Climate, ISIS and the leadership that the American people deserve
The American people complain about a lack of leadership, but maybe the problem is...us. People want easy, feel-good bromides -- no matter how illogical.
So it was hot here in Philadelphia this weekend -- in the low 70s. This morning, we put up our family Christmas tree -- I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and I was still sweating. So I guess this would be a great opportunity to rant about climate change and global warming...except that would also be kind of stupid. Weather isn't climate -- we've had warm Decembers before (admittedly not this warm, but still) and most of them were due to El Nino, the same atmospheric phenomenon warming the eastern U.S. today. What's more important is that -- globally -- 2015 is on track to be the hottest year since we began keeping records.
It might be emotionally satisfying for a supporter of climate-change action, like me, to yell" "IT'S HOT!!! DO SOMETHING!" But the realities of what global warming is, and how to fix it, are complicated. Especially when you realize that it's not just a United States problem, but a world problem.
To that end, something really good happened this weekend, and President Obama was a major catalyst. For the first time, the leaders of the global community agreed that it's time to start weaning Planet Earth off fossil fuels for good. The government of 186 nations have submitted detailed plans to reduce greenhouse emissions. Together, these plans will certainly slow the catastrophic rise in global temperatures over the course of the 21st Century. The worst thing you can say about the deal is that is that it may be too little, too late; indeed, Sen. Bernie Sanders (who's appeared in this space a few times lately) said exactly that.
But it's better to look at the glass as half-full. After the failure to come up with any real climate plan at Copenhagen six years, the world -- not just the U.S. but our economic rivals like China and India -- is on board with real reductions in emissions. And a big part of that was dilligent and patient leadership from President Obama. who showed the world that the Environmental Protection Agency was serious about curbing power plant pollution, and who then reached a climate deal with China that many felt impossible. "For Mr. Obama," wrote the New York Times, "the agreement represents a legacy-shaping success, destined to join his health care law in the annals of his most lasting achievements."
So, of course, the Sunday morning talk show and newspapers were filled with talk about about Obama -- and what a terrible leader he is. It factored in that the climate change deal -- an effort to prevents places around the world from the Maldives to a great Amercan city like New Orleans from disappearing under a rising tide -- was barely a blip outside of a few "egghead" news outlets like the Times. In the media of the masses, it was all the mish-mosh of fear and loathing, but mostly fear, that is Donald Trump and the desire among a certain crowd of white Americans for someone to "tell it like it is," as well as Ted "Carpet Bomb" Cruz moving up in the polls, and the latest out of San Bernardino.
Of course, it wasn't enough that Obama -- in the midst of the climate talks, the latest U.S. budget impasse, etc., etc. -- dropped everything to deliver a Sunday night Oval Office address on terrorism. Or that he spoke of his intention to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" ISIS including massive bombing of ISIS-held regions in Syria and Iraq that's been underway for months. If it wasn't the more definitive strategy that people would like to hear, that's because the U.S. has never had good options here, especially with most Americans wisely not wanting to send ground troops back to that region. (Look at the all the problems that 'tough guy' Vladimir Putin has encountered by trying to intervene there.)
Republicans hated the speech -- Sen Marco Rubio (remember him?) said, for example, "I fear he may have made things worse in the minds of many Americans." That's to be expected, but some critics surprised me. The Inquirer's well-respected Trudy Rubin was harsh on the president this morning -- she called the speech a failure and said Obama's policy is "incoherent" -- although the biggest failing she identified, lack of Sunni ground troups, seems more of a problem with feckless Sunni leaders than the U.S. government. (And I think that greater U.S. involvement in Syria in 2012, which would have targeted dictator Bashar al-Assad, would have backfired by making it even easier for ISIS to move in.)
But she also attacked Obama on style. "That reassurance was sadly lacking in Obama's Oval Office speech, as he stood professorially behind a lectern - displaying his famous cool, lawyerly demeanor," Rubin wrote. "Missing was the behind-the-desk warmth of Roosevelt's 'fireside' radio chats." Really? I guess that's a different complaint than conservatives who prefer George W. Bush's "bullhorn moment" at the World Trade Center.
And you know what ? Bush's bullhorn moment was indeed great theater -- but nothing more than that. Remember what he said that day, that "I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people -- and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." Except that Bush abandoned the hunt for "the people who knocked these buildings down," including Osama bin Laden, after about three or four months in order to instead attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with knocking the buildings down. I guess Bush's "reassuring rhetotic" and his appearance, to 51 percent of the people, anyway, that he was resolute on terrorism carried him to re-election, but it also caused the crisis that led to ISIS.
Real leadership -- like we've seen from the Obama administration not just on climate change but on avoiding war with Iran -- involves patience, sitting down with people we don't necessarily like, and sometimes avoiding needlessly inflammatory rhetoric. In other words, the kind of things that your average American pundit -- or voter -- hates, or else bore them to death.
In a democracy, the people have a huge role in all of this. And let's be honest: The people are poorly informed by the corporate media. CNN, which could easily change the name of all of its non-Bourdain programming to "The Fear Factor." has been relentless hyping Tuesday night's GOP debate as nothing more than "Who will keep us safe?" Do you think they'll even ask about climate change?...I'd say the odds are 50-50. All terror and Trump all the time has been great for CNN and even the so-called "liberal" MSNBC in the ratings. But Trump and his doppelganger Cruz have also appealed directly to millions of voters by offering easy answers -- macho proclamations, almost always fact free -- that are exactly what they want to hear.
When it comes to the current crisis in American politics -- the rise of such naked demagoguery -- I wonder how much of the fault lies in our political stars, and how much it lies within ourselves. The demand from the American electorate for easy populist bromides instead of thoughtful policies seems to be a downward spiral that leads to even more mindless bromides. The truth is that if Americans want honest, hard-working leadership, we all have to take the first step ourselves. We have to want it.