On Wednesday, the US Congress did something we’d forgotten was possible. It held a hearing about climate change. In fact, it held two. These were the first sessions that the US House of Representatives had devoted to the subject since 2010. Students of politics will recall that was the year when the House shifted to Republican control. Only last month did Democrats regain the gavel. It was a lost decade for congressional action to combat global warming. But it was a boom period for the heating planet itself. During that time, the world experienced nine of the hottest 18 years on record (eight of the other nine were earlier in this century). Houston experienced three consecutive once-in-500-year floods and the world passed the 400 parts per million threshold that scientists have long warned we shouldn’t breach. So it was a good moment for America’s legislature to start paying attention again. “Today we turn from climate denial to climate action,” said Raúl Grijalva, chairman of the House natural resources committee.
Let’s hope he’s right. The night before, Donald Trump gave his annual State of the Union address. Just as in his previous two speeches to the joint chambers of Congress, the word “climate” didn’t appear. He did, however, devote several minutes to the US fossil fuel boom. “The United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world,” Trump said, to thunderous applause from half of the chamber. We live in an age of exhausted superlatives. Readers are numb with the unending stream of weaponised catchphrases and apocalyptic predictions. So I’ll spare you the worst. But consider this. Precisely half the stock of carbon emissions in our atmosphere have been released since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. That was the moment when the world, led by George HW Bush, a Republican president, decided it was time to start paying attention. Which goes to show that paying attention isn’t enough. In that year, the world had warmed 0.6 degrees centigrade from the 19th century global average temperature. The increase now stands at 1.2 degrees centigrade. Our temperatures have doubled and our politics has halved.
Today we have a Republican president who doesn’t even think the topic is worth mentioning. When the US government’s national climate assessment was released last November, Trump’s response was: “I don’t believe it.” The report was the product of four years of non-partisan work by 300 federal scientists and 13 federal agencies. So what happens next? The world will continue to heat up. And we’ll place ever greater hope in the Hail Mary of some kind of a technological breakthrough. There will be excitement, as there should be, about the Democratic launch of a Green New Deal. It’s certainly the product of good intentions. But by avoiding nuclear power, it’s also liable to political correctness. There simply isn’t enough affordable renewable energy to replace fossil fuels without the help of nuclear power. The servers that power cryptocurrencies use up more electricity than the world’s combined renewable energy capacity. Still, plan beats no plan, as Tim Geithner used to say. And Trump has no plan to come up with a plan. Rana, have you had a chance to read the Green New Deal yet? If so, what’s your take?
- I have two columns this week. The first — my hot take on Trump’s State of the Union address — looks at his rash double or quits on building that wall with Mexico. My regular column looks at the kakistocratic race between Brexit Britain and Trump’s America.
- Arvind Subramanian and Josh Felman have a sobering warning about the impact of China’s economic slowdown — deporting deflation to the west and sparking competitive devaluations with other emerging markets. Arvind has a good forecasting record on the big global economic trends. So read this.
- The FT has a stern and richly merited editorial on Trump’s choice of David Malpass as the next head of the World Bank. To put it mildly, Malpass’s record as an economist and an administrator raises questions about the future of the World Bank.
- Finally, the New York Times has a revealing profile of the young Beto O’Rourke’s restless search for meaning as a student in New York. Those who have kept half an eye on the likely Democratic candidate’s road movie will find confirmation of George Will’s description of O’Rourke as a “skateboarding man-child”. This profile reads more like he’s auditioning to be class president, not president of the US. It really is time that a woman got the job.
Rana Foroohar responds
Ed, I’ve indeed read over the Green New Deal put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On the one hand, I love the bigness of it; I can’t remember the last time I saw this kind of bold language and lofty goals in a piece of legislation. And I like that; in the same way that I admired AOC for not standing up and clapping mindlessly during the SOTU, I admire her for proposing a moon shot. But aside from needing a lot more detail, the plan will also require a lot of political wrangling. Labour, which should be one of her natural allies, won’t love the job implications of shutting down steel plants that run on fossil fuels. And she’ll need to schmooze business with the language of sustainable investment. I suspect the way to bridge the gap will be to somehow position all this within the context of competitiveness, job creation and the US-China tech/trade war. That’s a lot of string pulling to do.
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