Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Climate change risks becoming the forgotten threat of the Trump era

The US president's multiple defects will distract from the greatest danger of all. 

The US has elected as its next president an intemperate narcissist, who reveres Vladimir Putin and has a history of racism and misogyny. All of this has been widely noted in recent days. But less has been said about Donald Trump's views on climate change. The president-elect, with impressive originality, regards global warming as a Chinese hoax. "[It] was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive," he declared in 2012. Consequently, he has vowed to withdraw America from the recently-signed Paris Agreement and to end funding for UN programmes.

Though climate change represents the greatest threat to the planet, the reaction to Trump's victory has confirmed that many now regard it as a second-order issue. It is human nature to focus on more immediate and visible dangers. An exception has been provided by shadow business secretary Clive Lewis. In his speech today at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Lewis (who I recently interviewed), warned that Trump's victory "could mean 'game over' for our planet." He was echoing the words of climate researcher Michael Mann, who said the result "might make it impossible to stabilise planetary warming below dangerous levels."

The US is theoretically prevented from leaving the Paris Agreement for four years, though Trump is exploring escape routes. His election alone, however, will have deleterious consequences for the environment. It will embolden climate change deniers in the US elsewhere and disincentivise efforts to deliver emissions reductions. 

In the UK, which will today ratify the Paris Agreement (making it the 111th country to do so), Conservatives hope to use Trump's election to push Theresa May in a less green direction. The Prime Minister is already regarded with suspicion by environmentalists after abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change (folding it into Business) and mentioning the issue just once in her conference speech. "Vote blue, don't go green", some suggest, is now an apposite slogan. The days when David Cameron hugged huskies and embraced the environmental agenda (albeit temporarily) are now a distant memory. 

After Trump's triumph, the quiet threat of climate change (even the term itself sounds benign) risks being further relegated. And unlike foolhardy economic policies, the consequences cannot be easily reversed. There isn't an alternative planet if the experiment goes wrong. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?