Monthly Archives: May 2020

USA: A Failed State?

Armed men, spurred on by their President, seek to ‘liberate’ the capitol building in Michigan. This is not how civilized countries operate: more like a failed state.

The USA is increasingly looking like a failed state. It could be on the verge of civil war. I sincerely hope not. Their mad, narcissistic President seems actively to be encouraging civil war, with his tweeting to armed white supremacists to ‘liberate’ state capitol buildings, and with tweets such as ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’.

Since the murder of George Floyd protests have erupted across America. Yet another black man murdered by a white police officer. Slavery and colonialism are what America was founded upon. Racial injustice has a long and tortured history. Current police brutality opens old wounds. Healing will require more than just an end to police violence. Deep structural change is urgently needed.

The Covid pandemic reveals interesting contrasts between different systems of social and economic organisation. Covid has resulted in over 40 million job losses in America, and only a few hundred thousand in most European countries, and losing ones job in USA often means losing health insurance and possible destitution. Americans live under extraordinary levels of stress and worry. Inequality levels are extreme. In Europe workers often sit of company boards and have helped mitigate the negative impact of Covid on the labour market. When people are made redundant the welfare system in Europe is generally vastly better than in USA.

While millions of Americans are facing real economic hardship others are sucking countless billions out of the system for their own insane vanity. Any system that allows billionaires to exist is clearly failing to collect the taxes that are required to create social justice. There was something deeply symbolic as Elon Musk’s private SpaceX rocket orbited above the heads of impoverished, angry and brutalised Americans.

Under Trump America has quit the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organisation. These are the actions of a country imploding in upon itself, unable to fulfil its international obligations. America is heavily indebted and increasingly likely to default. Less a superpower: more a basket case.

Even the American Constitution, which for decades was held up as a beacon of democratic values looks hopelessly flawed. The right to free speech has resulted in a tidal wave of hate speech. The right to bear arms has resulted in far right militias who make USA look increasingly like war torn Somalia or Syria.

And yet for all its many failures America still has some hope. It has many great people. They deserve better. There is currently a struggle going on for the soul of America. Will it follow Trump down the road of ever greater inequality and division, or will it find a path to a better place?

Covid Comparisons

Death rates from Covid 19 have been highly variable. The worst four countries all have populist leaders.

This is one of the Financial Times’ excellent Coronavirus graphics. The red line was added by Tim Walker, who tweeted ‘If this chart shows nothing else, it shows that popularism and respect for human life are incompatible.’ I agree. Now, nearly six months into the pandemic, I want to take stock and compare the best and worst responses to the pandemic. Today the FT reports the global figures, 5.16 million confirmed cases and 331,300 known deaths. The real numbers are no doubt much higher. What is really becoming clear are the staggering differences between the low death rates in countries with compassionate and competent governments and the high death rates in countries lead by incompetent populists.

The populists, principally Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and Johnson have behaved abysmally. Many people have died, and will continue to die unnecessarily as a result of their incompetence. George Monbiot wrote a good article about why the UK failed to follow its own preparedness planning. But it is not these stories of stupidity I want to focus on.

The countries that have acted with intelligence, compassion and competence are a large and diverse group. New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea are often cited as those countries that responded best, and have kept death rates very low. South Korea and Taiwan both experienced the SARS epidemic a few years back and really learnt important lessons. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, I rate as the best leader in the World and she embodies that mix of compassion and competence that the World desperately needs more of. Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Germany have all demonstrated leadership and competence, but that is what we’d expect from them, wouldn’t we? Afua Hirsch draws our attention to some remarkable stories of success from Africa, focusing on Ghana and Senegal.

However if you read just one story of success let it be this, from the state of Kerala in India. I, like most people outside Kerala had never heard of KK Shailaja the health minister of Kerala until a week or so ago. Now I’d love her to be our health minister. But it is not just about personalities, it’s about the political systems that make them possible. Kerala has long had a particularly practical breed of highly competent communists forming their state governments. Health, education, equality and life expectancy are all better in Kerala than elsewhere in India, thanks to them. Contrast that with the idiotic ideological inflexibilities Monbiot portrays in UK governance.

The Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the World in 1918-19 is still being debated. In years to come this Covid 19 pandemic will be analysed. There is still much we do not know, about the disease itself, about a future vaccine and about how and when this pandemic will end. However one thing is becoming clearer every day. Good governance saves lives.

New video

I was due to give a talk on the politics of the Climate Emergency in the Cathedral. It was cancelled due to Covid 19. We have now made a video version of me showing slides and John Daniels asking me a few questions at the end. I do hope to do more such online talks. Please watch it and let me have any feedback.

My talk is the third one down on this page of the Cathedral website: here

Coal Collapses: Renewables Rise

UK electricity 1920 – 2020

Coal is collapsing. The above graph shows how coal use grew up until the 1980’s, then slowly and erratically declined until about 2012, and then plummeted over the last eight years. In 2019 it made up less than 2% of UK electricity supply: in 2020 it will be less than that, and soon it will dwindle to nothing. As of today, 13th May 2020, the UK has gone for 33 days without using any coal to generate electricity, for the first time since the 1880’s. Countries across Europe are permanently shutting down their last coal fired power stations. Belgium was the first to do so, in 2016, followed last month by Austria, then days later, Sweden. Over the next few years many countries, including UK, will permanently shut their last coal fired power stations.

A few years ago there was a lot of nonsense talked about Peak Oil and how demand would outstrip supply causing energy prices to skyrocket. Energy prices have been falling for years, and this process is made more acute by the Covid 19 pandemic further suppressing demand. Oil prices actually went negative recently, for the first time ever, with people being paid to take it from the overflowing oil field facilities.

As the above graph shows UK electricity demand has been falling for nearly two decades, as is the case in many mature economies. Low prices, coupled with the disinvestment campaign, have made it increasingly hard for coal companies to expand, even in Australia which historically had a very profitable coal sector. Most fossil fuel extraction is now unprofitable.

Renewables are on the rise. Prices are falling and performance is improving. Storage and interconnection technologies are making it ever cheaper and easier to rely on renewables for all our electricity needs. As heating and transportation systems are electrified electricity demand will rise, but this rise can be dealt with in a 100% renewables scenario.

As countries emerge from the Covid 19 pandemic they will need to make choices about the kind of future they want. Old coal, oil and other obsolete sectors of the economy will be lobbying for bailouts. We can have clean air, better health, less road accidents, more social justice and a whole raft of other benefits by opting for a Green New Deal. At the heart of any Green New Deal is the switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Of course we need huge other changes to create a more socially just and less polluting future, but let’s celebrate the progress that has been made. One indicator is our individual carbon emissions stemming from electricity use. In UK these have fallen from 2.6 tonnes per person in 2010 to below one tonne in 2019. This is very good news and has been due to the decline in coal, made possible by falling demand and the rise of renewables.