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Climate crisis spawns clowns not statesmen



'Why was I born with such contemporaries?' George Bernard Shaw's question from The Dark Lady of the Sonnets possesses a new urgency today, given the dismal state of contemporary political leadership. For instance, Britain's currently led by a man who once conspired to have thugs beat up a journalist.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump attend the NATO summit on 4 December 2019 in Watford, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Back in 1990, Boris Johnson was recorded chatting with a fellow old Etonian called Darius Guppy. Guppy explained that he wasn't going to have the offending reporter killed but would just organise some goons to give him 'a couple of black eyes' and a 'cracked rib'. Johnson duly agreed to supply the man's address: 'Okay, Darry, I said I'll do it. I'll do it, don't worry.'

How can Johnson still be in politics? More to the point, how can he be Prime Minister? Part of the answer surely pertains to the widespread perception of him as a buffoon, a floppy-haired attention seeker who doesn't mean anything he says.

Something similar might be said about the man in charge on the other side of the Atlantic. On Tuesday, Philip Rucker from the Washington Post asked US President Donald Trump if he was thinking about climate change. 'I think about it all the time, Phil,' the President replied. 'And, honestly, climate change is very important to me. And, you know, I've done many environmental impact statements over my life, and I believe very strongly in very, very crystal clear, clean water and clean air. That's a big part of climate change.'

The answer, as another Washington Post writer noted, raised the real possibility that the Leader of the Free World doesn't actually understand what climate change means — though, of course, with Trump one never really knows.

In Australia, Scott Morrison succeeds through a similar program of deliberate expectation management, artfully presenting himself as a 'daggy dad', a suburban everyman more inclined to gormless sporting enthusiasms ('Go Sharks!') than affairs of state. Across the world, the same phenomenon can be discerned, with the highest offices filled by the lowest characters, politicians who market themselves, more or less openly, as anti-statesmen rather than leaders.

Johnson's example warrants closer examination given his own repeated invocation of Churchill, a name that inevitably arises when the topic turns to political leadership. In his 2014 book The Churchill Factor, Johnson presents Sir Winston's life as essentially a precursor to his own career.


"That's one reason why contemporary politics devolves into a clown show. Incapable of addressing the increasingly pressing crisis, politicians turn their impotence into a selling point."


On some levels, the comparison actually makes sense. Like Johnson, Churchill developed a reputation as a chancer and publicity hound, notorious for his political betrayals and willingness to sacrifice others to his own advantage (as in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign he championed during the Great War). Like Johnson, he was a self-conscious class warrior who combined oratorical flair with overt racism, dismissing Indians as 'beastly people' and lamenting the squeamishness that prevented his colleagues using 'poison gas against uncivilised tribes'.

Churchill's current reputation as a giant of the 20th century stems, almost exclusively, from his ability to rise to the challenge presented by the Second World War, in which he came to symbolise, for many, the indomitable spirit of resistance to Nazi expansionism.

And that's where the comparison breaks down. Leaving aside the extent to which Churchill deserved the widespread praise he received, the obvious question arises: Why doesn't the environmental crisis spur a similar transformation? We've just been told that we're coming to the end of the hottest decade in recorded human history. Greenhouse emissions stand at an all-time high, with current projections suggesting the world's on track to rise by as much as 3.2 degrees Celsius, a figure that will render much of the world uninhabitable.

If the dark days of 1940 provided an opportunity for leadership, why hasn't the increasingly catastrophic breakdown of the natural world turned Boris Johnson — or anyone much else — from boob to statesman?

The Second World War represented an enormous challenge to the British establishment, one that necessitated a wholesale reconstitution of the economy. At the height of the conflict, half of the working population was engaged in the armed forces, the munitions industries or other fields essential to the war effort. But that transformation meant an intensification of capitalist production, rather than any sort of decline. Britain set about building more tanks, more ships and more guns, with the requirement for greater output trumping almost every other consideration.

That's the reverse of the situation today. The European Environment Agency just warned that the pursuit of growth at the expense of the natural world simply cannot go on if we're to prevent environmental disaster. In other words, where statesmanship in the Second World War depended on pushing production to the max, genuine leadership in our time would mean the opposite, a willingness to begin dismantling the economic order that's brought us to this point. And that's precisely what no-one in the political class wants.

As UN Secretary General António Guterres recently made clear, the negotiations currently taking place in Madrid — the so-called '25th Conference of the Parties' — represent a last chance saloon for keeping planetary temperatures below apocalyptic levels. Yet the event's taking place without the participation of the Trump administration.

The Chinse government might be in Madrid — and, in theory, committed to the process. But its emissions have continued to grow, so much so that they're now twice those of the United States. The same might be said about India, another rising force: ostensibly on board but polluting more and more as its economy booms.

The correlation between emissions and economic (and thus political) power places politicians in a strange bind. The welfare of the planet and most of its inhabitants depends on the curtailment of the carbon economy, yet national elites remain committed to its expansion. To achieve the latter, leaders must ignore the former.

That's one reason why contemporary politics devolves into a clown show. Incapable of addressing the increasingly pressing crisis, politicians turn their impotence into a selling point. Even Trump's supporters recognise him as a carnival barker, delivering entertainment rather than solutions. Scott Morrison campaigned in the last election on the basis that, unlike Bill Shorten, he wouldn't promise anything much at all. Johnson, meanwhile, pledges everything to everyone in an almost transparently dishonest fashion, like a conman who winks during his own spiel.

A fish, they say, rots from its head. The leadership we have now indicates the depth of the problems we face.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump attend the NATO summit on 4 December 2019 in Watford, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Scott Morrison, climate change, Winston Churchill



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"Churchill ... notorious for his political betrayals and willingness to sacrifice others to his own advantage …" was well illustrated when he refused to release Australian forces from Europe to defend Australia, as requested by the PM John Curtin, when the Japanese invaded New Guinea. "Let the Japanese have Australia," he burped. "Well get it back after the war - if we want it". Just like our current incumbents from all political parties. "Let the planet burn. We'll sort it out later - if it's worth it to our political support base".

john frawley | 09 December 2019  

I was watching the ABC's excellent News Breakfast this morning and remember two excellent and informative segments. One was a session with someone from the IPA, Michael Rolland and Mary Gearin. According to the man from the IPA Australia's emissions are down but that news doesn't suit either extreme side of politics. The other was a session where it was stated that, due to the increased output from renewable sources, the price of electricity in Australia was due to fall.

Edward Fido | 09 December 2019  

Churchill had as many flaws at the next man (or woman). What made a difference to his overall legacy is the way he responded to a very significant crisis. His leadership in that crisis stands tall, still. It is difficult to imagine Trump or Johnson or Morrison on current form being able to do likewise pertaining to the environmental crisis. It is devastating our planet but the most devastated are those on the lower rungs of society, the voiceless, the least powerful. There is a certain protection around the more affluent and it will take a leader of uncommon sensitivity to actually see the devastation and risk political oblivion.

Pam | 09 December 2019  

We get the politicians we vote for, and we vote for those who promise us more and more jobs paying more and more money so we can consume more and more goodies. We want bigger and better of everything. When we point the finger we should look in a mirror: maybe then we will realize we are pointing at ourselves.

Brian Leeming | 09 December 2019  

On Feb 8, 2017, Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into Parliament and said, "Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is coal! Don't be afraid! Don't be scared!" Australians who voted in the pro-coal Coalition and pro-coal Prime Minister are partly responsible for the great threat that global warming poses to current and future generations, and to the natural environment. The threat that drought and bush-fires now poses to both people and animals, including koalas, is a sign of the times. People are very afraid, people are very scared, as a fierce fire-front approaches their property! And some of these people would have voted for a very pro-coal national government! Wake up Australia! The 3 degrees of warming yet to come will be much more frightening and much more scary in many, many ways!

Grant Allen | 09 December 2019  

Time is the most valuable of our global non-renewable resources yet we allow it to be wasted or see it misrepresented. Reaching a carbon emissions target by using "banked" credits stole precious moments to allow the economy to prosper and continue inaction. How often do we hear our leaders avoid an answer with "now is not the time..." rather than set a deadline of when is? News is programmed to outrage because it sells best when it has Jeff's "dead fish" analogy stench. Aside from age and citizenship, one of the tenets of democracy held dear is anyone can be PM or president; sovereignty resides at the lowest levels of authority. So we get the Cinderella stories of very average people lucky enough to fit the glass slipper the electorate decided; then we have a few years to find their human failings and a press too eager to attack the person rather than allow them to govern. Right now we are being conditioned for immanent change; UK elections, US impeachment, leaders like school bullies; salivating that there will be a righteous new world order...but I doubt readers are prepared for the survival of the incumbents and their largess with time.

Ray | 09 December 2019  

It is easy to agree with Jeff Sparrow's assessment of Boris' and Donald's claims to statesmanship, however, locating the source of the rot is another matter. Chamberlain's "peace in our time" was a slogan the body politic wanted to be true, irrespective of the repulsive policies and practices already underway in Nazi Germany. It is a worrying possibility that the "rot" starts closer to home and leaders merely reflect the majority's tolerance for selfishness and convenient delusion until the masquerade is no longer possible.

carey burke | 09 December 2019  

I can’t believe how narrow climate change discussions are. You gave the answer to your own question Jeff but didn’t even address it in your polemic against the leaders of the UK, USA and Australia. Not that I’m a fan of any of these men, you said yourself that the emissions of China and India are growing substantially and you didn’t even talk about those leaders?

Rob McCahill | 10 December 2019  

A very thought provoking article but I wish journalists would offer some suggestions and solutions that would treat this malaise that is affecting countries all over the world.

Vijay Daniels | 10 December 2019  

During world war 2, at the same time as there was an increase in production, there was also a regime of austerity for ordinary people. Food and clothing were rationed. Petrol was used for the war effort; in our street the two or three cars were put up on blocks in backyards. People accepted all of that because they believed it was necessary for our national survival. Fifty years ago, when many of us realised things were not going well for our world, many adopted the slogan, "Live simple so others might simply live." People cut down on possessions, grew food in backyards and built energy-efficient mud-brick homes (many of which have since been demolished to make way for coal mines). Governments did not encourage such paring back. Instead, they undermined it. They urged us all to go shopping, to spend up big to keep the sacred Economy healthy. I am sure there are many ordinary people very willing to change our lives to reduce our carbon footprints, but our politicians are not offering positive leadership in this "small picture" aspect of life. I wonder how things would be now if the governments of the 1970s on had encouraged the "live simply" approach.

Janet | 10 December 2019  

It saddens me that Eureka Street has fallen victim to 'point-scoring, personalities, and name-calling across party lines'. I see none of the values that should unite us when journalists seek to attribute every problem to Trump et al. And Trump's sin this time? Supposedly he has ignored projections of 'apocalyptic' levels of temperature change (3.2 degrees??) to instead focus on clean water and clean air. I'm not a fan of Trump, but this raucous din from the media is provokes me to defend him.

Andrew Walther | 10 December 2019  

Oooo such harsh ness towards the free world leaders past & present. I agree with you, Janet that each & everyone of us should be doing what we can to protect this planet. Recycle, save water., try not to become totally reliant on a car. And remember that both the US & Britain do not have compulsory voting which in itself can be part of the problem. After living in London for a considerable time be grateful that we live in Australia.

Swift Sue | 10 December 2019  

One of the challenges is how we communicate with and listen to those with different views. I gained much from reading “ I’m Right and you are an Idiot”. Highly commended. Inspired by David Suzuki. Arguments are wasted when communication is absent. Otherwise, keep spreading the word by action in every sense and at every opportunity.

Michael Gill | 10 December 2019  

Last night's Q and A indicated that we did have a PM who was on the right track. However, the troglodytes in the Liberal Party got rid of him. And we all know that the Greens tarred with the Brown/ Milne brush who scotched the reasonable carbon reduction plans of the government 10 years ago have a very different agenda from what is implied by their imported European lefty name. The morons in the Liberal Party kicked out the potentially best PM we've had since the Second World War.

john frawley | 10 December 2019  

Yes, John Frawley, and add to that the millions of Indians who died of starvation during WWII because Churchill refused to allow ships carrying Australian grain to England to unload in Calcutta might disagree about his status. England already had a stockpile sufficient for a couple of years. Already mentioned were his hare-brained Dardanelles campaign and his demand that Australian PM Curtin more or less abandon the defence of Australia. There was nothing great about Churchill except for the hagiographies written by those who pandered to his personality. The current crop of "world leaders" fits into that mold very nicely.

ErikH | 10 December 2019  

Well, JF, as an out and proud troglodyte (aka "deplorable"), I'm still exulting at the demise of the principle-free, twice attempted Laborite Turnbull, and at the Brexit and Trump victories. I replay the youtubes even these days when I'm feeling down. Schadenfreude - it's the great elixir. I'll never forgive "environmentalist" Turnbull's manic push for the spiral light bulbs that are so mercury toxic you were advised on the packet not to enter a room for at least 24 hours if they smashed – which, being so delicate, they often did. It was up there with other magnificent statist programs such Rudd's pink batts, Gillard's 'cash for clunkers', Gonski, etc. The intractably big-government Morrison and DJT are light years from my own (Catholic-consistent) minimal state backyard. But then you think ... Hillary ... Bill Shorten … Jeremy Corbyn … brrrrr. ‘The best is the enemy of the good.’ The despair in Jeff’s article says it all. Even the utterly evidence-free push to crank up global warming alarmism to “catastrophe” is not paying dividends. The warmist emperor has no beautiful clothes, despite what the swindlers urge. The whisper from the little boy is being amplified. And even if you are a rusted-on true believer, the notion that Xi’s elephant China will repent of coal power expansion because greenie Aussie nits buy his solar panels – at a profit to him! - is beyond laughable.

HH | 10 December 2019  

Jeff ,an interesting take on the state of the political world at present. We must remember that voters elect these leaders, therefore we , the voters have to take the blame. I live in Canberra which Morrison describes as "The Bubble" . If we are the Bubble, I wonder what the "Shire" should be called? I can assure the PM that we in Canberra are; in the majority, well educated. I suspect we are much more aware of the Climate Emergency than the voters of "The Shire". Like Sydney, we have been enveloped in dangerous smoke pollution from the bush fires burning up the State . The quest for more and more "things"; bigger cars like the fossil fuel guzzling SUV's , Mac mansions to replace the often more energy efficient houses they displace , bigger TV's, better "phones" etc, etc, all come at a cost to "Mother Earth" as the resources are both limited and their recovery environment destroying. The fact is we the consumers, are encouraged to spend , spend , spend as so there is no tomorrow. The Economy is king, especially now "Christmas" is almost here. Maybe it is time that we realized it is far better in all respects for us to live simply and thread lightly on our fragile Earth. Our very future, particularly of our grandchildren depends on it!

Gavin | 10 December 2019  

Thanks Jeff for another very insightful article. I would like to add one more thought based on World War II and our current climate crisis. Recently the leader of the federal Opposition Anthony Albanese made the comment, “If Australia stopped exporting today there would not be less demand for coal – the coal would come from a different place.” It reminded me of the German factories that made a nice profit from building and transporting large crematoriums to Auschwitz during the war. The managers of these businesses could just have easily made the same comment. Where, in our political sphere, do we draw the line and say we, regardless of what other countries are doing, will take the lead and say no to what we know is going to lead to the loss of so much and so many lives.

Tom Kingston | 10 December 2019  

Turnbull can talk about action on climate change now, but when he had the big seat at the table it became clear from the start that he had neither the guts nor the political skill to make it happen. If there are great leaders out there, for some reason, at least in the Anglo-sphere, they don't choose politics as a career.

Pat Mahony | 10 December 2019  

How good is that? The huge number of devastating fires burning across the country mean (according to the logic of our PM) that it will never be an appropriate time to discuss whether climate change may be contributing. As ScoMo said after the last election, "I've always believed in miracles!"

PaulM | 10 December 2019  

Indeed, “Why was I born with such contemporaries” summarises the attitude of many people towards delusional intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw who, at the height of the Stalinist famine, reported an overfed population. Today, Mr Sparrow accuses Trump of “delivering entertainment rather than solutions.” Really? Trump promised changes to economic and trade policy. The US economy is now growing in a way that is directly helpful to the most vulnerable segments of society. Unemployment is the lowest in 50 years, with Hispanics at a record low of 3.9% and African-Americans the lowest ever at 5.5%. Average earnings increase at 3.4% annually, and average income for female-led single-parent households jumped 7.6% last year. Now Trump wants to revolutionize the opaque $3.5 trillion healthcare industry by forcing hospitals and insurance companies to disclose, up front, the full cost of all medical treatment Meanwhile delusional Democrats, who, incidentally, represent 41 of the top 50 wealthiest congressional districts—and all 10 of the top 10 wealthiest districts, scream “tax the rich” and promise astronomical taxes, open borders and socialized medicine. Small wonder Trump’s approval rate among blacks has gone from 8% in 2016, to 34 % according to recent Emerson and Rasmussen polls.

Ross Howard | 10 December 2019  

Another illustration of the emerging new maxim, limits on growth and it's real impact on society.. This is a completely new paradigm for global economies, where the usual grab for growth may no longer apply, capitalism constrained, can it now survive. Perhaps these political clowns are actually well informed (likely) but are fully aware of the consequences, especially for the non elite majorities which will need to embrace restraint across the board. New stuff, and electorally deadly for your average pollie to even mention, let alone tout.

David tuke | 10 December 2019  

HH. I seriously doubt that you are a dyed in the wool troglodyte. However, in our world, which is today very different from the one that I suspect both you and I grew up in, it is not sufficient to have only two baskets labelled "for" and "against" or "us" and "them" or "yes" and "no". We must have a third basket which accommodates those things which are travelling on a different middle road. Trump has done some fantastic things but also some terrible things. Brexit is something that is designed to preserve Britain's heritage, something I fully support, yet there is also much to be lost in exiting the EU. And the damage to our environment and its dependent flora and fauna (including the human being) through mismanagement in the name of financial gain is far more dangerous than a spiral light bulb. There is plenty of room and indeed necessity within Catholic philosophy to have a third basket to accommodate the middle road on some things, HH. The hated Malcolm Turnbull had three baskets - or in other words a more expansive capacity than those with only one or two!

john frawley | 11 December 2019  

JF, I fear your charity has gotten the better of you! No: as a trog, I say that on CO2-induced global warming asserted to be a “catastrophe”, there is no third way. An increase of atmospheric CO2 is either meat or it is poison. As I see it, the documented CO2 increase over the last couple of centuries, from one of the lowest levels in earth’s history and perilously close to the 150 ppm lower limit at which plant life begins to die off in massive amounts, has been a godsend. As a result of those increases (inter alia), agricultural productivity is now at record levels, the deserts are shrinking, and the earth has visibly greened. Food is now much cheaper – for the poor! Plus: Michael Mann’s “Hockey Stick”, exposed as a crock, no longer graces the pages of IPCC reports; James Lovelock has recanted his “Gaia” hypothesis; Freeman Dyson thinks the catastrophic global warming theory is unproven; James Hansen believes solar/wind technology is hopelessly inadequate and that (horror!) nuclear is the only solution, and Prof Andy Pitman averred recently that there is no (direct) link between climate change and drought. Methinks we trogs might have respectable company.

hh | 11 December 2019  

HH. Perhaps I am not as selective as you in my beliefs. I also tend to follow majority scientific opinion rather than the dissenting, denialist minority. For example, I believe that modern nuclear reactors are far more efficient and much easier and quicker to implement than wind or solar generators and support nuclear over and above continued coal energy production or wind and solar. I also believe, however, that there is a place for wind, solar and Turnbull's Snowy 2 water generated power. As you are almost certainly aware there is also well advanced current research into power generation harnessing of the ocean's wave and tidal power. All I am saying is that rather than having a basket only for coal (dictated to by its money generating capacity for big business disguised behind the veil of "employment for thousands") we should have a basket filled with the other alternatives which are also capable of generating income for big business and employing thousands.

john frawley | 12 December 2019  

Thanks JF. I think I may be even less selective than your good self! I’m for nuclear (probably thorium, but uranium is OK), gas, oil, coal, solar, wind, tidal … whatever. But I’m very suspicious about “majority” science, especially these days with the ever-burgeoning replicability crisis that is outing and shaming so many scientific fields. Climategate, Peter Ridd’s Orwellian treatment by JCU and my own experience of the stacked ANU Law School back in the day has convinced me that Western academia as a whole has long since been captured and dominated by the Left. And when I drill down on majority scientific opinion on global warming via the metastudies (eg Anderegg), here is the gist of the scientific consensus: that there has been detectable warming since about 1950 and that human activity has had a significant input. Well, whoopee-do! As Dr Roy Spencer of UAH, an excoriated “denialist”, said in response to Congress “In that case I’m part of the 97%!” (or words to that effect). Yet reading E.S. posts and the mainstream media, one would think that *catastrophic* global warming is what white coated climate scientists have overwhelmingly detected in their peer-reviewed, method/data-transparent, replicable research. I’m calling B.S. .

HH | 12 December 2019  

HH, I have spent the last thirty years studying changes in Climate in the Canberra region, since reading a report on increased CO2 emissions impacting the Earth's climate. I was a teacher of Geography at the time. I still analyze the data, with limited computer power and time ( even though I am now retired, I still have other things to do) it is a long process. I can categorically state , along with over 10,000 scientists, with various specialties in earth ecosystems, that the climate, which normally changes slowly in periods of eons,has showed a rapid change in rainfall and temperatures , not seen in over 10,000 years, in the last two hundred years. Canberra Airport records only go back to 1939, yet the trends are chillingly obvious. We are not by a long shot, a big emitter of CO2 ,but per head of population we are in the top three.We export one of the largest quantities of Coal, so we are guilty by association. China and India are developing countries so it is understandable that they are industrializing to give their massive populations a decent standard of living. We are already there.Hopefully they will see the light before it is too late! Gavin FRMetS (UK)

Gavin | 12 December 2019  

HH. I have no doubt that we have dumbed down our universities academically and polluted their independence as free thinking educational institutions with a pestilence of doctrinaire lefties - promoted by the Hawke government through its Minister for Education who famously declared, "If the universities do not become organs for social change we will remove their funding". She did not understand that the independence of universities was the one thing that historically made them perhaps the most important organs for social change in the evolution of Western civilised society. However, when it comes to measurable science, 2 + 2 will always make 4 for the rational thinker and goodness knows what for the ideologue opinion or the abstract artiste mathematician. Climate and its changes are not matters of opinion. If, as you state, you accept that global warming is in progress, that the warming affects climate and that humanity is a significant contributor to that, surely there can be nothing wrong with taking measures to modify human contributions to that effect, measures which are not necessarily set in concrete but which have many faces and potentials or, in other words, many eggs in the basket.

john frawley | 14 December 2019  

History keeps showing us that once-revered figures too often are revealed to be seriously flawed. Think Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton. Try making a list of politicians you admire. Jacinta Ardern would probably make it but then who? So depressing. As soon as politicians are asked to spend money on climate action they talk about loss of jobs. In a TED talk Al Gore expressed optimism but while China, USA, India and Australia pursue economic growth ahead of climate action I for one am deeply pessimistic.

Bruce Watt | 18 December 2019  

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