By Akachukwu Okafor 18/09/2017
The general perception within the climate change circles is that the United States is fast losing the leadership position it once held in charting the climate change future. The fact is that there hasn’t been any country that has consistently in recent times taken audacious steps of leading efforts to fight climate change. The United States was looked up to, it and assumed that hypothetical leadership role through the efforts of President Obama.
Unfortunately, that has since slipped. The future and leadership role on climate change politics, technologies, finance and so on now rests on China, no thanks to the “Chinese hoax”. A reasonable thing for the Trump government to do would have been to play along to see where the Chinese trick leads and its possible end, at least to ensure that China doesn’t get away with all the coming benefits. But this is not even the start of events.
What many Trump critics fail to remember is that attempts to scuttle climate action didn’t start with President Trump. In 2001, President Bush announced that it will not sign and implement the Kyoto Protocol, citing reasons which included lack of incomplete scientific knowledge of the causes and solutions of climate change, the harm it will cause the United States economy and the lack of technologies to commercially pursue a low carbon energy system. The difference with what is happening now and what happened during Bush’s Administration was that Angela Merkel under the G8 got Bush to sign the group’s climate pledge.
In the case of President Trump, Merkel and the group were more interested in ensuring that the rest of the group remain focused on implementing their pledges than urging Trump not to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement since the US decided to abandon the leadership position others hoped she will assume. Whatever the case, the world must move on with action with or without the US. The question that should be answered is why the seeming lack of commitment to the fight against climate change? Does it have to do more with Trump’s political party’s ideological standpoint on management and utilization of natural resources?
Maybe there are more deep and widespread undertones that subtly inform the United States’ position, actions and reactions on climate change. This is a thought also shared by a retired American college professor, scientist and environmentalist that I visited recently. He also often wonders why Americans especially the rich that can afford to act against climate change are reluctant to do so.
Trump’s position seems to reflect the near indifference most Americans have towards global warming – climate change as revealed in a recent research by Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. The 2017 report indicates that there is a 1% decline in the number of Americans that believe global warming is happening today when compared with 71% recorded in 2008 and few Americans are optimistic that humans will reduce global warming. Only 7% say humans can and will successfully reduce global warming, with 24% of Americans saying humans won’t because people are unwilling to change their behavior. With the huge level of awareness about global warming, the report also reveals that 67% of Americans rarely or never discuss global warming with family and friends while 33% often or occasionally discuss global warming with family and friends. Additionally, only 43% of Americans hear about global warming in the media at least once a month, and 19% of Americans hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month. With 42% of Americans saying their family and friends make at least a moderate amount of effort to reduce global warming. It may affirm the uncertainty that humans (especially Americans) will do what is necessary to reduce global warming and people’s unwillingness to change their behavior. Why this is the case is a puzzle irrespective of efforts to raise awareness. However, there is no doubt about the role of big fossil fuel businesses in ensuring that people around the world not just America take no steps against climate change.
What hasn’t helped in recent times is that the dominant narrative of economic benefits and less of environmental and climate friendly benefits of climate actions pushed by governments and businesses that are currently implementing climate action projects. A quick glance at some of the published news articles on environmentally cleaner and climate friendly projects and initiatives around the world talk about these projects from the long-term cost saving, socioeconomic benefits perspective and how these projects put forward the government, country, city or corporation as environmentally conscious and as a climate friendly brand for positive image/brand interests than how the project contributes to the global fight against climate change. With such skewed narrative, it is much easier for climate change deniers to compare continued fossil based energy systems and infrastructure from mainly an economics and social benefits standpoint than environmental and climate change benefits standpoint as a recent US government Department of Energy report on electricity markets and reliability did. I am not saying that decisions shouldn’t be made without the aim of achieving an economically and socially sound solution in mind but all must strive towards a holistic balance of all benefits – towards achieving sustainability, possibly putting the need for a sound environment and climate first.
Interestingly, upon Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, many would have expected that millions of Americans will take to the streets in peaceful protest, but this didn’t happen. Some environmentalists and political leaders believed that the best response would be to ignore Trump and design a strategy of implementing the Paris Agreement without United States government’s political and financial leadership and commitment. Soon, some US politicians specifically Jerry Brown, Governor of California and Michael Bloomberg, former New York Mayor had moved in to provide a platform and leadership for private and public entities (over 9 states, 227 cities and counties, 1,650 investors and businesses) within the United States and to pledge commitment to the Paris Agreement – and they are making huge significant commitments.
This initiative is highly commendable and still puts the United States on the path of meeting its Paris commitment as claimed by promoters of the initiative, however it is uncertain how this group will gain the political, and legal legitimacy with and within future climate change negotiation tables and institutions such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Will the UNFCCC design a unique mechanism to support and engage entities and groups that are making critical and proven efforts to combat climate change? What happens to United States government official financial contributions to climate action both in the United States and around the world? Who will bridge the funding gap that is being created? Research institutions in the United States and elsewhere that have been significantly funded by the US government are already concerned that financing will cease to come in and are now looking outwards to help. Unfortunately, US government staff has been banned from the use of the phrase ‘climate change’ by most US government departments and as it is, no researcher can get any US government funding to undertake a research that focuses on climate change.
Many may choose to argue that government’s funding of research programs has little or no benefits to the birth of rewarding innovations and technologies that contribute to significant economic benefits, however extensive research as revealed in ‘The Entrepreneurial State’ proves otherwise. Many countries understand this and are making huge investments in sustainable energy future but China seems to understand this more than any other nation as it desperately makes necessary investments to ensure that it becomes the leader and rallying force in the nearest future. For instance, its carbon trading scheme is set to be the biggest carbon trading scheme ever which will meet its 2030 peak emissions target. Whichever way the pendulum swings on who becomes the leader of climate decision processes, finance and technologies of the energy future the United States may have taken the passenger seat, unless it takes unprecedented steps to reverse wrong steps it has taken. Most importantly, what also needs to happen is that environmentalists and organizations that work on climate change must mobilize themselves to get Americans to know more about climate change, talk more about it and start taking critical action and pressure Washington irrespective of the party in power to do the right thing.
This piece was first published by Initiative for Policy Research and Analysis (InPRA).
Okafor Akachukwu is a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow (Public Management, University of Maine) and a Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex trained Energy Policy, Innovation and Sustainability Expert. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org