to tackling the greatest environmental challenge of our lifetime. With the world watching, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have chosen to shirk our responsibility, disregard clear science and undo the significant progress our country has made to ensure we leave a better, more sustainable planet for generations to come.” Oops.
Trump has also promised to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement on curbing climate change. In a quite surreal twist, ExxonMobil, the world’s largest energy firm and long-time funder of climate denial and disinformation, actually went public in urging Trump not to abandon the Paris accord, stating that it was an “effective framework for addressing the risks of climate change”.
Exxon’s outgoing CEO, Rex Tillerson also happens to have been appointed by Trump as his Secretary of State. Tillerson’s chief qualification for this job appeared to be his close personal ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In recent years, Putin has been a solid supporter of intergovernmental action on addressing climate change. After all, as recently as 2010, a climate-fuelled heatwave killed around 50,000 Russians.
However, he too has had a Pauline conversion on this crunch issue. Suddenly, Putin is peddling long-debunked denier talking points such as: “climate change may be related to some global cycles or some greater outer space cycles”. A mega-deal between ExxonMobil and Rosneft, a Russian state-owned company worth around half a trillion dollars was scrapped by the Obama government as part of its sanctions package against Russia. As relations between Washington and Moscow thaw even more quickly than the Arctic Circle, expect to see hydrocarbon realpolitiks rear its genocidal head once more.
Incurable optimists are once again emerging to point out that, after all, Trump can’t really single-handedly derail the global climate. Twenty, maybe even 10 years ago, that argument might have had some currency. Now, however, time itself is the enemy. There is today precisely zero chance of keeping global temperature rise below the +1.5ºC danger mark.
The next major milestone on the road to climate hell is +2ºC. Being frank, even before Trump took power, the odds were stacked against a global decarbonisation effort of the magnitude and duration required to avert disaster. Ireland, for instance, was given relatively modest 2020 EU targets of a 20% emissions cut versus our 2005 levels. What we did instead was to allow both agricultural and transport emissions to continue to spiral, leading to a piddling total overall reduction of around 6-8% in a 15-year period, when in reality we need to be decarbonising at that rate every year until we are at zero net carbon.
It’s an enjoyable parlour game to blame Trump and his zealots for this unfolding tragedy, but in reality, Ireland has civil servants, economists, politicians and lobbyists, all decent, ethical people, no doubt, but all working tirelessly to burn down our shared future, in the name of squeezing the last few bob out of this broken economic and political system that has taken us to the very abyss.
We now live in a world in which a rogue administration in Washington is atavistically torching even the most uncontroversial efforts at decarbonising energy systems; this is a world plunging squarely to smash through the +2ºC tipping point by as early as the 2030s. Trump will hold power until early 2021, and will quite possibly be still on the throne until January 2025.
By either of those dates, our fate as a species will have been sealed; all that remains to be seen is just how quickly the bodies begin to pile up as a rapidly destabilising climate system destroys global food and industrial production, while dragging already highly stressed and degraded natural land and marine ecosystems into full-scale collapse, thus sealing off any possible escape route.
Trump and his acolytes may yet escape the judgement of history, if for no other reason than that human history will likely have run its brilliant, violent course within a generation or two.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator. He tweets @think_or_swim