Good Things Elsewhere

It’s all Donald Trump all the time, unless it’s Ted Cruz, or maybe, sometimes, Marco Rubio, which is fine with Hillary Clinton – no one is talking about Benghazi or her emails. And who is this Ben Carson person? Is he still running for president?

Well, something is going on. The evening before the last Republican debate of the year there was this:

Protesters repeatedly interrupted Donald Trump during a campaign rally tonight, creating a tense atmosphere on the eve of a Republican debate scheduled here Tuesday. Trump was shouted at by demonstrators yelling “black lives matter!” as they were ushered out by security and confronted by Trump supporters. In a video of the event, punches and kicks are exchanged between demonstrators and those in attendance at the rally.

“Light that [expletive] on fire,” one person can be heard saying as an African American demonstrator sat on the ground and was pulled up by security.

That would be “Light that nigger on fire” of course, and you weren’t supposed to see that:

A Secret Service agent joined a Trump campaign aide in blocking reporters from leaving a media pen to report on the scuffles.

That is expected and fully accepted now, that the media should be kept in a pen far off to the side – they might report the wrong stuff – but everyone has some sort of cell phone now. “Civilian” videos are inevitable, except that may not matter now:

At a rally last week in Iowa, Trump urged a crowd to be gentle with protesters as security led them outside. But on Monday night, Trump did not discourage aggressive treatment of those disrupting him.

“Get him out of here, please,” Trump said as supporters shouted down a heckler being led away by security.

Trump has his thugs. Disrespect him – suggest that when he says “the blacks” love him that this might not be the case – and you’ll pay the price. Some niggers should be set on fire. The rest of them should shut the fuck up. His supporters are “enthusiastic” – as he has proudly noted again and again. Be very careful what you say. If you’re lucky he’ll only sue you for defamation. But you probably won’t be that lucky.

It’s getting nasty out there, or it’s all in good fun – take your choice – but Donald Trump isn’t president yet, nor are any of the others. We have a president, actually in office, and he’s actually doing things:

Negotiators from 196 countries approved a landmark climate accord on Saturday that seeks to dramatically reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases blamed for a dangerous warming of the planet.

The agreement, adopted after 13 days of intense bargaining in a Paris suburb, puts the world’s nations on a course that could fundamentally change the way energy is produced and consumed, gradually reducing reliance on fossil fuels in favor of cleaner forms of energy.

“History will remember this day,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said after the pact was gaveled through to thunderous applause. “The Paris agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people.”

No one seemed to notice, but Obama forced this through, or John Kerry forced this through for him, and it was rather amazing:

The deal was struck in a rare show of near-universal accord, as poor and wealthy nations from across the political and geographic spectrum expressed support for measures that require all to take steps to battle climate change. The agreement binds together pledges by individual nations to cut or limit emissions from fossil-fuel burning, within a framework of rules that provide for monitoring and verification as well as financial and technical assistance for developing countries.

The overarching goal is to bring down pollution levels so that the rise in global temperatures is limited to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial averages. Delegates added language that expressed an ambition to restrict the temperature increase even further, to 1.5 degrees C, if possible.

That was moving beyond consensus, a good thing for the planet, and a good thing for Obama:

The agreement is a major diplomatic achievement for the Obama administration, which has made climate change a signature issue in the face of determined opposition from congressional Republicans, many of whom dispute the scientific consensus that links man-made pollution to the Earth’s recent warming.

President Obama, in an appearance at the White House, hailed the agreement as a “turning point for the world,” adding, “We came together around the strong agreement the world needed. Together we’ve shown what’s possible when the world stands as one.”

Obama helped set the stage for the agreement by forging a deal with China last year to work jointly to scale back emissions from their two countries, the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. U.S. officials also helped engineer the accord’s unusual “bottom-up” structure, which, by relying on voluntary pledges to cut emissions, spares the White House from having to seek formal approval from a hostile Congress.

That last bit is important:

Earlier in the week, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, pronounced the Paris talks “full of hot air” and vowed to block the White House from using taxpayer funds to help carry out the accord.

On Saturday, Inhofe said, “The news remains the same. This agreement is no more binding than any other ‘agreement’ from any Conference of the Parties over the last 21 years. Senate leadership has already been outspoken in its positions that the United States is not legally bound to any agreement setting emissions targets or any financial commitment to it without approval by Congress.”

Inhofe will find a way to stop this, even if it’s not a treaty, but that gets tricky, but then this agreement itself is tricky, as Mark Hertsgaard explains here:

Did we save civilization? Or screw it? As you sort through the post-summit spin, here’s a central fact to keep in mind. When it comes to climate change, the United States is both an outlier and the ultimate insider.

It’s an outlier because it is the only major country where denial of climate science is still taken seriously by powerful forces in politics, government, and the media. This reality, which leaves the rest of the world alternately shaking its head and gnashing its teeth, sharply constrained the ambition of any agreement the Obama administration could commit to in Paris.

At the same time, the United States is the ultimate climate insider because it’s the No. 1 global warming polluter on earth. Yes, yes, China emits more heat-trapping greenhouse gases on an annual basis, but the atmosphere cares about emissions over time, and here the U.S. remains well ahead. The U.S. has ranked among the world’s leading producers of oil and gas for decades; its 20th-century rise to superpower status was powered largely by its access to cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Like any petro-state, the U.S. is a climate insider because it accounts for so much of the problem.

Keep that in mind when you consider what Secretary of State John Kerry said at a standing room-only press conference:

After some opening pleasantries and scene setting, Kerry plunged into substance and began discussing – what? The policy specifics of the U.S. position in Paris? The intended news-peg of the speech, Kerry’s announcement of $800 million in aid to developing countries to help them cope with sea level rise, worsening droughts, and other climate impacts that can no longer be avoided?

No, Kerry focused on climate change deniers. He began by trying to make a joke: “My friends, these people are so out of touch with science that they believe that rising sea levels don’t matter, because in their view, the extra water is just going to spill out over the sides of a flat Earth.”

Nobody laughed, but I don’t think the problem was simply Kerry’s earnest delivery. It was also that many of the journalists in the room were from other countries, and most other countries stopped heeding climate deniers not just years but decades ago.

Ah, but here climate deniers dominate the Republican Party and the Republican Party holds majorities in both houses of Congress and the Senate in particular could block any Paris agreement that could be legally classified as a treaty. Kerry and Obama know that, and that’s why, as Hertsgaard notes, this Paris agreement ended up a “confounding hybrid” mess:

On one hand, it contains soaring, even unprecedented, pledges to fix the problem. It commits the world’s governments to limit global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue even the 1.5 degrees goal that poor and especially vulnerable countries demanded. (After all, low-lying island states are already disappearing under rising sea levels after “only” 1 degree Celsius of temperature rise, while vast swaths of Africa and Central Asia have been enduring record droughts and floods.)

These audacious goals will be achieved by de-carbonizing the global economy “as soon as possible” and in any case by the second half of this century. That pledge in turn means that oil, gas, and coal – which collectively provide more than 80 percent of humanity’s energy today – must be abandoned, a stunning departure from business as usual. These and other aspects of the Paris agreement are why boosters have a point in calling it a “historic” breakthrough.

On the other hand, these pledges are not binding, and the Paris agreement lacks a convincing road map for delivering on its lofty goals. The emissions reductions currently pledged by individual countries, even if fully implemented, would result in temperatures rising by roughly 3 degrees Celsius, a suicidal amount. And the only means of enforcing these voluntary pledges will be public shaming by civil society and the rest of the international community.

What’s more, most of the reductions are not scheduled to begin until 2020, even though scientists have warned that global emissions should peak by 2020 if we want to have a good chance of preserving the cryosphere – the snow- and ice-covered regions of the earth, which are melting at terrifying speed. (Lose the Greenland ice sheet and we ensure roughly 20 feet of eventual sea level rise; lose the West Antarctic ice sheet and it is 80 feet.)

Nor does the Paris agreement provide anywhere near enough financial aid so that developing nations can do what’s necessary: reject coal and other dirty energy options in favor of solar, wind, and climate-friendly alternatives even as they prepare for the climate impacts certain to increasingly punish them in the years ahead by erecting sea defenses, improving weather forecasting capacities, and strengthening water supply and health systems. The agreement simply reiterates a commitment wealthy countries made at the Copenhagen summit in 2009 to provide $100 billion a year in climate aid by 2020; it promises to begin increasing such aid in 2025, though by an unspecified amount.

That really is a mess, but then it had to be a mess:

The terrible irony is that the final Paris agreement is at once a disastrous disappointment and probably the best that could have been achieved, given the effective veto power that climate deniers in the U.S. exercised over the process. The agreement almost certainly would have been more ambitious had the Obama administration not had to craft it to avoid a certain veto by Senate Republicans.

Kerry admitted as much in Paris, albeit usually behind closed doors. “He said he wished that we could include specific dates and figures for emissions cuts and financial aid [to developing countries], but he explained this could trigger a review by the U.S. Senate that could scuttle the entire agreement,” a delegate from a Mediterranean country told me, requesting anonymity because his government is a U.S. ally.

Everyone understands:

Last Friday, as the negotiations approached their final 24 hours, the Chinese vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, told a press conference, “The U.S. secretary of state said that his government would face domestic difficulties if [specific emissions targets and timetables] are included in the Paris agreement.” Liu added, “We must have the United States on board for a successful Paris agreement. We need to find a solution that is acceptable to all.”

That, however, was a half-assed solution:

The Paris agreement is an amazing achievement that could herald the end of the fossil fuel era, but only if civil society in all its forms pushes governments and corporations the world over to act with unprecedented speed and ambition to go beyond its voluntary and insufficiently bold provisions.

Climate activists are already promising to invoke the 1.5 degrees target to block every new oil pipeline, fracking operation, and other type of fossil fuel infrastructure that gets proposed. Business and finance arguably will play the most decisive role. Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin, led a group of CEOs who pledged in Paris to make their own companies carbon neutral by 2050, a trajectory they said was consistent with 1.5 degrees. “It’s actually just not that big a deal,” said Branson, but he emphasized that investors and entrepreneurs “need clear long-term goals set by governments this week.”

Everything is obviously a bit loose. Still, this is a big deal, upsetting everything:

While the end of the fossil fuel era would be good news from the perspective of preserving a livable planet for our children and their children, it amounts to a death sentence for the fossil fuel industry as currently constituted. Climate deniers in Congress may have been the immediate reason why the U.S. delegation didn’t support a stronger agreement in Paris, but it is the ExxonMobil’s and Koch brothers of the world who command the allegiance of those climate deniers.

“Rather than blame Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama, who I think understand the climate crisis and want to do what they can to reach a just agreement in Paris, we should blame Charles and David Koch, because it is their funding of climate deniers in Congress that has made it impossible for the U.S. to be more ambitious at this summit,” said Victor Menotti, director of the International Forum on Globalization, a nongovernmental organization in San Francisco.

So it comes down to this:

It’s the oldest rule in politics: follow the money. Climate change has always been about money, but the Paris agreement has a chance to change where money will flow, how quickly, and in what quantities. If civil society and political leadership can make large enough sums shift away from fossil fuels and toward climate-friendly alternatives quickly enough, Paris could be remembered with immense gratitude by any future descendants we may have.

If not, we’re screwed, and the New Yorkers’ John Cassidy adds this:

Right now, according to figures from the World Bank, the United States emits about seventeen tons of carbon dioxide per capita, and India emits 1.7 metric tons per capita. As India and other developing countries continue to industrialize and use more energy, that huge gap will in emissions undoubtedly narrow. But the world’s sustainable “carbon budget” – the amount that can be burned without sparking a much more dramatic rise in temperatures – is shrinking all the time.

Last week, speaking to the Guardian, James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who did much to popularize the dangers of climate changes, dismissed the Paris talks as a “fraud” and “just worthless words.” Those were strong statements from someone who believes passionately in imposing carbon taxes. (“As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned,” Hansen added.)

To be a little skeptical about an accord that puts off many of the difficult decisions until 2020 at the earliest, and that lacks a well-specified set of incentives for the participants, you don’t have to fully agree with Hansen. You can look at history. In defending the Paris agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry likened the international effort to tackle climate change to the movement, during the nineteen sixties, to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, which culminated in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – a successful agreement that is still in force.

Cassidy thinks that’s the wrong analogy:

There is an earlier, less hopeful parallel, which also involves Paris. In 1928, representatives of fifteen countries, including the United States, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, gathered in the French capital and signed the General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy. Put together by Frank B. Kellogg, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Aristide Briand, the French foreign minister, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, as it is usually called, sought to outlaw warfare as a means of settling territorial disputes. Despite the treaty’s lack of an enforcement mechanism, its signing was hailed in some quarters as a historic turning point that would help keep the world at peace. In 1929, Kellogg received the Nobel Peace Prize; by 1933, sixty-five countries had agreed to abide by the agreement. Within a decade, the world was at war.

This could be one of those, and Politico’s Michael Hirsh has similar thoughts:

Two very different groups of visitors came to Paris in the past month: The first, terrorists bent on disrupting Western civilization there; the second, world leaders bent on saving that civilization – and the planet itself. Both groups succeeded in their aims, to differing degrees. The terrorists who killed 130 people on Nov. 13 did a fair job of terrorizing everybody, and pushing politicians near and far into measures that, if overdone or made permanent, could compromise the basic values of our now-globalized democratic culture. French President François Hollande’s sweeping anti-terrorism measures, which allow him to detain anyone he wants (at least under house arrest) pre-emptively and without judicial approval, are only inches away from martial law – the threat of civilizational breakdown, in other words.

The question is whether the political leaders who signed what is being called “L’accord de Paris” were more effective in their efforts to preserve this civilization than the terrorists were in theirs to destroy it. Granted, the climate pact has plenty of holes – the biggest of which is that it is fairly nonbinding – but it still represents the strongest global consensus in two decades on climate change, bringing in nearly every nation on earth and amounting to, as President Barack Obama said, “the best chance we’ve had to save the one planet we’ve got.”

So consider the contrast:

We should step back for a moment and take a wider-angle look at the contest we saw in microcosm over the past month in Paris – the one between the international community (civilization, if you will) we inhabit and the enemies who are trying to upend it. Paris represented both the worst and the best of the international system – in that order – between the vulnerabilities exposed by the shootings and the (relative) unity demonstrated by the climate deal.

It seems, frankly, a pretty unequal contest. Like Paris itself, the international community is bound to survive handily against the incursions of ISIS and its minions. Islamist radicals, after all, are only the latest incarnation of holdouts to this Westernized global system, and like their predecessors they’ll probably end up in the ash heap of history someday.

And on the other side:

Islamists are just another in a long line of insurgent groups that have sought to organize against Westernization: Both German fascism and Japanese imperial militarism initially saw themselves as resistance movements to the perceived corrupting tendencies of the West. Both movements, of course, failed spectacularly – and both nations ended up becoming stalwart members of the international system. Radical Islamism, contrary to the kinds of things Marco Rubio has been saying, is not a rival “civilization.” It is a vicious insurgency against our own.

And yet we all seem pretty confused still about what it is we’re defending. One of the biggest problems of understanding the stakes in this contest is that the international community represented by L’accord de Paris seems such a gauzy thing. What is it really?

That is the question:

Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth in my own mind about how real a thing the international community is. Clearly in recent years there’s been reason to doubt it. And yet it also seems incontrovertible that there are lots more “good guys” who are organized out there than there are “bad guys,” and the good guys – all the civilized nations, in other words – benefit from a “natural bonding agent” in the common fight against terrorism, in the words of Yale scholar Charles Hill. Across the global economy there is a deep and growing nexus of governments and peoples that share common interests and values, even if one of them is greed.

That will have to do, as bonding may matter more than motive. Nancy LeTourneau shows how that worked in this case:

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember another time when the entire world has managed to agree on anything beyond symbolic gestures. So far, I haven’t come up with an example – but if you historians can think of something, let me know.

As others have noted, the work of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to bring China on board removed one of the major obstacles to an agreement. But have you ever worked with a group that tries to use consensus as an approach? I sure have – and even in small groups it is a painfully slow and frustrating decision-making process.

That’s why I find it fascinating that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius adopted a South African process known as “indabas” to reach consensus.

That would be this:

Zulu and Xhosa communities use “indabas” to give everyone equal opportunity to voice their opinions in order to work toward consensus.

They were first used in UN climate talks in Durban in 2011 when, with the talks deadlocked and the summit just minutes from collapse, the South African presidency asked the main countries to form a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and to talk directly to each other.

Instead of repeating stated positions, diplomats were encouraged to talk personally and quietly about their “red lines” and to propose solutions to each other.

By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes.

LeTourneau:

To the Western ear, that’s the kind of thing we tend to write off as way too “touchy/feely” for our sensibilities. But perhaps that’s the point. Maybe it’s time the Western world opened up to an approach other than the one that insists that differences are best resolved by a top-down process of dominance.

That’s Donald Trump’s thing, but not Obama’s:

For years now I have been suggesting that President Obama’s approach was to replace our antiquated notions of the power of dominance with an exploration of the power of partnership. His efforts haven’t always shown immediate success. But when he was able to convince Russia and China to join the coalition of countries imposing tough sanctions on Iran, we saw how the power of partnership brought them to the table to negotiate an agreement to stop the development of nuclear weapons.

And it worked again. And then there are Donald Trump’s thugs, his enforcers – differences are best resolved by a top-down process of dominance. Many agree, and Obama will be gone soon enough, but at least he got a number of good things done in our eight years of being relatively civilized about things. Now what? You don’t want to know. But you know.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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