David E. Sanger credits Joe Biden with uncommon candor in his White House Memo in the March 28 issue of the New York Times. Rarely does a world leader lay out the guiding challenge of his administration with such clarity as Biden did in his first press conference last Thursday. Biden’s answer: Prove that democracy works, that it is better than authoritarian rule. Bull’s eye, Joe. Know that we wish you well.
Yet you’ve got to know that our democracy isn’t in the best of health these days. In fact, it was close to terminal on January 6th, and remains in critical condition. Can it recover its health, its confidence, and its competence?
Biden thinks he has the cure for what ails America, and wants to play midwife to its rebirth. He has a bold, transformative agenda, but before he can apply the medicines the country needs, he must enact them into law. To do that he must overcome — or subvert — the Senate rule that lets a minority thwart the will of the majority. The filibuster is an anachronism that lately has been used to obstruct all legislation proposed by the opposite Party lest it get credit for it in the next election.
I predict that Biden will not allow the filibuster to hobble America in its competition with China not for dominance but for acclamation that America’s democratic model of government is the exemplar that other countries should follow. Against a vision that grandiose, the filibuster doesn’t stand a chance. It must be said, however, that our relationship with China must entail cooperation as well as competition. Areas where we’ve got to work together are world health (preparing for and trying to prevent the next pandemic), nuclear containment (any nuclear exchange means curtains for all humankind), and most crucially, curbing climate change (failure means a slower but equally certain end to the human experiment). If only one of the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases decarbonizes, both will be plunged into climate catastrophe. Both must come very close to having zero net emissions or chaotic, horrific conditions will threaten to swamp civilization. The climate will turn hostile. Searing temperatures will make being outside unpleasant, even deadly. Prolonged heat waves will carry off the aged, the very young, the sick or challenged. Droughts and ill-timed rains will cause crops to fail and hunger to be widespread. Some people will starve. Others, malnourished, with impaired immune systems, will succumb to diseases they could resist if well fed. Many others will migrate. Few will find welcome. Coastal cities will flood repeatedly, forcing businesses to shutter, commerce to dwindle, real estate values to plummet, tax bases and civil services to erode, city centers to lose vitality, and people to relocate. Some will move nearby to higher ground, others further but still in country to higher latitudes where cooler weather in the North portends a better life. Yet millions of others will emigrate, seeking survival and a better life. Wherever they go they will create tension. Few will find welcome. Many will be turned away or shunted off to languish in “temporary” camps. Accommodation and assimilation will be very slow; fear, denigration, and resentments will last years. Besides killing, starving, or displacing people, the climate as it warms from all the heat-trapping greenhouse gases we generate will brew more frequent, more destructive, and more wide-ranging storms. Recovery from the devastation caused by more and more extreme weather events will cost billions of dollars annually. The climate will cause economies to suffer losses from lower worker productivity and lower crop yields. Pollution will make it dangerous to go outside, kill more than the eight million people a year it currently does, increase asthma, absenteeism, and hospitalizations. Governments will come under pressure from food shortages and higher commodity prices, the influx of migrants, and demands for solutions. Since it will too late for even capable governments to respond effectively to the growing disaffection, governments will fall back on repressive measures that only create more unrest. Some governments will fall, to be replaced by equally hapless regimes, while other countries will slip into something approaching anarchy. Stronger nations will “rescue” weak neighbors by establishing “protectorates,” to little avail. Whole systems of energy, finance, supply, transportation, and production will collapse, and with them, international order. Lawlessness, armed insurrection, and chaos will ensue. Even military might will be powerless to restore order and meet the needs of the people. Billions will die. Enclaves of the wealthy will survive for a time, but not long enough to restore homo sapiens to its former dominion over all the creatures of the Earth. Without the props of civilization, mankind will go the way of the dinosaurs unless mankind, led jointly by America and China, can mobilize its big brains, its many talents, its great adaptability, its considerable wealth, its scientific method, its formidable technology, it’s innate optimism, and its survival instinct, to halt the heedless disequilibrium we have caused in the climate of the only home most of us will ever know. We can restore the fine balance we need to survive, but only if all nations act urgently, decisively, and effectively. We all have to act as if our lives depend on what we do to counter climate change in this decade, because our lives and those of our children and theirs, do depend on it. If we don’t succeed, neither America’s democratic system nor China’s autocratic one will be superior to the other. If collectively we don’t stop the climate from heating, the Earth will become unlivable for humans, and both systems of governance, China’s and America’s, will have failed the only test that really matters, the test of sustainability.