In April, activists around the world took to the streets to demand that global leadership take climate change seriously. Protesters lay themselves out like corpses near Manhattan’s City Hall; dozens blocked traffic on Germany’s Oberbaum and Jannowitz Bridges; adults and children doused the streets outside the Hague’s government offices with fake blood; and in London, activists glued themselves to trains, attached themselves to fences, and blocked the city’s busiest traffic routes. This disruption was an effort to get the U.K. government to declare a climate emergency, reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and form a Citizen’s Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice. On May 1 of 2019, the House of Commons declared the world’s first ever “climate emergency.”
At first, it was unclear what declaring this so-called “climate emergency” meant — whether it was merely gestural or would be connected to more substantial action. But a little over a week later, the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body established under the 2008 Climate Change Act to advise the U.K. government on the subject, published and presented its “Net Zero” report on how the United Kingdom might contribute to stopping global warming. The report recommended, among other things, that the United Kingdom set a new target: reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. According to the Committee, meeting the goals outlined in the report would have global impacts and place the United Kingdom at the forefront of climate leadership.
Both the public and the government seemed to agree with the protesters: Climate change is an emergency, and people ought to start treating it like one.
But the international movement organizing the protests — Extinction Rebellion — has not slowed down since this victory. In July, protesters conducted week-long protests in five British cities, renewing pressure as the U.K. government made halting progress towards the CCC goals. And while states and cities around the world declare more and more climate emergencies, one sobering fact remains true: The most powerful country in the world has politicized climate change action to a point of hurting its own citizens.
Trump to Global Warming: “Please come back fast, we need you!”
Just as the United Kingdom was taking unprecedented, progressive action on climate change, the United States — once a cooperative leader in the Paris talks — regressed on the same issues.
The Trump administration has worked to make climate change appear less urgent. In addition to rolling back Obama-era legislation aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the Trump administration has taken steps to undermine the very science on which climate change policy rests. This means refusing to report on the future effects of climate change by limiting the scope of the United States Geological survey to 2040, before the most significant effects of climate change will be felt, and leaving worst-case scenarios out of the next National Climate Assessment.
“Climate change has become highly politicized as an issue,” said pProfessor Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, in an interview with the HPR. Stavins explained that the greatest barrier to legislation focused on mitigating climate change is ideological, with Republicans largely refusing to support climate policy while many Democrats add their support to the Green New Deal, an ambitious resolution aimed at shifting away from fossil fuels and creating new jobs in clean energy industries. At a time of extreme political polarization, climate change is yet another issue pushing Republicans and Democrats to either political extreme. This is despite the fact that some of the states most profoundly affected by climate shocks in 2019 were traditionally red states in the agricultural Midwest. “So the biggest barrier is simply the politics,” Stavins said.
In fact, recent surveys on climate change opinion show that a majority of U.S. citizens are worried about climate change. What people are willing to do about it, on the other hand, is a different story. When the University of Chicago and Associated Press asked Americans in a survey how much they would be willing to pay monthly to deal with climate change, they found that 43 percent of respondents would not pay anything.
Stavins doubted that mass mobilization — even on the scale of the Extinction Rebellion protests and strikes in the United Kingdom — would have a significant effect on U.S. climate policy. When asked what it would take for the federal government to take action on the issue, Stavins was unequivocal: “I don’t think what’s required is a change in public opinion. What’s required is simply a change in the political makeup of Congress and the party that controls the White House.”
When asked what Americans who are passionate about these issues can do, Stavins offered a simple answer:
A World Leading Approach
Given the Trump administration’s continual dismissal of climate science, U.S. contributions to the global body of climate change research and policy will likely halt. In an interview with the HPR, Mike Thompson, head of carbon budgets for the U.K. Committee on Climate Change, expressed dismay that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would likely see the United States’ role shrink drastically. “The U.S. has been a major contributor into [the IPCC report] over the years, and clearly if there’s a reduction in that input that’ll be a real shame.”
But Thompson does not worry about the erosion of climate science globally. Instead, he warned about the consequences for the United States: “I think there’s a particular loss to the U.S. if the science base is being eroded in terms of things that directly relevant in the U.S. — the way that the climate will affect you there.” In the United Kingdom, the Met Office gives policymakers and citizens a granular understanding of where flooding is going to happen and where coastal erosion is more likely, enabling them to better prepare for and mitigate those shocks. “We’re very happy that we have a local science base that is helping us understand what that means here and how we can prepare for it,” said Thompson. Absent comparable governmental efforts to predict and respond to climate change, the United States will lack critical infrastructure to safeguard its citizens against increasingly frequent climate shocks ranging from heat waves and polar vortices to tropical storms and hurricanes.
Like Stavins, Thompson saw the value of climate science reports as a tool in informing government policy, not in swaying public opinion — which already shows concern over the effects of climate change. “The average citizen doesn’t feel they need to read the IPCC report to see that the climate is changing. They look around them and they see that the world is different now to how they remember it.” Thompson said. “And the science is there to inform the policy-making, to inform the best response.” The Trump administration, by contrast, is actively suppressing this same science.
Thompson drew a further contrast between the United States and the United Kingdom, emphasizing that widespread school riots and disruptive actions by Extinction Rebellion have played a major role in bringing discussions around climate change into British homes. What’s more, the BBC has revised its editorial policy to reject the “false balance” approach to climate change reporting, indicating that climate change denialism is no longer considered sufficiently evidenced to be regarded as an alternative expert opinion.
Thompson expressed hope that the United Kingdom will act to ensure that the climate emergency declaration is not merely symbolic, but produces concrete actions to address the ongoing climate crisis. Before leaving office, former Prime Minister Teresa May announced an amendment that changed the legally binding net-zero target from 80 percent to 100 percent by 2050. More than a target, the amended Climate Change Act includes a framework that sets out a pathway to reach net-zero by 2050, with requirements for government action. “The target is nothing without the policies to deliver it,” said Thompson.
Beyond the report’s framework, Thompson emphasized that the new net-zero target is feasible because it has broad-based support. “This is not an environmental movement — this is a business movement,” Thompson explained. Seeing that both global attitudes and U.K. laws are becoming more responsive to the changing climate, businesses would rather be the first to adopt regulatory changes so that they are not left playing catch-up to the rest of the world. The fact that public opinion has shifted so far in favor of climate action also means that businesses are responding to demands from workers and customers for more environmentally responsible practices.
Other than the coal industry’s unsurprising opposition to policies restricting greenhouse gas emissions, U.S. industries have shown a similar willingness to get on board with climate regulations. “What they want is certainty,” said Stavins. But unlike the United Kingdom, the United States has not yet seen the government restrictions or incentives needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. And while 2018 legislation creating federal tax credits for industrial carbon capture was supposed to spur widespread innovation across the steel, cement, chemical and fertilizer industries, it has yet to go into effect.
Thompson made it clear that the United Kingdom’s new commitments are meant to have a global impact, with spillover effects into other industrialized countries as well as those in the developing world. “The intention is that this is meant to be a world-leading approach.” As the United Kingdom affirms the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement, the CCC report sets out in detail how to reach them. “We have a plan of how to do it, Thompson affirmed. “We in the U.K. are going to do it and we’re going to do it properly and do it ourselves.”
Incapable and Unwilling
Yet, since the United Kingdom’s bold new net-zero-by-2050 target became law in June, progress in implementing measures to reduce emissions has fallen “off track,” according to the latest CCC progress report. To meet the new target, the United Kingdom will have to cut its emissions 50 percent faster over the next three decades. In other words, the climate emergency declaration has not yet brought about substantial changes.
Extinction Rebellion’s U.S. national coordinator, Bea Ruiz, made it clear in an interview with the HPR that pushing for climate emergency declarations is only one part of the movement’s strategy of mass-scale civil disobedience. “We’re trying to raise the public consciousness that we are in an emergency,” she said. Extinction Rebellion’s July protests in the United Kingdom showed, however, that just because a government declares a climate emergency does not mean the movement will slow its disruptions. A declaration, while symbolically important, is insufficient for protesters who view it as little more than government acknowledgement of the resounding scientific consensus that climate change threatens life on earth as we know it.
Extinction Rebellion believes the climate crisis should raise the same level of alarm that an asteroid hurtling towards the planet would. Ruiz explained that the movement has thrown out mainstream environmental groups’ playbook of positivity and modest acts, like changing one’s personal behavior or participating in safe, symbolic forms of civil disobedience. “They’ve been using an approach of positivity and hope and not asking very much of people, so this is the result.”
Part of that result can be seen in the most recent IPCC report, which described how climate change has placed the earth’s land under enormous pressure. The report warned that without swift action to implement policies that support sustainable land management, safeguard the world’s food supply, and keep carbon out of the atmosphere, the world’s food supply could soon be in serious danger.
Extinction Rebellion believes that it will take people willing to put their bodies on the line in sustained acts of civil disobedience to save the human race from mass extinction. Unlike Stavin, who insists that change will come through electoral politics, members of the movement have lost trust in the system altogether. “We know that the government has completely lost legitimacy in our minds. The government is supposed to protect people,” Ruiz said, “And they’ve shown themselves completely incapable and unwilling to deal with this crisis.” She emphasized that the notion that citizens can rely on their president is a delusion that has been holding back the movement. Instead of endorsing candidates who nominally support climate action, the group wants to force an untrustworthy system into motion. “We’ll have to use political force, our bodies in the streets, our bodies shutting things down to break that hold so that whoever is president will feel forced to cooperate and concede.” On July 23, demonstrators in Washington, D.C. super-glued themselves to passages in House office buildings, blocking members of Congress from a vote.
“They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do,” Ruiz said of policymakers. “We have enough people, we have enough popular support for this issue. The only question is who is going to step forward and take action.” Extinction Rebellion is organizing its next global climate strike for September 20, three days before the United Nations convenes its Climate Action Summit in an effort to get countries to substantively recommit to the climate change mitigation targets outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The movement hopes to use the week of sustained disruption on an unprecedented scale to galvanize global citizens and leaders into action.
Ruiz emphasized that getting the U.S. government to commit to climate action is key. The United States’ sheer levels of consumption, military might and money mean it will have to play a leadership role in any successful global effort to curb climate change. In 2017, California alone had a higher GDP than the United Kingdom as a whole.
“It’s our job to collectively force the government to do what it needs to do,” said Ruiz. “And if we do that, then the U.S. can play an international role that’s good — because it has to.”
Uniting Nations Against Climate Change
When leaders gather to present revamped plans to combat climate change at this September’s Climate Action Summit in New York City, look at what progress has been made since the original Paris Agreement to see who is really taking the lead on global climate action. Short of drastic shifts in political will, the United States’ 2020 presidential election will likely be its next real opportunity to recommit to mitigating climate change on the national and global scale. For now, it will be up to state and local governments to make incremental changes while the rest of the world hopefully makes the progress that Trump refuses to.
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