Measures of greatness in Trump’s America

Is America greater under Trump? It depends how you measure it.

Would I lie to you? Donald Trump on the hustings, 2018. PHOTO Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

Would I lie to you? Donald Trump on the hustings, 2018. PHOTO Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

Two years ago the US shocked itself and the world by electing Donald Trump on the promise that he would make America great again. So how’s that going?

That isn’t a completely idle question. The US economy is on the move and employment is rising. In Trump territory, with mothballed coalmines and steelworks operating again, there’s a general air of optimism that their man is on the right track.

It could be argued that Trump’s chosen techniques in dealing with tyrants (puffery, flattery) and democratic allies (indifference, contempt) have had some success. Kim Jon-Un, for instance, seems to have stopped shouting and started talking, though that story still has a long way to go.

These are early days; such things may turn out to be substantial or they may be just specks on history’s broad canvas.

Other impacts of Trumpism, however, are already clear, and certainly not inconsequential. His response to events within and outside the US tell a worrying story about the values of the man in the White House and where these are taking the country – and the world.

A few thousand Central Americans in several groups, fleeing civil strife and seeking US asylum, are presently in far-southern Mexico, over 2000 km by road from the US border. Past experience of these “caravans” suggests few people will make it even to Mexico City, still over 1000 km away.

Without citing evidence, Trump said the caravans harboured “some very bad people… This is an invasion of our Country”. He ordered thousands of troops to the border and warned that refugees who threw stones at them would be treated as if they carried rifles.

“Go into the middle of the caravan,” he told a media interviewer. “You’re going to find Middle Eastern, you’re going to find everything.” His own military advised there was no evidence for his claim but he repeated it anyway. Fear is a potent political tool.

The mid-term election campaign and “The Caravan” especially have added a whole drawer-full to an already-burgeoning file of false statements by Trump, as catalogued assiduously by Glenn Kessler’s Washington Post Fact Checker blog.

It was clear from day one that truth-telling (or its absence) would be a defining factor in Trump’s presidency. Since then Kessler and his team have subjected each of his factual claims to a rigorous, transparent checking process.

This revealed a rising crescendo of falsehoods in the final weeks of the mid-term campaign, including one day last month when Trump made 84 claims that were untrue. Over that month he made over 1000 false statements, bringing his presidential total to date to over 6400.

Of the many attempts to analyse and explain this phenomenal rate of misstatement (in the absence of evidence about prior knowledge I wouldn’t call it all outright lying), most conclude simply that Trump is a president like no other.

The president doesn’t care about factual accuracy, but he does value truth as a political weapon. While accusing detractors of lying, he constantly reassures followers that in today’s ocean of fake news Donald Trump is a beacon of honesty, the only person they can rely on for real truth.

Alas, if only that were true.

Another element of the Trump campaign toolbox is altogether more sinister. The language of physical violence has surfaced often during the president’s term of office, as it did in the months before his election.

At one of his early campaign rallies Trump told supporters to “knock the crap” out of anyone they saw preparing to throw a tomato at him, adding “I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.”

At another rally the same month he drew supporters’ attention to a protester being escorted away: “He’s walking out with big high-fives, smiling, laughing. I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell you.”

Then there is the notorious case of Greg Gianforte, who as a candidate for Congress in 2017 got annoyed at a news reporter and slammed him to the floor. Gianforte was fined for assault and required to undertake anger management training.

Some of us might have questioned the fitness for office of a man who can’t contain his rage at a reporter’s questioning. Trump’s view is, well, Trumpian. Just a month ago he told a Montana rally that “any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my type!”

Donald Trump is now firmly ensconced in the White House. It will take more than a mid-term tremor to unseat this reality-TV star, supported by his own simplified, scripted reality.

For progressive liberals – special targets of Trump – a nation’s greatness must incorporate concepts like social justice and equality. But greatness to Donald Trump resides in the size of your bicep, or your armoury, and on measures like that America seems to be doing just fine.

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The government needs our help to lead

Tasmania’s climate legislation needs some backbone.

In the endless argument over climate action the word most commonly bandied about is leadership. Many want to claim that mantle for themselves or their country, but what exactly is it? What does it mean to be a leader?

This kind of discussion crops up a lot in Antarctic circles, where every year people come together to form a station community. One member of the station group is selected as leader, but in this hazardous environment everyone is expected to pull together and look out for others.

When putting together a history of Australians in Antarctica, historian Tim Bowden asked a veteran officer-in-charge for the secret of leadership. Simple, was the response. You sit around, work out where the group seems to be heading, then you get in front of them and say “Follow me”.

There’s some cautionary advice here for any leader: don’t try to impose your own values on your people and make sure you remain firmly rooted in their values and internal dynamics. And don’t think that wherever your people think they’re headed, you know better. You don’t.

A succession of recent opinion polls have shown Australians focusing their attention on greenhouse warming, determining that a lot of change needs to happen, and quickly. They have looked at what their governments are offering and found it wanting.

The highly-respected Lowy Poll shows voters’ level of concern steadily rising for each of the past six years, to the point where nearly 60 per cent of all voters, and 70 per cent of younger ones, now see it as “a serious and pressing problem” calling for a significant allocation of resources.

I am not suggesting that governments adjust policies to fit public opinion polls. But governments here and in Canberra have long held that climate change is not a first-order issue. When a steadily rising proportion of voters say that it is, doesn’t that say something?

The leadership principle described above says that you will not be an effective leader unless you address the beliefs and concerns of the people you purport to lead. That doesn’t mean you have to share their priorities, but you are obliged to explain why you don’t.

Tasmania’s Climate Change (State Action) Act of 2008 requires an independent review every four years. In 2016 the Hodgman government commissioned the US-based consultancy firm Jacobs to review performance in achieving the Act’s objectives.

The Jacobs review concluded that the act should include an “aspirational” emissions reduction target of zero net emissions by 2050, that agencies be required to consider climate change in decision making, and that governments be compelled to have a climate change action plan.

The government accepted the aim of zero net emissions by 2050, which seems ambitious, but not if a low level of forest harvesting is factored in. A moribund forest industry is the reason Tasmania has already easily surpassed its legislated target of 60 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

But the government blinked on compulsory climate action plans and compelling agencies to factor climate change into decision-making. It proposes a discussion as to how the latter might happen, and says a compulsory plan isn’t needed because it already has its “Climate Action 21” plan.

We’re now at the pointy end of this drawn out process. The government has released its thoughts about changes needed for our climate legislation, which I think can fairly be described as minimal. But environment minister Elise Archer has allowed scope for plenty of public discussion.

We know voters want governments at all levels to strengthen their commitments, especially after this month’s UN report described climate change as a global crisis. But not being expert in the processes, it’s difficult for ordinary people to tackle government on the details.

What they do know is that given all we have learned about climate change since the legislation first passed 10 years ago, fine-tuning is not enough. Nor is it enough to have the process so firmly controlled by government. We need the full engagement of all parties and both houses of parliament.

We also need the parliament, the government and all its agencies, down to the last individual, to lead by example, and that will not happen unless legislation compels them to incorporate climate change into decision making.

Among significant future decisions facing Tasmanians is investing in fossil-fuelled transport and machinery – items they will expect to use for many years but which climate imperatives may render valueless. We need laws that anticipate and account for such potentially large economic disruptions.

The government is offering information sessions on its legislative proposals this week in Burnie (tomorrow at 2pm, Cradle Coast Offices), Launceston (Thursday, 10am, Sebel Hotel), and Hobart (Friday, 10am, Hobart Function and Conference Centre, Franklin Wharf).

If any of this concerns you, go along and have your say. Help the government see that its legislation must reflect the fact that climate change is now a first-order issue. Help it to become a real leader.

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Geoengineering: welcome to a brave new world

With climate change now belatedly in the political spotlight, we need to focus on a new factor which dramatically raises the stakes.

Geoengineering – deliberate, very large-scale human intervention in the global climate system – will change the whole debate about climate change.

Geoengineering – deliberate, very large-scale human intervention in the global climate system – will change the whole debate about climate change.

Climate change is now – finally – the dominant political issue it should always have been in this country. I believe it will be a determining factor in next year’s general elections.

Australia Institute exit polling found that failure to act on emissions was the clear leader among the many triggers for the collapse of the Liberal vote in Wentworth on Saturday. That trend will only be enhanced by a new element in the climate debate that raises the stakes several notches.

Our guide to apocalypse used to be the Book of Revelations. Now we get it from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the peak science body which says that barring a herculean global effort to stabilise atmospheric carbon levels our goose is cooked – literally.

Carbon emissions from human activities have caused greenhouse warming and are rightly at the forefront of the global debate. But the IPCC calculates that reducing emissions will not in itself prevent dangerous climate change. We must do more.

The new element in the climate debate is deliberate, very large-scale human intervention in the global climate system, or geoengineering – a word we’re going to hear a lot in coming years.

It wasn’t so long ago that many of us, myself included, regarded such thinking as bordering on lunacy. Even now, it’s hard not to think that way.

Broadly, geoengineering involves either removing the most abundant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide removal, or CDR) or managing sunlight in some way so that less of it reaches Earth’s surface (solar radiation management, or SRM).

Methods for CDR range from well-understood land practices including tree-planting and bio-energy through to less familiar schemes to capture and store emitted carbon, remove carbon dioxide from ambient air or add nutrients to the ocean to increase its capacity to take up carbon dioxide.

SRM could be done on Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere or on the edge of space. Surface methods might include protecting existing sea or land ice, using reflective or light-coloured roofing materials, growing light-coloured crops or increasing the ocean’s ability to reflect sunlight.

Or we could use specially-equipped ships to send a fine spray of sea-water into the sky to increase clouds’ ability to reflect sunlight. Other options might be to blast reflective particles into the upper atmosphere, or install huge mirrors in Earth-orbit.

Some CDR methods seem plausible, even desirable. SRM remains for me somewhere on the outer fringe of reality, or beyond. We need to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.

For this we need a high global commitment to long-term research and development in climate science, engineering, law, economics and ethics, and a sustained high level of political stability and respect for international institutions, all of which have been notably lacking in recent times.

The most troubling aspect of geoengineering is its ethical implications. It doesn’t sit well with the idea of humanity in harmony with nature. Measures to deflect sunlight from the surface carry many implications, not least international disputation over how they are to be managed. As the IPCC has said, discontinuing any such measure would lead to a rapid warming that would likely be much worse than what it sought to fix.

I have in the past thought of geoengineering as no more than science fiction, resulting from an over-reliance on technology with more than a hint of testosterone. But I can’t ignore the IPCC’s conclusion that a drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide must be part of our armoury.

Given its worrying implications – not least it economic cost – it may be that geoengineering’s best contribution will turn out to be driving deep and dramatic cuts in global emissions, in which at long last Australia will turn out to be a leading nation. I live with that hope.

Clearly it is something we should all try to get our heads around, sooner rather than later. The University of Tasmania has recognised this need by setting up the Australian Forum for Climate Intervention Governance, aiming to be a Southern Hemisphere leader in this field.

Bringing together expertise in environmental and climate law and ethics, marine governance, environmental humanities and marine and Antarctic science, AFCIG aims to be a focal point for national and international research on legal and governance issues around climate intervention.

At a public forum on the university’s Sandy Bay campus tonight, Tasmanians will be able to hear from legal and other experts and have their say on the many issues around geoengineering.

The panel includes ethicist Clare Heyward of the Arctic University in Tromsø, Norway, Phil Williamson of the University of East Anglia (UK), and Hobart-based legal and scientific specialists Jeff McGee, Kerryn Brent, Phil Boyd and Andrew Lenton. It is at the Centenary Theatre, Grosvenor Street extension, and starts at 5.30 pm.

Geoengineering has implications for all of us, which I find deeply troubling. It cries out for public involvement. If you haven’t been part of the climate debate, now is the time to get on board.

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