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Obama, Climate Change and the Second Term

7 November 2012

Obama, Climate Change and the Second Term

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s hard to know how much impact New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comments about climate change after Hurricane Sandy had on the US election. It’s easy to overestimate that sort of thing, but President Barack Obama’s victory in several states was so razor-thin that Bloomberg’s last-minute intervention may have been decisive. What’s crystal clear is that Obama himself didn’t want to talk about it during the campaign.

Bloomberg, responding to the devastation he saw in New York City, laid it on the line. “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not have been the result of it, the risk that it may be…should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

The New York mayor, a former Republican, did not hesitate to assign praise and blame: “Over the past four years, President Barack Obama has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption, including setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. Mitt Romney, too has a history of tackling climate change…He couldn’t have been more right. But since then, he has reversed course.”

He said this only five days before the election, in the immediate aftermath of a national calamity that may well have been climate-related. So did Obama pick up the ball and run with it? Certainly not. Apart from a one-liner about how climate change “threatens the future of our children” in a single speech, he remained stubbornly silent.

Rightly or wrongly, Obama and his team have been convinced for the past four years that talking about climate change is political suicide. Nor did he actually do all that much: higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles was his only major initiative.

And Mitt Romney, of course, said not a word about climate change: you cannot take this problem seriously and retain any credibility in today’s Republican Party. So was all the instant speculation about how Hurricane Sandy might finally awaken Americans to the dangers of climate change just wishful thinking? Not necessarily.

Obama faces a daunting array of problems as he begins his second term: avoiding the“fiscal cliff”, restraining Israel from attacking Iran, tackling the huge budget deficit, and getting US troops out of Afghanistan. But the biggest problem facing every country is climate change, and he knows it. Otherwise, he would never have appointed a man like John Holdren to be his chief scientific adviser.

Holdren, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is one of the leading proponents of action on climate change. He is also savvy enough politically to understand why Obama couldn’t do much about it during his first term, and he didn’t flounce out in a rage when the president avoided that fight.

Obama rarely start fights he cannot win, and it was clear from the day he took office in 2009 that he couldn’t get any climate-related legislation through Congress. That’s why his fuel-efficiency initiative was his only first-term accomplishment on this front: that did not require legislation, and was done as a regulatory initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency. To what extent has his re-election changed this equation?

Second-term US presidents, who no longer have to worry about re-election, often act more boldly than in their first term. The US economy is clearly in recovery mode, and Obama will (quite justly) get the credit for that. That will give him more leeway to act on other issues, and the environmental disasters of the past year may finally be pushing American public opinion towards a recognition that the threat of climate change is real.

There is not yet any opinion-polling data on that, but it wouldn’t be surprising. This year has seen meltdown in the Arctic, heatwaves that killed over ten percent of the main grain crops in the United States, big changes in the jetstream (which may be responsible for the prolonged high-pressure zone that steered Hurricane Sandy into New York), and then the fury of the storm itself.

It has long been argued that what is needed to penetrate the American public’s resistance to the bad news of climate change is a major climate-related disaster THAT HURTS PEOPLE IN THE UNITED STATES. Even if Sandy may not have been a direct consequence of global warming, it fills that bill. It may get the donkey’s attention at last.

There is no guarantee of that, and each year the risk grows that the average global temperature will eventually rise by over 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) and topple into uncontrollable, runaway warming. Moreover, the Republicans still control the lower house of Congress. But hope springs eternal, and at last there is some.

The past two weeks have seen an unexpected and promising conjunction of events: a weather event that may shake the American public’s denial of climate change, and the re-election of a president who gets it, and who is now politically free to act on his convictions. As “Businessweek” (a magazine owned by Michael Bloomberg) put it on last week’s cover: “It’s global warming, stupid.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“The New York…course”; and “There is…itself”)


Bhutan Leads the Way

22 November 2004

Bhutan Leads the Way

By Gwynne Dyer

Somebody had to lead the way, but who would have thought that it would be Bhutan? Last week, the tiny Himalayan kingdom became the first country to ban smoking altogether: indoors, outdoors, on mountain-tops, in the out-house, everywhere. It is now illegal to sell tobacco in any form in Bhutan: individuals caught doing so will pay a $210 fine (two or three months’ wages for the average Bhutanese), and businesses will lose their licences. But you KNOW that what the Bhutanese government has just created is a smuggling industry.

The government know it, too. “If any foreigner is caught selling tobacco products to Bhutanese nationals, he will be charged with smuggling,” Karma Tshering of the Bhutanese customs told the British Broadcasting Corporation just after the ban went into effect. “Tobacco will be treated as contraband.” Like alcohol during the Prohibition era in the United States, or like “drugs” during the current wave of moral panic in the world.

Bhutan’s tiny underworld will start to grow and get rich off the tobacco ban this week, but it will be some time before outright bans on tobacco in bigger countries create the kind of global bonanza for criminals that the alcohol and “drug” bans did. Smoking bans are probably coming too, however: the pattern of agitation by groups who claim to be concerned about health risks, but who are really driven by intolerance for self-destructive behaviour in others, is exactly the same this time.

It is true that smoking tobacco is a bigger health risk than consuming “drugs” (including the so-called “hard drugs” like heroin). It’s even greater than the health risk involved in drinking alcohol. But it very rarely hurts anybody except the user, so why is it anybody else’s business?

In public spaces that must be shared, it is everybody’s business: non-smokers have a right not to be annoyed by other people’s smoke. But to extend that ban to ALL indoor public spaces including bars that wish to cater only to smokers and their consenting friends, as New York City did last year, Ireland did this year, and even Poland will probably be doing in five years’ time — the Californification of the planet marches relentlessly eastwards — is simply intolerance fuelled by ideology.

It’s a relatively small act of intolerance, but more will follow. The Bhutanese, being a bit out of the mainstream, have misread the cultural signals and jumped the gun, but absolute bans on tobacco use even in private are probably no more than five or ten years away in some major jurisdictions. That will, of course, create the same pattern of organised crime and the same huge illegal cash flow that previous bans on alcohol and “drugs” did. Why would it be any different this time?

Organised crime has grown to its present impressive scale almost entirely by providing goods and services that large numbers of people want, but that local laws forbid: gambling, prostitution, alcohol, and narcotic and psychedelic drugs. This is quite clear to everybody in the business: the Colombian cartels would no more vote for the legalisation of cocaine today than Al Capone would have voted for the end of alcohol Prohibition in the America of the 1930s. And in due course, there will be a new mafia that specialises in the supply of illegal tobacco.

The proportion of persistent smokers in the populations of developed countries will probably stabilise in the end in the same ten-to-fifteen percent range as the number of regular “drug” users in those societies whether or not there is an outright ban on tobacco. Smoking rates have been dropping steadily for decades now due to medical fears and social pressures, but an irreducible residue of hopeless addicts and determined rebels will remain in every country no matter what is done. The temptation will be to punish them for their persistence and rationalise it as being “for their own good.” It is a temptation that should be resisted.

More lives would undoubtedly be saved by an outright ban on smoking than would be lost to its side-effects, like an upsurge in organised crime. Smoking really does kill people, though not nearly so many as the anti-smoking crusaders claim (and the “evidence” for the damage allegedly done to the health of non-smokers by “passive smoking” has been shamelessly inflated or simply contrived). The point is that we should not be using the law to regulate or punish personal behaviour if it does not harm other people.

Preventable deaths happen because of smoking, but so also do they happen because of speeding — yet we are not going to fit devices restricting all cars to 60 mph (90 kph). Societies that have a long cultural commitment to alcohol are probably not going to ban it again, even though alcohol abuse is involved in a large proportion of the cases of domestic violence, street violence, and accidental deaths in those societies. And we are certainly not going to ban junk foods, even though obesity is a rapidly growing phenomenon that significantly shortens people’s lives..

Neither what we ban or what we permit, in other words, is decided on a rational basis. It is driven by social panic and moralistic propaganda, modified to some extent by traditional prejudices, and decided almost entirely without regard to the real consequences. Tobacco is now shifting into the category of things that may be banned, and in time it will be banned outright in many places. Regardless of the damage done.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Organised…tobacco”;and “More…people”)

Anarchy in the Streets

April 13, 2003

Anarchy in the Streets

By Gwynne Dyer

Watching Iraq’s cities dissolve into anarchy, many people wondered why the American and British soldiers didn’t intervene to stop the looting and revenge-taking. Some assumed that this is what always happens when dictatorships fall. Others, however, were struck by how thin the civilised veneer of law and order really is.

The foreign troops didn’t act because they were trained for combat, not for police work. They don’t speak Arabic, and if they intervened on a large scale they would end up killing too many civilians. But this is NOT what automatically happens when dictatorships end.

There were no scenes like this in Manila after the overthrow of the dictator Marcos in 1986, or in East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down, or in Moscow when the Soviet regime collapsed, or in Belgrade after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic three years ago. But those were all non-violent democratic revolutions coming from within, whereas this is a foreign invasion that drove all the police off the streets.

The police are the heart of the matter, and the phenomenon has nothing to do with Iraq being an Arab country or a recent ex-dictatorship. No city is more than 48 hours away from violent anarchy. Consider two films that are making the rounds at the moment.

One is Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Gangs of New York’, a vivid and meticulous recreation of the terrifying slum called the Five Points (where Foley Square is now) from the 1840s to the 1860s. The other is Fernando Meirelles’s ‘Cidade de Deus’ (City of God), a jittery, hand-held pseudo-documentary chronicling gang life and death in Rio de Janeiro’s teeming, ultra-violent Zona Norte from the 1970s to the 1990s. The two films could not be more different in style — but they are essentially the same film.

The arc of the stories is identical: twenty years in the life of the gangs, as youthful apprentices murder their way up the local power structure, enjoy their moment of glory, and are eventually deposed by the next lot of ruthless juvenile killers. What’s curious, given that New York and Rio de Janeiro are cities of about the same age, is that the stories are set more than a hundred years apart. Rio didn’t have gangs like that a hundred years ago, and New York City has not had them since. How come?

There were certainly criminals operating in Rio in the 19th century, and there are lots of organised criminal groups still operating in New York today. But what you didn’t have in Rio then, and haven’t had in New York for over a century, are large gangs of violent criminals, drawn from the poorest class, who openly control whole neighbourhoods, wage pitched battles against each other, and sortie out into the wealthier parts of the city to rob, terrorise, pillage and kill.

So what causes them? If you only watched ‘Cidade de Deus’ you might say it was drugs, for that is the main source of income for the gangs of Rio and the main cause for wars between them. But there was no drug trade of the same kind in New York in the 1840s, and the gangs thrived anyway.

Poverty, then? You need a critical mass of desperately poor people to get gangs of this sort, certainly, but why do we not see the same phenomenon in Mexico City, Cairo and Delhi, cities that have millions of desperately poor people? There is plenty of crime in those cities, but nothing to compare with brazen, lethal gangs of 1840s New York and present-day Rio.

The real answer is in the films themselves. A dominant theme in both ‘Gangs of New York’ and ‘City of God’ is the corruption of the police, who are in league with the gang bosses. The entire structure of city government, police force and gangs is one vast criminal conspiracy, and everybody thrives except the public. The key is the police: so long as they have a basic commitment to the preservation of law and order, anarchy and gang rule can be avoided. If they lack that commitment, or simply are not present on the streets, all hell breaks loose.

It’s not that everybody is a potential criminal waiting for a chance to break loose, but such people do exist everywhere. In small societies, the discipline that keeps them under control comes from social pressure, backed by direct action when necessary. In societies so big that most people are strangers to one another, social discipline has to be backed up by a police force. It’s as true for Boston and Bombay as it is for Baghdad: if the police stop doing their job, it’s a matter of hours before the wicked and the desperate seize their opportunity. Anarchy is never that far away.

The chaos in Iraqi cities will subside in coming days as the occupying powers get the local police force back on the streets. Most of the looting could not have been prevented — but a curse upon the commander who ignored the pleas of archaeologists from all over the world and failed to guard the National Museum of Iraq from the looters. For the want of a dozen soldiers, tens of thousands of irreplaceable artefacts from the earliest human civilisations have been lost. In the broadest sense, that officer is guilty of a crime against all humanity.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“So what…Rio”)