[op-ed]: The Big Unknown: Climate action under President Trump

Op-ed written for The Weekend Express broadsheet newspaper in Sri Lanka, 18 November 2016

The Big Unknown: Climate action under President Trump - By Nalaka Gunawardene, Weekend Express, 18 Nov 2016
The Big Unknown: Climate action under President Trump – By Nalaka Gunawardene, Weekend Express, 18 Nov 2016

What does Donald Trump’s election as the next President of the United States mean for action to contain climate change?

The billionaire non-politician — who lost the popular vote by more than a million votes but won the presidency on the basis of the electoral college — has long questioned the science underlying climate change.

He also sees political and other motives in climate action. For example, he tweeted on 6 November 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Trump's tweet on 7 November 2012 - What does it mean for his administration?
Trump’s tweet on 6 November 2012 – What does it mean for his administration?

His vice president, Indiana governor Mike Pence, also does not believe that climate change is caused by human activity.

Does this spell doom for the world’s governments trying to avoid the worst case scenarios in global warming, now widely accepted by scientists as driven by human activity – especially the burning of petroleum and coal?

It is just too early to tell, but the early signs are not promising.

“Trump should drop his pantomime-villain act on climate change. If he does not, then, come January, he will be the only world leader who fails to acknowledge the threat for what it is: urgent, serious and demanding of mature and reasoned debate and action,” said the scientific journal Nature in an editorial on 16 November 2016.

It added: “The world has made its decision on climate change. Action is too slow and too weak, but momentum is building. Opportunities and fortunes are being made. Trump the businessman must realize that the logical response is not to cry hoax and turn his back. The politician in Trump should do what he promised: reject political orthodoxy and listen to the US people.”

It was only on 4 November 2016 that the Paris climate agreement came into force. This is the first time that nearly 200 governments have agreed on legally binding limits to emissions that cause global warming.

All governments that have ratified the accord — which includes the US, China, India and the EU — carry an obligation to contain global warming to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Scientists regard that as the safe limit, beyond which climate change is likely to be both catastrophic and irreversible.

It has been a long and bumpy road to reach this point since the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992. UNFCCC provides the umbrella under which the Paris Agreement works.

High level officials and politicians from 197 countries that have ratified the UNFCCC are meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, this month to iron out the operational details of the Paris Agreement.

Speaking at the Marrakesh meeting this week, China’s vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, pointed out that it was in fact Trump’s Republican predecessors who launched climate negotiations almost three decades ago.

It was only three months ago that the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters – China and the US — agreed to ratify the Paris agreement during a meeting between the Chinese and US presidents.

Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an independent advocacy group in Delhi, has just shared his thoughts on the Trump impact on climate action.

“Will a Trump presidency revoke the ratification of the Paris Agreement? Even if he is not able to revoke it because of international pressure…he will dumb down the US action on climate change. Which means that international collaboration being built around the Paris Agreement will suffer,” he said in a video published on YouTube (see: https://goo.gl/r6KGip)

“If the US is not going to take ambitious actions on climate change, I don’t think India or Chine will take ambitious actions either.  We are therefore looking at a presidency which is going to push climate action around the world down the barrel,” he added.

During his campaign, Trump advocated “energy independence” for the United States (which meant reducing or eliminating the reliance on Middle Eastern oil). But he has been critical of subsidies for solar and wind power, and threatened to end regulations that sought to end the expansion of petroleum and coal use. In other words, he would likely encourage dig more and more domestically for oil.

“Trump doesn’t believe that renewable energy is an important part of the energy future for the world,” says Chandra Bhushan. “He believes that climate change is a conspiracy against the United States…So we are going to deal with a US presidency which is extremely anti-climate.”

Bhushan says Trump can revoke far more easily domestic laws like the Clean Power Plan that President Obama initiated in 2015. It set a national limit on carbon pollution produced from power plants.

“Therefore, whatever (positive) action that we thought was going to happen in the US are in jeopardy. We just have to watch and ensure that, even when an anti-climate administration takes over, we do not allow things to slide down (at global level action),” Bhushan says.

Some science advocates caution against a rush to judgement about how the Trump administration will approach science in general, and climate action in particular.

Nature’s editorial noted: “There is a huge difference between campaigning and governing…It is impossible to know what direction the United States will take under Trump’s stewardship, not least because his campaign was inconsistent, contradictory and so full of falsehood and evasion.”

We can only hope that Trump’s business pragmatism would prevail over climate action. As the Anglo-French environmental activist Edward Goldsmith said years ago, there can be no trade on a dead planet.

Candidate Trump on CNN
Candidate Trump on CNN

Beware: A planet drunk on oil, now ruining itself…

Who spilled our oil?

A monstrous oil spill is gushing as much as 2,500,000 gallons of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico.

This disaster is expected to be catastrophic for the land and people in the gulf. The oil has already reached land, contaminating wildlife sanctuaries. Authorities are so concerned about the impacts of more oil reaching land that they are prefer to set the gulf on fire, burning as much of the oil as possible.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry is raking in windfall profits. BP, which operated the sunken rig, more than doubled its first quarter profits in 2010 to $5.65 billion.

I’ve just signed an urgent petition at Avaaz.org urging U.S. law-makers to overturn plans to expand offshore drilling. As the latest massive oil spill shows, offshore drilling isn’t safe or clean. The world needs clean energy investment to tackle climate, not expansion of dangerous and dirty energy sources.

Addressed to President Obama and members of Congress, it reads, simply: “We urge you to permanently call off plans to open up more of the US coastline to dangerous offshore drilling. Instead, invest in a clean and safe energy future.”

As Avvaz.org notes, “Before the spill, U.S. President Obama and Congressional leaders were planning to ramp up offshore drilling. Now, with the spill, the politics have shifted — and an opportunity has opened for the world’s biggest historical climate polluter to shift away from oil and towards climate-safe energy sources. At a moment like this, when leaders are making up their minds, the world’s voices can help tip the balance.”

Let’s hope it works – but the world is so addicted to its oil, and the petro dollars are so powerful – don’t hold your breath on this…

Read my blog post from March 2009: Mixing oil and water: Media’s challenges in covering human security

BBC Analysis, 6 May 2010: Gulf oil spill washes up on political shores

The XYZ Show: New horizon in political satire on African TV, but room to grow?

Anyone can do ABC; it takes effort to make it all the way to XYZ...
Anyone can do ABC; it takes a special effort to make XYZ...

Update on 1 Sep 2009: Controversy over XYZ Show: Kenyan politicians forgetting Hakuna matata?

I ended a recent blog post, News wrapped in laughter, with this thought: “There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter.

An interesting experiment in political satire on Kenyan television has just ended its first season on 9 August 2009. It’s a show called the XYZ Show, which was broadcast weekly on Kenya’s Citizen TV. Started in mid May 2009, the first season introduced Kenyan viewers to a new form of satire television, with life-sized puppets made to resemble famous persons, mostly politicians.

Gado the Creator
Gado the Creator
The XYZ Show was inspired by famous puppet satire series like the British “Spitting Image” and the French “Les Guignols de l’Info” shows. In the XYZ Show, the puppets commented on news and current events from both Kenya and overseas.

The XYZ Show was developed by a team led by Kenyan cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, alias Gado. He is the most widely syndicated cartoonist in East and Central Africa. He publishes a daily cartoon in The Nation, the largest newspaper in Kenya, and his work has been published in Le Monde (France), Washington Times (US), De Standaard (Belgium) and The Japan Times.

According to its creators, the XYZ Show challenged famous figures from Kenyan high society and politics using humour and satire. It aimed to become a new forum for social and political debate, one that provides room for open discussion.

Watch XYZ Show’s first episode trailer, produced one year ago:

Says the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands, which supported the show’s production: “Although freedom of the press is a constitutional right in Kenya, it is difficult for many journalists to practice their profession without interference. Gado and his team hope that the XYZ Show will contribute positively to strengthening freedom of the press and increasing political and social awareness among the people of Kenya. The show provides commentary on current social and political developments and aims to use humour and artistry to reinforce freedom of speech in Kenya.”

From what I’ve been able to watch online, on the show’s YouTube channel and elsewhere, the production values are at a high standard, comparable to such shows made in Europe and East Asia. The puppets are attractive, movements convincing and the pace quick and slick.

Who pulls his strings?
Who pulls his strings?
The producers have also tried hard to make XYZ more than just a TV show. The website, in English, shows how the content is being adapted for the web (as webisodes) and mobile phones (as mobisodes). The show’s official blog takes us on to the set and shares with us the story behind the story, and introduces us to the artists and technical geniuses involved. Full marks for trying to engage the audience.

Then there is Barack Obama. Using his Kenyan connections, the show casts him (really, a puppet in his image) in a ‘supporting actor’ role. This has clearly inspired some interest in the show beyond Kenya.

So far, so good. But how does it work with the audience? The show is directed mainly at local audiences, and even if it’s presented in a mix of English and local language, it’s not something a complete outsider like myself can appreciate.

So I ‘crowd-sourced’ by asking a Kenyan reader of my blog, Marion N N, for her opinion. Marion is part of Sojourner, which her blog introduces as “a social enterprise that exists to promote the origination, production and distribution of African viewpoints through visual media. We are passionate about African film-making and seek its viable promotion globally”.

Marion wrote a comment in her blog after watching one episode a few weeks ago. She lives and works in Kenya, and her views are far more valid than my own.

Behind the screen, creators at work...
Behind the screen, creators at work...
She wrote: “My first off impression was fascination about the quality of the show in terms of animation which is very new to the local TV production scene in Kenya. Once past the fascination of the animation, I found that the content failed to hold my interest, connect with me or engage me as an audience. As a socio-political spoof show, humor ideally should be the hook that captures audience but in this case, humor comes across as mindless, illogical or simply stupid action on the screen. As if in evidence to this fact, at some point my husband in between laughter remarked ‘This show is really stupid’. I would imagine this would be a compliment to the Production becuase it provoked laughter in a viewer. However beyond that moment, it seemed only natural for us to flick over to more substantial entertainment having enjoyed that brief flight of fancy that failed to arouse an appetite for more.”

Marion also wondered what the show’s intended audience was, and highlighted the many challenges in getting the levels and balances right in doing political satire: “That politicians sometimes (nay, most times) behave ridiculously is not new or fresh. But the treatment, underlying themes, ideas communicated to audiences should be. Why do I suggest this? Because political satire by its nature speaks to an audience that is fairly mature, and exposed. To use childish humor that is poorly developed will not hold the audience’s attention. Infact at some point the content may become a tad irritating to watch. Political satire needs to be treated with a peppering of fact, wit, fresh perspective or take -out: The achievement of some underlying objective and not just mindless visual gimmicks that lead to the feeling of ‘stooping to idiocy; by audiences. This seeming insult of intelligence causes us as an audience to switch off.”

XYZ Show logoIn my own view, The XYZ Show had at least three major challenges. Doing any puppet show is hard enough, and these days the on-air competition is neither local nor fair: it comes from global entertainment corporations like MTV and their regional variations, usually with deep pockets. Doing political satire is even harder, especially if the political culture is intolerant or repressive. To get the look, feel and balances right in a country where such a show is being done locally for the first time is a formidable challenge by itself.

But I’ll let Marion have the last word. In spite of the various concerns, she feels that the XYZ Show has ‘room to grow and conquer the airwaves’. But, as she notes, “The production team have their work cut out for them in pre-production. It’s back to the drawing board and ask who is my audience? What appeals to them? How do I connect with them, define an objective for the show and its audiences? Research facts and opinions about national sentiment on issues then develop scripts and sequences…”

Read Marion’s full comment on her blog

All images used on this blog post are courtesy The XYZ Show.