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Climate: Some Progress in Poland

Global warming is physics and chemistry, and you can’t negotiate with science for more time to solve the problem: more emissions mean a hotter planet. Dealing with the problem, however, requires an international negotiation involving almost 200 countries. In big gatherings of that sort, the convoy always moves at the speed of the slowest ships.

That’s why the reporting on the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland that ended on Saturday, two days later than planned, has been so downbeat. It didn’t produce bold new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It saw the usual attempts by the biggest fossil fuel producers, the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to stall the process. And in the end it just produced a ‘rulebook’.

But that’s all it was supposed to do, and it’s not ‘just’ a rulebook. The great breakthrough at the Paris conference in Paris three years ago saw every country finally agree to adopt a plan for emission reductions, but the Paris accord was a mere sketch, only 27 pages long.

Fleshing it out – what the plans should cover, how often they should be updated, how countries should measure and report their emissions, how much leeway should be given to poor countries with bad data – was left until later. Later is now, and in the end they did come up with a 256-page rulebook that fills in most of those blanks.

“We have a system of transparency, we have a system of reporting, we have rules to measure our emissions, we have a system to measure the impacts of our policies compared to what science recommends,” said the European Union’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete. It was an excruciating process, and it still leaves a few things out, but it settled a thousand details about how the Paris deal will really work.

Oh, and one big thing. China abandoned its claim that as a ‘developing country’ it should not be bound by the same rules as rich countries like the United States. There will only be one set of rules for both rich and poor countries, although the really poor ones will get a lot of financial and technical help in meeting their commitments.

This year’s conference dealt with the details at ministerial level. Next year UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host a summit of the biggest emitters to lay the groundwork for the key 2020 meeting. That’s when countries will report if they have kept their 2015 promises on emissions cuts, and hopefully promise much bigger cuts for the next five years.

The rise of populist nationalists like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, both climate change deniers, will make future negotiations even harder. It’s all moving far too slowly, but the human factor keeps getting in the way. For example, Bolsonaro wants Brazil to get extra carbon credits for protecting the Amazonian rain-forest, even as he plans to carve the forest up with big new roads and cut a lot of it down.

The Paris deal is important, but it has come far too late to stop the average global temperature from rising to the never-exceed target of +2 degrees Celsius that was adopted many years ago, let alone the lower target of +1.5 C that scientists now believe is necessary.

We are already at +1 C, and current promises of emission cuts will take us up past +3 C. At the moment emissions are still going up (by 3% this year). Even if countries make further major commitments to cut emissions in 2020, it’s hard to believe that we can avoid devastating heat waves, droughts, floods and sea-level rise, and a sharp fall in global food production.

So while we are cutting emissions, we also need to be working on ways to remove some of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere. Various ideas for doing that are being worked on, but they will probably become available on a large scale too late to keep the temperature rise below +2 C.

So geo-engineering – direct intervention in the atmosphere to hold the temperature down while we work on getting emissions down – will probably be needed as well. Nobody really wants to do ‘solar radiation management’, but cutting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface by just a small amount is technically feasible. It could temporarily halt the warming and give us the extra time we are probably going to need.

We are getting into very deep water here, but we may have no other options. If we had started cutting our emissions 20 years ago (when we already knew where they would eventually take us), such drastic measures would not be necessary. But that’s not the human way, and so we’ll have to take the risks or pay the price.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Oh…emissions”; and “The rise…down”)

Populism: It’s the Automation, Stupid

Five of the world’s largest democracies now have populist governments, claimed The Guardian last week, and proceeded to name four: The United States, India, Brazil and the Philippines. Which is the fifth? At various points it name-checks Turkey, Italy and the United Kingdom, but it never becomes clear which. (And by the way, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is not a populist. He’s just a nationalist.)

It’s embarrassing when a respected global newspaper launches a major investigative series and can’t really nail the subject down. Neither can the people it interviews: Hillary Clinton, for example, admits the she was “absolutely dumbfounded” by how Donald Trump ate her lunch every day during the 2016 presidential campaign. She still doesn’t get it.

“We got caught in a kind of transition period so what I had seen work in the past…was no longer as appealing or digestible to the people or the press. I was trying to be in a position where I could answer all the hard questions, but…I never got them. I was waiting for them; I never got them. Yet I was running against a guy who did not even pretend to care about policy.”

Yes, Trump is a classic populist, but why did he beat her two years ago when he wouldn’t even have got the nomination ten years ago? She doesn’t seem to have a clue about that, and neither do other recent leaders of centre-left parties interviewed by The Guardian like Britain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s Matteo Renzi. So let us try to enlighten them.

Populism is not an ideology. It’s just a political technique, equally available to right-wingers, left-wingers, and those (like Trump) with no coherent ideology at all.

In this era, populism seems to partner best with right-wing nationalist ideologies like those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Brexiteers in England, but even now there are populist left-wing parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

How does this tool work? It claims to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’ and against a ‘corrupt elite’ that exploits and despises them. It’s light on policy and heavy on emotion, particularly the emotions of fear and hatred. It usually scapegoats minorities and/or foreigners, and it only works really well when people are angry about something.

We know that a politically significant number of people are angry now, because populism is working very well indeed, but people like Donald Trump can’t take the credit.

In politics, as in ecology, every niche is always filled. There are always dictator-in-waiting, would-be martyrs, and everything in between, but they only get a chance to shine if the political situation creates an opening for their particular kind of politics. So what is creating that opening now?

The anger is about the fact that the jobs are disappearing, and what’s killing them is automation. The assembly-line jobs went first, because they are so easy to automate. That’s what turned the old industrial heartland of the United States into the ‘Rust Belt’. What’s going fast now are the retail jobs, killed by Amazon and its rivals: computers again.

The next big chunk to go will probably be the driving jobs, just as soon as self-driving vehicles are approved for public use. And so on, one or two sectors at a time, until by 2033 (according to the famous 2013 prediction by Oxford economist Carl Benedikt Frey) 47% of US jobs will be lost to automation. And of course it won’t stop there.

Why don’t clever politicians like Hillary Clinton get that? Perhaps because they half-believe the fantasy statistics on employment put out by governments, like the official 3.7% unemployment rate in the United States. A more plausible figure is American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt’s finding in 2016 that 17.5% of American men of prime working age were not working.

That’s three-quarters of the way to peak US unemployment in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it goes unnoticed because today’s unemployed are not starving and they are not rioting. You can thank the welfare states that were built in every developed country after the Second World War for that, but they are still very angry people – and they do vote. A lot of them vote for populists.

Populism thrives when a lot of people are angry or desperate or both. Donald Trump and people like him are not the problem. They are symptoms (and beneficiaries) of the problem – yet they dare not name it, because they have no idea what to do about automation.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“We know…now”)

Brazil: The Hard Right Wins Again

A man who makes Donald Trump look like a bleeding-heart liberal will almost certainly be Brazil’s next president. Jair Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote in Sunday’s first round of the Brazilian presidential election, with twelve other candidates running. Fernando Haddad, who will face him alone in the run-off in three weeks’ time, got only 29 percent.

Haddad, who leads the socialist Workers’ Party, will pick up most of the voters whose first-choice candidates have fallen by the wayside, but Bolsonaro needs only one in six of those votes to win the second round. Game over, in more ways than one.

Trump and Bolsonaro are populists cut from the same cloth. They both depend heavily on social media and on the support of evangelical Christians. They both oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, affirmative action for minorities, and drug liberalisation. But Trump’s views shift when it is to his political advantage – he once supported most of those policies – whereas Bolsonaro has always belonged to the hard right.

Trump is an instinctive authoritarian who chafes at the restrictions of the US constitution, but does not attack it directly. Bolsonaro praises the “glorious” period of the military dictatorship (1964-1985), which he served as an army officer, and claims that its only error was that “it tortured, but did not kill.” (It did, actually. At least 434 leftists were killed after being tortured.)

Trump is a racist, but he talks to his overwhelmingly white ‘base’ in dog-whistle code. Last year Bolsonaro said that the members of black rural settlements founded by the descendants of slaves “don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more.” No dog whistle there.

Trump pulled the US out of the climate change treaty, and Bolsonaro wants Brazil to do the same. But Bolsonaro also wants to privatise and ‘develop’ the entire Amazon: “Not one centimetre will be demarcated for indigenous reserves.”

Trump, like Bolsonaro, backs loose gun ownership laws. Both men want to bring the death penalty back (it never went away in some US states). Both men consider torture to be, as Bolsonaro puts it, a “legitimate practice.” But Bolsonaro also says that “a policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.”

Trump is a sexist who was once caught boasting on tape about “grabbing pussy”, but mostly avoids such language in public. Bolsonaro told a woman member of Congress that “I’m not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly.” He believes that women should not get the same salaries as men because they get pregnant, and said that he had a daughter in “a moment of weakness” after fathering four sons.

Trump is an undisciplined narcissist who claims to be a tough negotiator, but will generally roll over if you throw him a few concessions and let him declare a ‘victory’. (Consider the new North American free trade agreement, for example.) His famously short attention span disqualifies him as an aspiring dictator even if he were that way inclined.

Bolsonaro, however, is a serious man. He has made a former general, Hamilton Mourão, his running mate, and promises to fill his cabinet with other generals. In a recent video produced by Haddad, he can be seen arguing: “You won’t change anything in this country through voting…You’ll only change things by having a civil war and doing the work the military regime didn’t do. Killing 30,000….If a few innocent people die, that’s alright.”

Bolsonaro doesn’t talk like that now, for obvious reasons, but there is no reason to believe that he has changed his mind. Brazil’s 200 million people may be in for some nasty surprises – and beyond the country’s borders Bolsonaro’s presidency will encourage neo-fascists and would-be military dictators in other Latin American countries.

That’s the real concern, and it extends to other continents too. The wave of non-violent revolutions that spread democracy to every part of the world (including Brazil) in the past few decades seems to have gone into reverse.

In some countries, like Thailand and Egypt, the generals are openly back in power. In others, like Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines, ‘illiberal democracies’ run by strongmen have replaced the genuine article. Even in long established democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy the nationalists and populists dominate the political scene.

There are some counter-currents, of course. Mexico, the other Latin American giant, is getting its first ever left-wing government this year. Hard right challenges to the established democratic order have been fended off in France, Germany and the Netherlands. But the tide is running strongly in the other direction.

How bad will it get, and how long will it stay bad? Quite bad and for quite a while, one suspects. The world is not yet heading back towards big great-power war, but we are entering the last critical decade before climate change overwhelms us with a growing number of governments that are not only potentially violent but militantly ignorant.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“Trump…policeman”; and “There are…direction”)

Brazil: The Hard Right Wins Again

A man who makes Donald Trump look like a bleeding-heart liberal will almost certainly be Brazil’s next president. Jair Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote in Sunday’s first round of the Brazilian presidential election, with twelve other candidates running. Fernando Haddad, who will face him alone in the run-off in three weeks’ time, got only 29 percent.

Haddad, who leads the socialist Workers’ Party, will pick up most of the voters whose first-choice candidates have fallen by the wayside, but Bolsonaro needs only one in six of those votes to win the second round. Game over, in more ways than one.

Trump and Bolsonaro are populists cut from the same cloth. They both depend heavily on social media and on the support of evangelical Christians. They both oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, affirmative action for minorities, and drug liberalisation. But Trump’s views shift when it is to his political advantage – he once supported most of those policies – whereas Bolsonaro has always belonged to the hard right.

Trump is an instinctive authoritarian who chafes at the restrictions of the US constitution, but does not attack it directly. Bolsonaro praises the “glorious” period of the military dictatorship (1964-1985), which he served as an army officer, and claims that its only error was that “it tortured, but did not kill.” (It did, actually. At least 434 leftists were killed after being tortured.)

Trump is a racist, but he talks to his overwhelmingly white ‘base’ in dog-whistle code. Last year Bolsonaro said that the members of black rural settlements founded by the descendants of slaves “don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more.” No dog whistle there.

Trump pulled the US out of the climate change treaty, and Bolsonaro wants Brazil to do the same. But Bolsonaro also wants to privatise and ‘develop’ the entire Amazon: “Not one centimetre will be demarcated for indigenous reserves.”

Trump, like Bolsonaro, backs loose gun ownership laws. Both men want to bring the death penalty back (it never went away in some US states). Both men consider torture to be, as Bolsonaro puts it, a “legitimate practice.” But Bolsonaro also says that “a policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.”

Trump is a sexist who was once caught boasting on tape about “grabbing pussy”, but mostly avoids such language in public. Bolsonaro told a woman member of Congress that “I’m not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly.” He believes that women should not get the same salaries as men because they get pregnant, and said that he had a daughter in “a moment of weakness” after fathering four sons.

Trump is an undisciplined narcissist who claims to be a tough negotiator, but will generally roll over if you throw him a few concessions and let him declare a ‘victory’. (Consider the new North American free trade agreement, for example.) His famously short attention span disqualifies him as an aspiring dictator even if he were that way inclined.

Bolsonaro, however, is a serious man. He has made a former general, Hamilton Mourão, his running mate, and promises to fill his cabinet with other generals. In a recent video produced by Haddad, he can be seen arguing: “You won’t change anything in this country through voting…You’ll only change things by having a civil war and doing the work the military regime didn’t do. Killing 30,000….If a few innocent people die, that’s alright.”

Bolsonaro doesn’t talk like that now, for obvious reasons, but there is no reason to believe that he has changed his mind. Brazil’s 200 million people may be in for some nasty surprises – and beyond the country’s borders Bolsonaro’s presidency will encourage neo-fascists and would-be military dictators in other Latin American countries.

That’s the real concern, and it extends to other continents too. The wave of non-violent revolutions that spread democracy to every part of the world (including Brazil) in the past few decades seems to have gone into reverse.

In some countries, like Thailand and Egypt, the generals are openly back in power. In others, like Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines, ‘illiberal democracies’ run by strongmen have replaced the genuine article. Even in long established democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy the nationalists and populists dominate the political scene.

There are some counter-currents, of course. Mexico, the other Latin American giant, is getting its first ever left-wing government this year. Hard right challenges to the established democratic order have been fended off in France, Germany and the Netherlands. But the tide is running strongly in the other direction.

How bad will it get, and how long will it stay bad? Quite bad and for quite a while, one suspects. The world is not yet heading back towards big great-power war, but we are entering the last critical decade before climate change overwhelms us with a growing number of governments that are not only potentially violent but militantly ignorant.
____________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“Trump…policeman”; and “There are…direction”)