Issue 175: 2018 10 25: The Environment

25 October 2018

Environmental Governance

A matter of life and death.

By John Watson

A threat or not a threat, that is the question.  We all have views on Mr Trump and those of us who do not share his political instincts will find many of the ways in which he runs his administration objectionable.  Still, there are two sorts of objection.  One is simple disapproval, the fact that his approach to certain issues is different from the approach which we would take ourselves.  His attacks on Obamacare fall into this category.  We in Britain are sold on the principles of a National Health Service, a system which means that those who contract illness can obtain free and efficient treatment.  We believe that it mitigates one of the great uncertainties of life and that by limiting people’s health worries we make a huge contribution to their happiness and effectiveness.  We view the American system with its insurances and its huge bills with horror.

Similarly , we don’t care for the American approach to guns.  The public’s antipathy to arming the police could not be further from the Trumpian approach of arming selected teachers.  Again we handle things differently on this side of the Atlantic and believe that our way is wiser and more decent than theirs is.

In both cases, however, that is as far as it goes.  How Americans should fund their medical care and what rules they should make regarding the carrying of guns on their streets are their business and not ours because, unless we are unlucky enough to fall ill or be shot at in the US, they simply do not affect us.  We may disapprove strongly and our views may be wiser than theirs but in the end we have no real right to be heard because it is nothing to do with us.

Then there is the other form of objection, the objection to a policy which actually affects us.  Now we have a right to be heard because our interests are prejudiced if it all goes wrong.

If you go back to Victorian times, it was much easier to identify whose interests were affected by a particular course of action than it is today.  If there was a treaty between Britain and France, and Britain reneged on it, then France had a reason to feel aggrieved.  Allies and others who picked up collateral damage might also be affected, but the web of prejudice was much narrower then than it would be in today’s international environment.

Take Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as an example.  He says that Russia is not abiding by its terms and, in any case, it does not impose any restraint on emerging powers like China.  To him it simply puts America and her allies at a disadvantage to potential enemies because the US is restrained by the Treaty from developing weapons which are being developed elsewhere.   Russia, of course, claims to adhere to the treaty and blames the US for breaking it.  Goodness knows what the truth of it all is, but one thing is clear.  It is not just the US and Russia which are affected by America’s decision to withdraw from the treaty.  All the rest of us are too.

Even more striking is the decision by Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This clearly affects everyone, and it is worrying to see the most powerful man in the world apparently unconvinced by the mounting evidence that action needs to be taken.  No other country seems to agree with him, and if they are right, as they almost certainly are, we have reached the strange position that the safety of citizens throughout the world is being jeopardised for reasons of domestic American politics, the need to curry favour with a particular segment of the American election.

One day, as the seas rise and the floods swamp their own seaboard, even the most redneck of American voters will see that they were wrong and at that stage they will wish that their country had joined in the international effort to confront the problem.  By then it will probably be too late.  Either the process will have become wholly irreversible or it will take far more effort to reverse it than would be the case if action were taken now.  Then the question will be: “Why didn’t we do something?” and the answer: “Because we didn’t really believe that there was enough evidence that anything needed doing”.

Stripped to its essentials the issue is one of timing.  In the field of climate change the damage is felt a long time after the errors which created it.  Too tempting, then, for an electorate not wishing to contemplate a drop in living standards to go into some form of denial.  “We can’t see disaster now so it can’t be as bad as all that.”  It is this message, reinforced as it is by the siren calls of political opportunism, which lies behind the American public’s reluctance to take the issue seriously.  And others will take the same view, out of ignorance, out of greed, out of laziness.

Decisions which involve giving up some of our present prosperity for security many years in the future do not fit well into the democratic process.  They need to be taken by people who have a long view and there needs to be an acceptance that sometimes the decision will be wrong and that where that happens, the immediate sacrifice will been in vain.  Democratic decision-making fails on both counts and the survival of the human race probably depends on our developing a system for making certain crucial decisions outside it.  That is the central challenge – more important even than the struggle to adapt our laws and way of living to the new technologies.  It is our response to that challenge which will determine in the long run whether we live or die.


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