Greta Thunberg,, the immensely sensible 16-year-old who triggered mass protests at the reluctance of nations to address looming climate catastrophe, sailed across the Atlantic in a non-polluting yacht to address the UN’s Climate Summit this summer. Her message was impassioned, articulate and clear: we have only a few years to mend our energy-profligate ways before climate change will lead to nature-driven destruction. Her incisive advocacy inspired many to take action. Large numbers of young people showed up for a demonstration outside the UN summit.
We need a concrete plan—not just words” (Greta Thunberg)
But, however articulate Greta’s plea or impassioned the young demonstrators were, the rest of New York, and indeed the US took little notice. This is a bad omen. From the EPA struggles with Big Business forty years ago to the recent Obama administration, the USA had made steady, if halting, progress towards seeing nature as more than a collection of resources to be plundered. A couple of oil crises and loss of total economic dominance in the world has helped focus America’s mind on co-operation on broader issues. But that all seems to have come to a shuddering halt with the election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency thee years ago.
In a whole series of consensus-wrecking moves, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord may turn out to be the most ill-considered. Now the Presidential glare has focused on California and its ground-breaking legislation on the environment, most especially on car emission standards.
This s unfortunate. Because since Washington legislators are swamped by PACs and lobbyists well funded by Big Business keen to encourage a light touch in placing any restrictions on their activities, it falls to the state—especially California, easily the most prosperous and dynamic among all fifty—to lead such innovation. And, curiously enough, Big Business does not seem to mind this because where California leads, other states follow and a de facto national standards provides manufacturers with a level playing field.
So, for the last century, California, together with other progressive states like New York, Massachusetts and Illinois have set the pace and the rest of the country more or less happily followed suit. But that was when America’s institutionalised two-party political system was in balance. Since the increasingly venomous 1990s, that has ceased to be the case to the point that these progressive states mentioned have become Democrat fiefdoms. Now that the Republicans hold the White House, it’s payback time. And Donald J. Trump is just the man to do the partisan job.
You may wonder why such a cluster of leading states would not carry the day with their size and economic clout. But Trump has plugged directly in to that part of America little seen by and little interested in the outside world: the Red Center.
The Red Center is an eclectic amalgam of North-East manufacturing states, Mid-West farming states, Southern Bible-Belt states and Wild West sunbelt states. They vote Republican. They don’t like imports. They don’t like immigrants. They regard themselves as patriotic Americans, believing it the greatest country in the world and that everyone else wants to be like them. This justifies American interference in other countries it regards as hostile to this concept as the “World Policeman”. It is a messianic 21st century twist on Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”.”. And, while there are millions of enlightened citizens who don’t share this simplistic outlook, they are thin on the ground in the Red Center, where environmentalism is equally thin on the ground.
Given the scale, beauty and riches of the country, it is easy to understand hoe Americans developed this sense of boundless potential waiting for the hand of man to release it. While the more crowded states on both coasts have evolved beyond that, it is still the credo of the Sunbelt, especially Texas and Arizona. You may think Los Angeles is the sine qua non in urban sprawl and freeway lifestyle. Buy it is constrained by ocean and mountains.
LA’s 4,800 sq. mile metropolitan area—eight times the area of London—is dwarfed by Phoenix’s 14,600 sq. miles. To put it in context, that’s 25% bigger than ALL of Belgium. It spreads its rectangular grid of streets across the flat, featureless and apparently limitless Sonora Desert. Downtown is a huddle of high-rises, with nobody on the street because of 40degC heat. Otherwise, nowhere is close to anywhere, so everyone drives. The grid of streets are full of vehicles, mostly new, many SUVs the size of minibuses and trucks the size of delivery vans. They are all single-occupant. Commutes of 40 miles are common—but petrol is $3.34 per US gallon (62p per litre).
As if this were not enough to turn Greta’s hair white, the average house size is 2,164 sq. ft. (201 sq. m.), as compared to the UK’s 818 sq. ft. (78 sq. m.). These cost around £300 per month to keep habitable with air conditioning. You’d think that hot desert air would provide ideal laundry drying conditions but there’s not a clothes line to be seen: every house has a tumble-dryer. But many have pools, which each lose about 20,000 gallons of water to evaporation each year. This is on top of millions sprayed on golf courses, sometimes in the heat of day, and all of this water pumped from aquifers and draining the Colorado River dry.
The point of all this being that the 5m inhabitants of Phoenix could hardly be called environmentalists. Even if they wanted to, the place is so spread out they have to drive and the rest of their lifestyle is environmentally unsustainable. Which may be one reason why, like their fellow citizens of the Red Center, they will vote for Trump again in 2020. Because Trump tells them what they want to hear: that jobs can be brought back; that immigrants can be kept out; that it is perfidious foreigners and leftie Democrats that seek to sap America’s vitality and threaten the conspicuous consumption that made America great in the 1950s & 60s.
One thing is sure: they are not listening to Greta. Even if they wanted to, they could not adapt to anything approximating the curtailed consumption she advocates. With Trump at America’s wheel and an eye on his voters, he will steer policy in a direction opposite to that required by Greta, by science and by reason. With China burning coal and Brazil burning forests, without America’s participation, action on climate change would be ineffectual.