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Deadlock at Madrid, Firestorms in Australia

“The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,” warned UN secretary general António Guterres as the 25th climate summit (COP25) opened in Madrid two weeks ago, and the multitude of delegates from more than a hundred countries presumably understood what he meant. But they ignored it anyway.

The ‘point of no return’ arrives in the mid-2030s, when the rising emissions of greenhouse gases (they are still rising, not falling) pushes the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere up past 450 parts per million. 450 ppm of CO2 drives the average global temperature up past +2̊C (2 degrees higher than the pre-industrial average) and into runaway.

In diplomatic-speak, what happens then is ‘dangerous climate change’, but that is actually happening already, with carbon dioxide at 405 ppm and average global temperature ‘only ‘ 1.1̊C higher. We are seeing firestorms in Australia, rising sea levels, catastrophic storms and melting glaciers.

What happens at 450 ppm is that the two degrees of warming caused by human beings trigger natural processes (‘feedbacks’ or ‘tipping points’) that also cause warming – and once they start, human beings cannot stop them. The Big Three feedbacks are the loss of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice cover, the melting of the permafrost zone, and the release of vast amounts of CO2 by the warming world oceans.

Guterres called it ‘the point of no return’ because after that we lose control. The warming will then continue even if human beings eventually stop all of their own emissions. We will be trapped on an ‘up’ escalator that delivers us into a world three, four, even five degrees hotter than the pre-industrial average.

That is exactly where the World Meteorological Organisation predicts we will be by the end of this century if current promises on emissions cuts are kept, but no more is done. Long before the end of the century that would mean the collapse of food production in the tropics and the sub-tropics, famines and huge refugee flows, mass death.

They never spell these things out at the climate summits, but almost everybody there knows them. And yet, once again, they failed to produce a deal that moves the process forward. The best that can be said is that they stopped a concerted attempt by the biggest emitters, led by Brazil and Australia, to gut the proposed rules for a global carbon market.

How can they be so blind to their own long-term interest in survival? The answer, alas, is that our evolutionary past of human beings has not made human societies good at long-term thinking. Moreover, human politics is dominated by those whose interests will be advanced or damaged by what the government does right now, not in fifteen years’ time. Take Australia, for example.

Australia is the driest continent, and as the heat mounts (much of the country is expecting temperatures in the low to mid-40s C this week) the number and scale of bushfires has exploded. The biggest blaze, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, has already burned over 400,000 hectares and is still growing.

But Australia is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal, mostly to China and Japan. Coal-mining only employs 38,000 Australians, but it brings in a lot of money, some of which inevitably ends up as political contributions that link the industry with all the Australian political parties.

That’s why, two years ago, Liberal (i.e. conservative) politician Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament. It was ‘clean’ coal, in the sense that it had been lacquered so that it wouldn’t dirty people’s hands. Morrison passed it around to his parliamentary colleagues saying “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.”

ScoMo (as the Australian media have nicknamed Morrison, presumably because it sounds a bit like ‘scum’), is now prime minister, and as the country burns he continues to deny any link between burning coal and global heating. He offers his “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the fires, but insists that climate change is only one of “many other factors” in fuelling the bushfires.

Deputy Prime Minister Deputy PM Michael McCormack takes an even more robust line, dismissing climate change as a concern of “raving inner-city lefties”. That will not endear him to the hundreds of families who have been burnt out, but there are millions of families who have not yet lost their homes, so this may still be a viable political position.

Of all the major emitters, only the European Union is taking its responsibilities seriously. The rest range from deeply conflicted countries like China and Canada, both aware that climate change is an existential threat but both hugely dependent on fossil fuels, to the outright deniers like Australia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

So one by one, we are missing all the exits on the Highway to Hell.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“In diplomatic…glaciers”; and “Deputy…position”)

The ‘Immigrant Problem’

In a recent survey of potential adult migrants worldwide, 47 million said they would most like to move to Canada. There are only 37 million people in Canada. The same goes for Australia: 36 million would like to move there; only 25 million do live there. Most of these would-be immigrants are going to be disappointed. In fact, Canada lets in just 300,000 immigrants a year; Australia 200,000.

Other developed countries are significantly less popular destinations, but potential migrants amounting to around half the existing populations want to move to the United States, France, Britain, Germany and Spain. They too are going to be disappointed.

In its most generous year, 2016, Germany let in a million immigrants, mostly Syrian refugees, but 80 million Germans are never going to let in the 42 million foreigners who also want to live there. Indeed, former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said bluntly last November that “Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message: ‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support.’”

Clinton was mainly concerned about how anxiety about mass immigration has fueled the rise of populism in Western countries. That’s hardly surprising, given how Donald Trump’s tight focus on the alleged criminal and job-stealing propensities of Latino immigrants won over enough formerly Democratic voters in the Rust Belt states to give him the presidency.

It didn’t just work for Trump. It helped the Brexiteers win their anti-European Union referendum in the United Kingdom, it brought the populists to power in Italy, and it underpins Viktor Orban’s ‘soft dictatorship’ in Hungary (even though Hungary has never let immigrants in, and they don’t want to go there anyway).

But the fact is that the levels of immigration are not particularly high in the United States and most European countries at the moment. Net migration to the United Kingdom has been stable since 2010; in both the United States and in Germany (with the exception of 2016, in the latter case), net migration is down by half since 2000. Something more is needed to explain the level of anger in these countries.

It is, of course, unemployment, which is much higher than the published (official) figures in every case, and is particularly high in the post-industrial areas that voted so heavily for Trump in the United States, for Brexit in Britain, and for ultra-nationalist parties in Germany. In the United States, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, 17.5% of American men of prime working age (24-55) are not working.

But unemployment will continue to rise, because it is increasingly being driven by automation. The Rust Belt went first, because assembly lines are the easiest thing in the world to automate, but now Amazon and its friends are destroying the retail jobs, and next to go are the driving jobs (self-driving vehicles). Automation is unstoppable, and the anger will continue to grow.

So you can see why Hillary Clinton is concerned, but she seems unaware that the pressure of migration is also going to grow rapidly.

According to the UN’s International Labour Organisation, there are currently 277 million migrants in the world (defined as people who have left their home countries in search of work, or to join their families, or to flee conflicts and persecution). How many more are still in their home countries but would like to leave? At least a billion, maybe two.

More than half of Kenyans would immediately move to another country if they could, a 2017 survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre discovered. More than a third of Nigerians, Ghanaians and Senegalese are actually planning to emigrate in the next five years, according to the same survey. (Good luck with that!)

Even a third of Chinese millionaires would like to emigrate (half if you include moving to Hong Kong as emigration). And all this is before climate change kicks the numbers into the stratosphere.

The chief impact of global warming on human beings is going to be on the food supply, which will fall as the temperature rises. And the food shortages will not affect everybody equally: the supply will hold up in the temperate zone (the rich countries), but it will plummet in the tropical and sub-tropical countries where 70% of the world’s people live. They will be desperate, and they will start to move.

That’s when the pressure of migration will really take off, and the rich countries are simply not going to let the climate refugees in. Not only would it stress their food supply too, but the numbers seeking to get in would be so large – two or three times the resident population – that it would utterly transform the country’s character. So the borders will slam shut.

It’s a myth that you cannot close borders. You can, if you’re willing to kill people. (Think of the Iron Curtain, which successfully divided all of Europe for 40 years.) And the rich countries will, in the end, be willing to kill people.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“But unemployment…grow”; and “According…two”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Australian Sickness

I happened to be in Canberra last Friday, speaking to a room full of journalists at the National Press Club, when the news came in, halfway through lunch, that Australia had a new prime minister. The moderator pointed out that the year is already two-thirds gone and it is “only three prime ministers till Christmas” – and the China Daily’s headline read “Australia changes its prime minister again, again, again, again, again.”

The new prime minister, Scott Morrison, is the third leader of the governing Liberal (i.e. conservative) Party since 2015. In the five years before that, there were three prime ministers from the Labor Party. Only twice were those prime ministers chosen by the voters; in the other four cases, the changes were driven by intra-party coups – “spills”, in the Australian political vernacular.

Mockery is appropriate, and it was not in short supply when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was overthrown by his own party last week. “In the future everyone will be Australian prime minister for fifteen minutes,” tweeted ‘Not Andy Warhol’. Another online commentator pointed out that “Game of Thrones is not an instructional manual.”

But it is, in Australia. Back-stabbing is old hat; the new fashion in both major Australian political parties is “front-stabbing”. Yet there are no great issues at stake, no national crisis that must be overcome. Australia is still the ‘lucky country’: 25 million people with a healthy economy (they didn’t even have a recession after 2008), no enemies, and a whole continent to play with.

What drove the latest spill was a challenge to the sitting prime minister by Peter Dutton, an MP (member of parliament) from his own party. Dutton is on the Liberal Party’s right wing and didn’t like Turnbull’s relatively enlightened climate change policies – but even when Turnbull dropped his new emission control proposals the revolt continued.

And in the end, although Turnbull went down, Dutton did not take his place. Scott Morrison, a man much more in Turnbull’s mould, did. To outsiders it seemed utterly pointless, a not very large tempest in a teapot, but it transfixed the Australian media and paralysed the government for several weeks.

So what is causing this weird behaviour in an otherwise fairly sensible country? Is it just a passing lunacy like the ‘dancing mania’ of the late Middle Ages in Europe (which was never adequately explained) or the hula-hoop craze in America in the late 1950s? And, more importantly, is it a communicable disease?

Australian politics wasn’t always like this: between 1983 and 2007 Australia had just three prime ministers. Elections (in which everyone must vote or pay a $20 fine) happen every three years or less, which is clearly too often, but the political system was the same back when Australian politics was far more stable.

The fact that Australian politicians are never more than three years away from the next election certainly encourages a short-term perspective, but it doesn’t explain why they are always changing horses. Maybe you have to add to the mix constant opinion polling and a 24-hour media cycle that demands some new political news every day.

The opinion polls are read as a judgement on the party leader’s ability to win the next election. When Malcolm Turnbull ousted former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott in 2015, he said “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.” And out Abbott went.

So when Turnbull lost in 30 consecutive opinion polls (they come out about every two weeks), he too became vulnerable – and the Australian news media, always looking for the next big story, began stirring the brew. The Liberal Party’s MPs panicked (again), and since the most obvious way they could try to change the predicted outcome was to change their leader, that’s what they did.

But other countries have opinion polls and hyperactive media too, and their parliaments don’t act like that. They may benefit from the fact that their elections are less frequent (every five years for parliamentary elections in Canada, Britain and France), but they don’t act like that even in the last year before an election.

The conclusion is unavoidable: this is an essentially random and purely local case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’, like ‘dancing mania’ and hula hoops. Julia Gillard organised a revolt against the Labour Party leader and sitting prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, he returned the favour and overthrew her just before the next election, and the game was on.

Rudd lost the 2013 election and the last three prime ministers have been Liberal, not Labour, so the infection can clearly cross party boundaries. Since there is an election due next year, which the polls predict that Labour will win, there will probably soon be yet another Australian prime minister. But there is no sign, as yet, that the madness can cross the oceans.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 13. (“What…weeks”; and “Indeed…anyway”)

Universal Health Care

Nothing is perfect, and that definitely includes health care. On the 70th anniversary of the first full-coverage national health care system that is ‘free at the point of delivery’, Britain’s National Health Service, English people have been marching in the streets demanding better funding for the NHS, and Donald Trump naturally got the wrong end of the stick again.

Back in February, as part of his war against Barack Obama’s attempt to improve the coverage of the rudimentary US health care system (‘Obamacare’), Trump claimed that the marchers were protesting because the British system is “going broke and not working.”

It’s tough trying to defend the existing US system when every other developed country provides universal health coverage for its citizens, but Trump battled bravely onwards, later tweeting that the Democrats in the United States “want to greatly raise taxes for really bad and non-personal medical care.” Like the British allegedly suffer under the NHS.

In fact, the English National Health Service (Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate but similar systems) is, in former Conservative cabinet member Nigel Lawson’s words, “the closest thing the English have to a religion.” It is almost universally loved, and the protests were about government under-funding of the NHS.

Even the Conservative government that has strictly limited funding increases for the NHS over the past seven years, despite rising demand due to an ageing population, has now been forced to yield to popular demands. Prime Minister Theresa May announced last week that the NHS would get a funding increase of 3.4% per year over the next four years, giving it an extra $27 billion annually by 2023.

But are the English right to love their health-care system – and are the French and Germans and Russians and Japanese and the people of almost every other developed country right to revere their own similar systems? The United States may be the odd country out, but it does spend far more on health care than anybody else.

The United States spends 16% of its entire Gross Domestic Product on health care, almost twice as much as the average (8.2% for Japan, 8.4% for the UK, 8.5% for Australia, 10.4% for Germany). In theory, that ought to mean that Americans are healthier than everybody else and live longer. In practice, it’s just the opposite.

The United States is the only developed country where the average life-span is less than 80. In fact, it’s barely 78 years in the US, whereas everywhere else it’s in 80-82 range. The US also has the highest ‘preventable death’ rate of any developed country, and the highest infant mortality rate by a very wide margin. Americans spend more on health, and get less back, than anybody else.

They also spend far more of their time worrying about health care. The principal cause of personal bankruptcies in the United States is ‘catastrophic’ health emergencies, and all but the very rich have to devote much time to finding affordable medical insurance. Elsewhere in the developed world, nobody really thinks about that. The care will be there when you need it, and nobody goes bankrupt.

The model that was pioneered by Britain’s NHS on July 5, 1948 has been so successful that it is now spreading into many developing countries as well. India is still a poor country, but its National Health Policy 2017 goals include a commitment to “progressively achieve Universal Health Coverage.” China is working to provide affordable basic healthcare to all residents by 2020. And so on.

Attitudes change over time. In the 1930s nobody thought that there was some sort of basic human right to health care. The well-off paid for their own, and the rest depended on charity (which wasn’t very dependable). What changed that attitude was the Second World War, a time of great national solidarity and sacrifice in every country.

It was the worst war in history, but it produced a generation who believed that the people who had shared in the sacrifice (in both the countries that won and those that lost) must not be left behind in the peace that followed. The will was there to do new and great things, and they did them.

It is no coincidence that the same year of 1948 saw the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which said (among other things) that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

The world had turned, and what had been a privilege became a right. One that is still widely abused or neglected, of course, but it has nevertheless spread across the entire planet in the past 70 years. Why did the United States miss out?

The answer is probably a free-market ideology so strong that it enabled the insurance companies and the medical profession (which opposed the idea of a national health system in every country, at least initially) to win the political battle in the US and strangle the idea in its cradle. It keeps coming back even there, but for the moment Americans must go on paying the costs of their ideology.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Even…2023”; and “They…bankrupt”)