President Trump has thus far ushered in a political era defined by nationalism, protectionism, and ethnocentrism. But it will be temporary. Trump cannot grind globalization to a halt. I fear that his more enduring legacy will be a political order that cannot agree on any basic facts.
“Post-truth,” Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year, doesn’t do the threat justice. Politicians have always swayed public opinion through appeals to emotion and personal belief. The difference today is that ‘facts’ are becoming preferences chosen like food at the grocery store. The processed facts, made for our ideological taste buds, seem to have better shelf life than the fresh truths. And our information grocers – increasingly social networks, aggregators, and infotainment outlets – unabashedly push what sells. Why challenge our realities when it’s more profitable to win our impressions, clicks, and shares?
In 2017, I ask politicians, businesspeople, scholars, and other leaders to stand up for facts. Regardless of our borders and identities, we will experience similar challenges, threats, and opportunities in the 21st century. We no longer live in a world where one country can become and remain “great” at the expense of others. To share in greatness, we have to share truths. I recommend we start with three:
- Human Beings Are Causing Climate Change
How many glaciers, islands, and coastal cities have to disappear before the last holdouts acknowledge human-induced climate change? How many more years of extreme weather, mass extinctions, and droughts must we endure before taking responsibility?
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says the arctic just had its hottest year on record. Temperatures were as high as 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit above average in November. Arctic sea ice extent tied with 2007 for the lowest on record, and the NOAA scientists report that melting permafrost is releasing more carbon than greening tundra can absorb.
We are fulfilling climate change forecasts that predict up to $369 trillion worth of economic damage by 2200. Without a consensus on climate change, we will not act in time to prevent that catastrophe.
- There is No Conflict Between Clean Energy and Economic Growth
Recently, the University of Texas Energy Institute released a report titled “The Full Cost of Electricity.” The researchers found that wind power is the lowest-cost option for new electricity generation in 1,347 out of 3,110 U.S. counties factoring prices, public health impacts, and environmental effects. Natural gas was the cheapest option in 1,133 counties, and coal won not a single county. If you add nuclear energy (398) and solar (232) to wind’s total, non-carbon energy sources are the most cost-efficient in nearly two-thirds of the U.S.
Even if we rejected the Energy Institute’s adjustments for carbon externalities, renewables can still beat grid prices. A new wind farm in Morocco generates electricity at USD 3¢ per kilowatt hour, while a new solar installation in Dubai produces it at 2.99¢ per kilowatt hour.
Even in the transportation sector, hydrocarbons are losing the future. The Paris Auto Show in September was a watershed moment. The automakers each presented at least a decade worth of electric vehicles (EVs). Volkswagen Group alone announced more than 20 EV models across its brands and expects to sell more than 1 million in the next 5 years. At less than $30,000 with a 375-mile range, the VW I.D., to be released in 2020, will have a longer range and lower price tag than the Tesla Model 3. EV pioneers will dominate markets like China, which, to fight deadly air pollution, is considering a mandate that would require EVs to represent eight percent of new cars sales by 2018.
Renewables will outcompete fossil fuels with or without regulatory support. Ongoing breakthroughs in clean energy will lead the world to a carbon-free economy.
- The Industrial Jobs of the Future Are Not the Industrial Jobs of the 1950s
No matter how President Trump renegotiates trade deals, he cannot recreate the industrial jobs of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. World War II and its aftermath created unique circumstances in which American firms could dominate global manufacturing (other industrial economies were in shambles). Tariffs will not reproduce those glory days. Pressuring manufacturers like Carrier to keep plants in Indiana will neither preserve jobs in the long run nor make American products more competitive.
The industrial powers of the 21st century will be those that lead in robotics, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing. They will educate engineers and software developers who can develop highly automated assembly lines. They will train skilled laborers to collaborate so efficiently with robots that manufacturers will choose to relocate plants back to North America and Europe, as Adidas has. And by supporting 3D printing technology and supply chains, these countries will enable small businesses to competitively manufacture craft goods for online markets and their local communities.
Global Rust Belts must evolve into Robotics Belts to create industrial jobs. But industrial innovation will require transnational collaboration. U.S. manufacturers will depend on technologies born in China, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and other places. Trump may restrict the flow of goods and people, but he cannot stop the exchange of great ideas.
Stand For Truth
One U.S. president can rock the global political order, but I have faith that leaders will resist populist ideology with fact. The truth has a long winning streak. What were initially controversial facts about pesticides, tobacco, air pollution, and ozone depletion became consensus and saved lives. Difficult truths need time and persistent advocates.
We have all the technology, data, and talent we need to resist post-truth politics. But we have to invest more in credibility, authenticity, and intellectual authority to separate truths from preferences and news sources from grocery stores. Let’s make truth great again.