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Why the rest of the world should get a vote in the greatest reality TV show on Earth – the US election

I've been watching so closely, I am now able to tell Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio apart almost 50 per cent of the time, though it’s still like watching the Chuckle Brothers trying to lead a fascist rally.

We’re only halfway through, and I’m already sick of the US presidential race. As reality television goes, it’s a hackneyed format. The narrative is childish and simplistic. And if I want to watch a bunch of interchangeable thuggish white men and the occasional token minority making terrifying pronouncements to a pounding rock soundtrack, I’ll stick on a Tarantino film.

American commentators often point out that the whole two-year, multibillion-dollar pageant is a great way to distract the entire US electorate from the real-life daily process of democracy. Imagine how the rest of us feel. We’re not even allowed to vote and help decide which candidate gets to go home with all those fabulous prizes, which include a free plane and the largest military arsenal the world has ever known. What can I say? It’s America. They have high expectations. In Britain, whoever Rupert Murdoch picks is usually just excited to meet the Queen.

I’ve tuned in for the past five series of this horror show, and I’ve got to say, it’s getting tiresome. It picked up in 2008, when they made some genuinely progressive casting decisions. The 2012 one repeated a lot of the same material, but the writers’ strike was on and the producers had to work with what they’d got. But in recent years, they seem to have broken entirely with the reality aspect and just attempted to glue us to the screens with unremitting horror and the possibility that one of the contestants might start screaming and try to eat the others.

The same thing happened on Big Brother, where the first few seasons were truly engaging, partly because they featured at least some ordinary people who occasionally forgot they were on television. But then they tried to boost ratings by filling a bunker with G-list celebrities wearing DayGlo spray tans who smiled all the time and tried to get them to have sex or kill one another on camera.

In both politics and entertainment, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of shock value, as long as it isn’t replacing actual content. The presidential race would be embarrassing even if it weren’t supposed to dramatise the proper function of politics in the world’s only democratic superpower.

America does seem, at times, to forget that it’s on camera and the entire world can see when it strips naked and rants at itself in the mirror. Guys, everyone can see you seriously considering leadership by a man who calls global warming a “hoax” and wants to build a border wall out of Muslims.

I’ve been paying as much attention to the Republican race as I can stand, and I am now able to tell Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio apart almost 50 per cent of the time, though it’s still like watching the Chuckle Brothers trying to lead a fascist rally. The candidates appear to be competing to deliver the most unhinged bigotry. Last season, it was enough to oppose a woman’s right to choose. This season nobody will pay attention until you say you’re going to make it illegal for women not to be pregnant and replace what remains of the health-care system with a single giant gun.

It was mildly hilarious at first to think that any one of these swivel-eyed clowns might become the leader of the nominally free world, but that joke has been running for six years now, and it’s not funny any more. It’s just scary. It’s depressing and scary. It’s boring and depressing and scary, and most viewers are bored and depressed and scared and unable to change channel, which is even worse, because it means that these cartoon monsters might even pull it off – like that time everyone voted for four screaming Finns in plastic goblin masks to win Eurovision just to see what would happen. That’s how we got Boris Johnson. Who turned out to have been serious about making London into a giant theme park for millionaires.

Under these circumstances, I am rather nonplussed by everyone asking me what I think of Hillary Clinton. What I think, along with most non-Americans, is that compared to the Republican choices, absolutely anyone at all is acceptable as long as they appear to be at least semi-hinged.

Americans do not appear to realise that, although it would be nice to get the more progressive of the two Democrats, what matters most to the rest of the world is that not a single member of the Republican line-up, the worst boy band in history, ever gets within 50 feet of the Situation Room (hey, I’ve seen The West Wing). What matters is that these people are not allowed to make decisions about climate change, or military intervention, or preferably any decisions at all apart from, perhaps, whether they would prefer milk or hot chocolate at bedtime, because someone should take gentle care of them in a place where they are never allowed to engage in politics again. I’d call them lunatics but it would do a disservice to the many people I know with mental-health difficulties.

At this point I, for one, would feel a lot safer if the selection were done by a lottery of the entire American public. But if we must pretend that this is democracy, there ought at least to be a chance for everyone affected to have their say.

The world is obsessed with the US elections because the outcome of those elections will have an impact on every person on Earth. So, let the world have its say. Why not? Even limited voting rights for everyone affected by US foreign, environmental and trade policy might restore a measure of sanity, or at least oblige the US to acknowledge the existence of several billion non-American human beings who would really prefer not to be blown up or under water.

The world is burning. America is watching a creaky junior string quartet try to play Wagner. Let’s give the species a chance to change the channel.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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