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United States: The Politics of Climate Change

21 Feb 2020
By Dr Ruth Adler
President Trump during his June 1, 2017 announcement to leave the international Paris Agreement. Source: The White House

The coming months will determine whether the November United States presidential contest becomes a climate election. With Trump now acquitted following impeachment proceedings, the Democrats will have a harder road to convince voters on both sides of the political spectrum that addressing climate change is a key priority.

President Trump’s recent State of the Union Address will be remembered for House Speaker  Nancy Pelosi’s dramatic tearing-up of the speech.   While the speech focused on traditional conservative priorities, including the economy, free trade, relations with China, immigration and border security, military strength, religious freedom, healthcare, terrorism, and law and order, it was also notable for its omissions.  While Trump briefly canvassed environmental themes, such as the Trillion Trees initiative that the president  pledged to join at the World  Economic Forum in Davos last month, one key omission was the issue of climate change.

Climate change was an important issue in the 2016 election campaign. The Republican platform reflected Trump’s scepticism about climate science,  stating that United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was “a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution” and that its “unreliability [was] reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy.”  Trump pledged to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to strengthen the global response to climate change and has the aspirational goal of holding “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.”  He also undertook to cease funding for the United Nations Framework Agreement on Climate Change and one if its key financial mechanisms, the Green Climate Fund.

On 4 November 2019, exactly three years after the Paris Agreement came into force and the first day intentions of withdrawal could legally be submitted, the US officially commenced the withdrawal process. Withdrawal takes effect one year from the date of notification.  The US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will thus take effect on 4 November 2020, one day after the US presidential election.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was widely criticised by the business community, scientists, environmentalists, and civil society,  with commentators citing threats to US economic competitiveness and its impact on global efforts to address climate change as key concerns. Trump has also rolled back many of Barack Obama’s climate-focused reforms,  including rescinding  the Clean Power Plan  and regulations relating to the implementation of Obama’s methane reduction strategy.

Looking ahead, it remains to be seen whether climate and environment issues will feature prominently in the 2020 US elections.  A recent  study found that 64 percent of those surveyed thought the environment should be a top priority for President Trump and Congress. 52 percent thought that climate change should also be a top priority. While other issues were rated by more people as top priorities, including terrorism (74 percent of respondents), the economy (67 percent), healthcare costs (67 percent), and education (67 percent), the results show that climate change and environmental protection are of increasing importance to US voters. ­Compared to 2017, only 38 percent of respondents in a similar survey indicated that climate change was a top priority.

Not unexpectedly, however, a partisan gap exists on these issues, with 85 percent of Democrats  saying that protecting the environment  should be a top priority for the president and Congress, whereas only 39 percent of Republicans think the same.  Considering whether climate change is a top priority, the split is 78 percent of Democrats and only 21 percent of Republicans. That said, the research  highlights that — across the board —  these issues are becoming more important to voters.

Perhaps in light of the increasing importance voters are giving to climate and environmental issues, Republicans have endeavoured to demonstrate that they are concerned about environmental protection and climate change. House Republicans have recently outlined a climate plan focused on carbon capture and sequestration, clean energy, and conservation.  The plan includes measures to encourage the planting of trees, provide incentives for carbon capture and sequestration via tax credits, and support research and development on carbon capture technology. The plan has, however, encountered opposition from some conservative Republicans and organisations such as the Club for Growth.

The Democrats have made environment and climate issues a key priority, defining climate change as an “urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time” and are committed to achieving Obama’s Paris Agreement pledge, developing a clean energy economy, and securing climate and environmental justice. Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal plan is the most ambitious, with campaign pledges including 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030, complete decarbonization of the economy by 2050, and a USD 16.3 trillion public investment package.  Sanders has also committed to the US providing $200 billion to the Green Climate Fund and re-joining the Paris Agreement.  Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren have also set out ambitious climate plans, with the former emphasising climate justice and infrastructure development, and the latter committing to  domestic net-zero emissions by 2030 and to prioritising clean energy, corporate accountability, and environmental justice.  Pete Buttigieg has promised to enact a price on carbon, to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050 , to quadruple federal clean energy research and development  funding, and to create three investment funds to promote the development of clean technology.

Other candidates vary in their level of ambition.  Former Vice President Joe Biden has pledged  to  ensure the US achieves a 100 percent clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050Mike Bloomberg has committed to clean energy technology, reducing carbon pollution by 50 percent by 2030, and setting clean energy standards and pollution limits on coal and gas plants. Amy Klobuchar has committed to net–zero emissions by 2050 and to the US re-joining the Paris Agreement. Tulsi Gabbard has emphasised her commitment to reaching net-zero emissions and to renewable energy, but is less detailed on the specifics of her plans.

There is also considerable  grassroots momentum for action on climate change at state and local government levels and  among the business community and civil society. For example, We Are Still In is a bipartisan coalition of mayors, governor, and business leaders, formed in 2017 to oppose the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and to campaign for action on climate change.  The coalition claims to represent  more than 155 million Americans and USD 9 trillion of the US economy.  In July 2017, Mike Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown launched America’s Pledge, which seeks to “aggregate and quantify the actions of states, cities and businesses and other non-national actors” to address climate change.  The United States Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of 24 governors committed to addressing climate change,  states that it represent 55 percent of the US population and an economy worth USD 11.7 trillion.  Both America’s Pledge and the United States Climate Alliance are committed to achieving the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement.

While it is still early days, the coming months will determine whether the November contest becomes a climate election. Trump, in keeping with the tone of his State of the Union address, will likely seek to de-emphasise the issue but will,  if necessary, assert environmental credentials through his commitment to initiatives such as Trillion Trees.

Dr Ruth Adler a former senior career officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Diplomatic appointments included Ambassador to Ireland (2013-2016) and High Commissioner to Brunei Darussalam (2006-2009), with earlier postings as Counsellor/Deputy Head of Mission, Australian Embassy, Mexico City (1998-2000), and Second Secretary, Australian Embassy, Manila (1991-1994). Ruth has a PhD in Latin American history and politics, and is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD). She is currently undertaking a PhD in international climate law with the Law Faculty of the University of Tasmania.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.