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  • Antony Reeve-Crook

Don't let Trump's stand against North Korea obscure his capitulation in Paris

From North Korea to Afghanistan and the rooms surrounding the Oval Office, Trump's attempts at conflict resolution have shunted his refusal to fight the very real threat of environmental collapse to the back pages.

And with each magazine or newspaper dominated by an unlikely war with our brothers and sisters in Asia, the Commander-in-Chief of the world's most inflammatory twitter account puts another edition between him and his departure from the Paris Agreement climate accord.

But we must not allow this decision to leave an accord signed by 193 nations to fade into obscurity, because the discussion transcends environmentalism and strikes at the very heart of US politics.

The problem with America waving goodbye to Paris is that it demonstrated perhaps the most flagrant violation of US democracy we have ever seen. Policy was bought, votes were paid and the Commander-in-Chief was outed as Commander-in-Chains.

Or so believes Professor Jeffrey Sachs, American economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, who has spent the past 17 years advising the United Nations in their fight against poverty and climate change. Speaking at the Starmus festival in Norway, Sachs took to the stage to explain that America is no longer the Land of the Free.

The decision to leave the Paris climate accord was, according to Sachs and several of his contemporaries, made by 'dark money' originating from the oil & gas lobby, specifically the Kansas-based brothers Charles and David Koch.

America's decision to depart the Paris Agreement was made well above Trump's pay-grade as the free world's foremost servant of the people. Because while Trump retains that role, let's not kid ourselves that eligible voting US citizens are the people.

“We do not have a functioning democracy [in the US], except in formal terms,” claimed Sachs. “We have a democracy in which money speaks and … the bottom deciles, the poorest, have no roles in public policy. Their attitudes do not count.

“This cannot persist, we have to make a fight, but in order to make a fight successfully we have to understand what is happening.”

In his book Affluence and Influence, political scientist Martin Gillens argues that the outcome of public policies in the United States is overwhelmingly determined by the top 10 per cent of the population.

And the most significant influence is wielded by far fewer than that.

“Of the 21 senators who receive more than four per cent of their campaign funding from the oil and gas lobby, 20 out of 21 opposed the Paris Climate Agreement” – Sachs

The influence of the oil & gas lobby over Trump is made evident by the fact that the week before he pulled out of the agreement (at a time Sachs calls “a moment of supreme risk to the world”), 22 republican senators sent him a letter calling on him to do so. And these senators, according to Sachs, are backed by oil and gas money. “Of the 21 senators who receive more than four per cent of their campaign funding from the oil and gas lobby, 20 out of 21 opposed the Paris Climate Agreement."

Contrast this with the 39 senators who supported the Paris Climate Agreement, each of whom notably received less than 1.3 per cent of their campaign funds from the oil & gas lobby.

“This is a business proposition,” says Sachs. “Wreck the world and agree to say any stupid thing that you’re told to by the lobbies, like: ‘I don’t know if climate change is real’.”

But while some can hide behind their proposed beliefs, in some cases that climate change does not exist (ignoring records indicating the three warmest overall temperatures in the instrument record occurred in the three years prior to 2017) there is no such luxury for Trump. Not since his advisors conceded, despite his decision to leave the Paris agreement, that 'he knows it's changing'.

“We need a new characterisation for such behavior,” said Sachs. “I characterise that as just pure sociopathy. If you know it and you still do it, what do you call that?”

But back to the core thread of this article, and the reason America's departure from the Paris Agreement must be laid before us time and again. Those senators backed by oil and gas who essentially showed themselves to be climate change deniers are doing more damage to US democracy than perhaps we all understand.

“They are not that dumb, they are just more corrupt than you suspect, on the take of big money, sanctioned by the supreme court – indeed wholly enabled by the supreme court – which in its madness or its own corruption, declared that secret corporate money in our politics, dark money, was free speech,” said Sachs.

Trump takes solace in the notion that America's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will lead to jobs and improved prosperity for the people he is charged with supporting. In his own words, the Paris Agreement “is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States”.

“The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement - they went wild; they were so happy - for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage,” he said at the time. “A cynic would say the obvious reason for economic competitors and their wish to see us remain in the agreement is so that we continue to suffer this self-inflicted major economic wound. We would find it very hard to compete with other countries from other parts of the world.

"The Paris deal hamstrings the United States, while empowering some of the world’s top polluting countries.” - Donald Trump

“No responsible leader can put the workers – and the people – of their country at this debilitating and tremendous disadvantage. The fact that the Paris deal hamstrings the United States, while empowering some of the world’s top polluting countries, should dispel any doubt as to the real reason why foreign lobbyists wish to keep our magnificent country tied up and bound down by this agreement: It’s to give their country an economic edge over the United States.”

But the argument this withdrawal from the climate accord empowers American employment and productivity, Sachs explained, is a fallacious one, collapsing like Larsen's antarctic ice shelf under closer examination.

“All of the explanations being given are an effort to make us waste our time,” said Sachs. “This is not about climate science doubt, or whether we had a hiatus in warming (we did not) and this is not about jobs. The most recent data from our Bureau of Labour Statistics shows the real American mine-face jobs that Trump speaks with so much emotion about in the coal industry is 15,900. In oil and gas it’s 25,810. That’s 40,000 out of a [national] labour force of 150 million people.

“This is a completely capital-intensive industry; it’s not about jobs. Real jobs? That's installing solar panels, that’s putting up wind turbines, it'ss not about saving jobs by endangering the planet.”

Follow the money

So following the logic of Sachs and others who share his view, including one-time presidential hopeful Al Gore and prominent New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer, these decisions are in fact being facilitated by senators bankrolled by oil.

But who is actually directing the show?

At the top of the chain or, as Sachs’ puts it, “the dark money vector”, are the Koch brothers with their net worth of 96 billion dollars. Publicly available data gives their net worth equivalence to the net worth of the poorest 100 million Americans. And according to Sachs, they stand to lose all but a hundredth of this figure were the world to shift into a low-carbon epoch no longer dependent on fossil fuels. “They know it and they’re spending a lot of money, dark money, to remain in control,” he says.

So how is this money specifically transferred into political gain? Sachs is unequivocal about who accepts it in return for a commitment to influence: “Mitch McConnell, our senate majority leader, and house speaker Paul Ryan are politicians for hire. They have led the effort through their so called super-pacts, such as when they gave money to other candidates (such as the winner of the 2017 by-election in Georgia).” Millions of dollars were pumped into that election, allegedly paid for by Ryan’s super pact, which was in turn paid for by the Koch brothers.

“That’s how this works,” said Sachs. “When you look at the pact that funds Paul Ryan – really one of our most despicable politicians – his pact is filled not only with the Koch brother money, but with one Wall Street hedge fund manager after the next.”

“Paul Ryan is really one of our most despicable politicians.” - Sachs

According to Sachs the money counts for so much because most Americans have a hard time voting, as made evident even in a high-profile election like Georgia, where only half the electorate voted. And that’s after 30 million dollars was pumped in to sway the result in the Republicans' favour. To do that in the remaining 435 congressional districts would require 30 billion dollars and access to incredibly deep pockets. Koch pockets perhaps.

Continuing the vector analogy, McConnell and Ryan in turn wield their power over the Commander-in-Chief. “Trump does what they him to do,” says Sachs. “That’s fine. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s not a Trump decision; this is a corruption of the American political system.

“So that gives you some idea of what really is at play with this incredible inequality that we not only have in the United States,” conceded a seemingly despondent Sachs. “But now build in the continuing influx of dark money, buying congress and the tax cuts that are on proposal, and slashing Obamacare, which would by the most recent estimate take 23 million off healthcare. Why do that? What civilised country could do that?

"Well, none. But how could this happen in the United States? Because it will enable the tax cuts that these political financiers are dreaming of. This is a big money racket which then goes [to elect people to congress], which then goes to vote for the tax cuts for these people, because it seems that for them the first ten billion is just not enough.”

When Forbes magazine released its most recent list of 2034 billionaires, their combined net worth was valued at 7.7 trillion dollars. Sachs says we need to put them to good work.

“We can help them put some meaning to their trillions. It is unconscionable to have a world where there are hundreds of billions suffering from extreme poverty, millions literally dying of their poverty and 2,000 people with a combined net worth of 7.7 trillion, many of whom are deliberately out-and-out wrecking our political system.

“This is a winnable battle. There are just a few of them and 7.5 billion of us. We want to save the planet and we want our children to flourish. And we don't want the useless wars that the United States has gotten us into. We want safety, we want sustainable development; and it's absolutely feasible. Its within budget, and within our tech means.”

Speak truth to power, says Sachs.

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