Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Did Donald Trump give you a lump of coal for Christmas? The President, after all, is doing everything possible to boost the production of coal, oil and natural gas. Yes, Trump’s actions are helping to wreck the planet. But Trump and his cronies, notably Mitch McConnell and Rupert Murdoch, know full well what they are doing, making their actions all the more despicable.
2019 was a devastating year for the environment. The continued massive burning of fossil fuels brought the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to levels not experienced for millions of years. The Earth’s temperature is now higher than at any time since the start of civilization about 10,000 years ago. Sea levels are rising, and we are reaching Earth temperatures that in the planet’s history have led to a sea-level rise of more than 6-9 meters (20-30 feet) compared with today.
This year, we watched terrifying scenes of devastating fires across the Amazon rainforest. We were horrified as mega fires ravaged California and Australia. We cried as Venice, one of humanity’s greatest cultural treasures, was brought to devastation by floods made more extreme by rising sea levels. We despaired as Central America’s desperate coffee-growing families fled from deepening droughts and hunger, only to be met on the US border by tear gas and CBP agents who took children from their arms.
President Trump’s rallies are full of populist nonsense about climate change. Trump has, of course, famously declared human-induced climate change to be a hoax. He rails against wind turbines (“after 10 years they look like hell”) and ridicules attempts to phase out incandescent bulbs and plastic straws.
He points to thousands of mining jobs that would end as coal mines are closed but ignores the millions of good jobs that would be created with the growing renewable energy industry. Yet Trump’s populist pose in defense of incandescent bulbs, plastic straws and mining jobs, masks something vastly more insidious: Each year, the United States now incurs tens or hundreds of billions of dollars of property losses and lost lives to weather and climate disasters.
In 2017/8, the first two years of Trump’s term, there were 30 large weather and climate disasters that each caused at least $1 billion in damages, for a combined total of 3,525 deaths and $411 billion in losses. Costly and deadly storms are, of course, not new, but scientists have determined that their frequency and intensity are rising because of the warming climate.
Countless more deaths and destruction are on the way as sea levels rise, hurricanes intensify, forest fires expand and violent conflicts around the world are stoked by famines, floods and forced migrations.
The safety of billions of people around the world is directly threatened by the actions of Trump and his fossil-fuel cronies. Recent evidence points to the possibility of dire tipping points beyond which climate change would be vastly accelerated.
Who wins in this rampant and cruel destruction of nature and livelihoods? A tiny group of wealthy elites and their political partners who sit atop the global fossil-fuel machine. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the US Senate win (though their children and grandchildren lose) since the fossil-fuel industry predominantly directs its campaign donations to the Republican Party.
According to the tally of opensecrets.org, the energy and natural resources industry gave $141 million in campaign contributions in the 2018 elections, with 78% going to Republicans. The industry also spent nearly $327 million on lobbying in 2018, setting up a lot of lucrative jobs for retired industry-friendly congressmen and staffers.
There is more to the political calculus. Trump hopes to repeat 2016 in racking up the Electoral College votes of small coal-producing states such as West Virginia and Wyoming. America’s Electoral College voting system gives these small states disproportionate sway in the presidential elections. Wyoming, for example, has three presidential electors, or one per 192,000 population; California, by contrast, has 55 presidential electors, or only one per 719,000 population.
An overwhelming proportion of Americans know the truth about human-induced climate change and want action. In a Pew survey taken in October 2019, 79% of respondents answered that humans are contributing to climate change. Some 67% held that the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change. And 77% called on the federal government to prioritize alternative energy over fossil fuels.
The major Democratic presidential candidates – all of them – are fighting Trump on climate change. Bernie Sanders has unveiled the most comprehensive Green New Deal plan, and targets Big Coal and Big Oil to help pay for it. His plan will create millions of green jobs. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg have all unveiled climate plans as well. Given the lopsided majority of Americans in favor of climate action, the issue should certainly favor the Democrats in 2020. Yet America’s broken political system poses major obstacles for the Democrats.
Most importantly, they must battle the well-funded propaganda of the fossil-fuel industry, along with Fox News and the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal, leading properties in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and ones that are thoroughly devoted to the fossil-fuel status quo. They must overcome the industry’s massive campaign contributions to the Republicans.
They must overcome the Electoral College’s small-state bias that favors the Republican Party, and which gave Trump the presidency in 2016 even as he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. And in contrast to Europe’s vibrant and rising green parties, which win parliamentary seats in Europe’s proportional representation systems, America’s first-past-the-post voting system blocks a viable new green party in the Congress.
The darker truth is that Washington politics runs contrary to public opinion not only on climate change but on many pressing issues, including limiting healthcare costs, taxing the rich, cracking down on pollution, controlling gun violence and other issues.
Large American majorities favor not only action on climate action but also government-negotiated drug prices, higher taxes on the rich, and stronger gun control. Yet in all of these cases, corporate lobbies carry the day against public opinion. In the US political process, at least until today, big money wins over public opinion.
There is new hope in the New Year. In 2020, voters can stop America’s downward spiral toward plutocracy and environmental ruin. The 2020 elections can herald the triumph of the common good over corporate greed. Our survival depends on it.