Even as it poses an unprecedented planetary threat, the rise of far-right leaders has inspired a new scale of climate activism. Representing a greater resistance to right-wing extremism, public and private institutions alike, alongside citizens of all ages, are mobilizing to derail the world from a climate collision course while there is time left to do so.
Nations for a Net Zero World
Rather than induce a chain reaction, Trump’s rejection of an international climate agenda has galvanized national governments around decarbonization, creating an imperative to fill the vacuum left by the United States in global climate leadership. Many have reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement and criticized U.S. withdrawal, with G20 leaders declaring Paris “irreversible.” From 2017-2018, the world saw declarations by seven countries to end the use of internal combustion vehicles and by 20 countries to end coal-fueled power generation by 2030. Recently, nations have taken even bolder steps to fortify their climate commitments, with the United Kingdom becoming the first G7 industrialized nation to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 as of last June. China and India, the world’s first and third largest carbon emitters, have also bolstered their climate initiatives. Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to present China as a climate leader as it leads renewable energy development, while India has launched new reforestation campaigns.
The Leadership of Global Cities
Even as far-right administrations oppose climate action, cities are innovating new models of low-carbon living and climate mitigation. According to C40 regional director David Miller, it was “precisely because of the inaction of national governments” that former London Mayor Ken Livingstone created the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group in 2005. For Miller, mayors’ sphere of public influence, along with their ability to take strong unilateral action, makes them well-positioned for climate leadership. That cities account for over 60 percent of global emissions also adds a unique obligation for them to support climate action. London provides a clear example: there, Mayor Sadiq Khan has created the world’s first Ultra Low Emissions Zone, enacting the toughest global emissions standards for vehicles.
Similar leadership has manifested in cities across the Global North and South. Miller cited the Oslo City Council’s 2016 adoption of a carbon budget, which operates like a financial budget but works to regulate carbon emissions, as a powerful model for city-led climate action. Shenzhen, China’s move to electrify its 16,000-vehicle public bus fleet provides another such model. Faced with the anti-climate crusade of the Trump Administration, U.S. cities such as NYC and LA are leading the push for more sustainable public infrastructure. NYC recently passed its own Green New Deal, including measures to retrofit buildings and catalyze renewable energy adoption. It is one of several cities aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050.
For Miller, these cities’ leadership reflects a greater commitment by mayors to “thinking about leading externally. They’re really the only collective speaking up against [right-wing] trends like ‘let’s put up walls and look internally’ which we’re seeing in a number of countries.” These efforts stem partly from a belief that all people deserve economic opportunity and partly from necessity, due to the direct impact of global policies around issues such migration and trade on cities. “Mayors don’t have a choice. Whether it’s refugees or huge storm events, mayors have to respond,” Miller stated. With the United Nations projecting that nearly 70 percent of the world population will be living in urban areas by 2050, the rising density of cities also promises to create new stresses on public infrastructure. The impetus to respond swiftly to this changing environment and to crises as they emerge forces cities to “become experts at engaging their citizens,” with successful mayors building on public momentum to shape and implement policy.
Hence, it is no coincidence the cities leading global climate action are often first responders when it comes to resisting the far-right’s agenda. Miller noted that many of the mayors involved in C40 Cities are also members of the Mayors Migration Council, which advances progressive immigration policy. Amidst right-wing crackdowns on immigration, many cities have declared themselves sanctuaries for migrants and refugees, taking various measures to protect them and refusing to enforce federal immigration policy.
While city and mayoral initiatives cannot fully substitute for coordinated international action, they have globalized new and impactful efforts to curb emissions. Perhaps most importantly, they have provided a bulwark against far-right policies seeking to eradicate climate from the political agenda entirely.
Green Business and Cross-Sector Coalition-Building
Alongside governments, industry has also advanced the Paris goals. While some companies continue to attack environmental regulation — with BP and Shell spending millions to block state-level carbon taxes — others are recognizing a moral and economic imperative for greener business. Since 2017, almost 22,000 U.S. businesses and investors have joined the We Are Still In Coalition, pledging to pursue domestic climate action despite the federal government’s reversal on climate policy, while over 900 companies have similarly pledged to support decarbonizing the economy as part of the We Mean Business coalition.
According to Second Nature President Tim Carter, who serves on the Executive and Steering Committees of the We Are Still In Coalition, it is a combination of consumer demand and opportunity that is driving businesses to adopt more green practices. With more people factoring climate-consciousness into their purchases and scrutinizing businesses’ carbon footprints, companies “want to have a brand that reflects the goals that are consistent with their customers.” Carter also told the HPR that companies want to take advantage of cross-sector coalition-building, working with institutions such as universities and health care facilities with aligned environmental positions. “There’s a lot of opportunity to do things together and be successful that you couldn’t do if you were operating as a single business … or as a single sector even,” Carter said, stressing the scale of demand necessary for large-scale renewable energy projects. Working in coalitions can also bolster companies’ political influence to advocate for climate policy change.
For Carter, groups like the We Are Still In Coalition provide essential models of the partnership needed to achieve a decarbonized economy, especially while facing anti-climate government leaders. By leaving public and private institutions to pick up the mantle of climate action, Carter believes, Trump has actually “catalyzed these national actors to work together in ways that would not have been possible otherwise” to uphold the Paris goals. Carter views the We Are Still In Coalition as representing a “mobilization and alignment of [cross-sector] voices [that] has been unprecedented.” He describes the group as a key U.S. voice at international climate conferences, where it encourages governments to maintain and strengthen their Paris commitments by showing that Trump’s anti-climate agenda does not reflect Americans’ own.
Although Miller has been impressed by such industry-led climate leadership, he believes that businesses must foster more acceptance of the need for strong industry regulation. Absent such regulation, he holds, “even the best businesses are forced by competitive reasons … to not achieve those goals that we need those sectors to achieve” in order to dramatically curb emissions.
Calling Democratic Citizens to Action
“Our house is on fire.” Last January, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg called on world leaders to act on the urgency of the climate crisis. What began as Thunberg’s lone protest outside of the Swedish Parliament in September 2017 has since snowballed into a global movement, with students in over 130 countries striking from school every Friday to demand climate action from lawmakers. This new grassroots push stems largely from frustration with government inertia in the wake of the last IPCC report’s alarming findings. Compounding this frustration, the rise of the far-right has driven more youth to the climate movement, as young people seek to defend their futures, which they feel are on the line.
For Arielle Martinez Cohen, it was Trump’s election that prompted her to become a youth climate strike organizer. “It was kind of this weird feeling of ‘Oh my god, government isn’t actually here to protect me. I need to do it myself,” she told the HPR. Cohen believes that many of her peers shared this experience.
Alongside the youth climate strikes, the Extinction Rebellion movement has earned international attention for inspiring mass nonviolent action. XR protests last April that shut down streets in central London led to over 1,000 arrests. The U.K., Irish, and Scottish governments declared climate emergencies shortly afterwards, signalling a recognition of the stark reality of the climate crisis. ‘Telling the truth’ about the crisis, however, is only the beginning, according to XR political coordinator Sarah Lunnon. She remains deeply troubled by the reliance on carbon capture technology and inability to guarantee success of the IPCC’s prescription for limiting warming. It is as if “we’ve been asked to strap our children into an airplane which has got 60 percent of reaching its destination,” Lunnon explained, “which is terrifying.” To truly combat the climate emergency, XR maintains calls for nations to commit to net zero emissions by 2025.
While significantly reducing GHG emissions seems virtually impossible under right-wing governments, it is not only the right impeding climate action. For Lunnon, liberal lawmakers have yet to fully accept the reality of the climate emergency — meaning that “everyday society needs to change dramatically” — which demands large-scale and potentially unpopular policy change.
With lawmakers failing to show sufficient will of their own, it seems clear to Lunnon that changing the political calculus on climate demands concerted efforts by global citizens. Yet for her, the responsibility for such efforts falls mainly on privileged individuals in democratic countries, who can afford taking risks that many communities disproportionately burdened by climate change cannot. Cohen, meanwhile, holds that adults have a responsibility to support youth-led protests, while youth must mobilize adults in turn.
“Once people actually understand the impact of what we’re facing … the need to act is overwhelming. It’s either that or despair,” said Lunnon. In her experience, protest empowers individuals and inspires activist communities that sustain hope. “Sometimes, our future looks very bleak and being able to be part of the movement and … means that you can get up in the morning … Joining with communities that understand [that feeling] … being able to talk with them and to grieve with them, is very important.”
Cohen similarly views protest as a way for youth disillusioned by projections of climate catastrophe to assert agency over their futures. “We can’t just sit in school while this is happening,” she stated.
An Uncertain Future
While this wave of activism seems promising, it will face new obstacles as the acceleration of the climate crisis threatens to exacerbate far-right trends against climate action. As a driver of displacement, projected to create over 140 million migrants by 2050, climate change could fuel the anti-immigrant and nativist rhetoric underpinning support for far-right leaders. With such leaders already tightening national borders amidst the Syrian refugee and other migrant crises, climate-induced migration could boost public support for their agendas. Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the HPR that some experts fear the rise of a “fortress America or a fortress Europe mentality” negligent of such crises’ root causes.
However, Meyer also sees a potential for climate-induced displacement to galvanize climate action by creating an understanding of climate change’s human consequences — namely, the devastation of lives and livelihoods in developing countries — in the industrialized nations driving global GHG emissions. Miller views public support for sanctuary cities as revealing many people’s natural desire to help those needing resettlement, which may indicate future reception of climate migrants and refugees.
Already, Meyer holds, everyday citizens are “pushing their governments to be external-looking” and to consider how “everybody can be economically successful and have a chance to contribute meaningfully to society.” Beyond empowering lawmakers to make difficult policy changes to curb emissions, citizens’ vocal support for climate action may help pressure rogue governments to realign their climate agendas.
For Miller, youth voices have a unique potential to catalyze change. While he finds it “a bit sobering and sad that it’s taken a teenager [Greta Thunberg] to have the world … say ‘wait a minute, we’ve got to do something’” despite clear scientific recognition of the climate crisis, he also recognizes that “sometimes it does take somebody who can speak with the clarity of youth” to provide a moral force for climate action.
Combating the potential increase in far-right politics that may result from the climate crisis also requires addressing the economic and social anxiety motivating popular support for right-wing leaders. For Miller, that means focusing on the need for a just transition or accounting for the loss of jobs, economic security, and even culture that workers in the dirty energy industry fear will come with a societal movement to clean energy. Offering job retraining for former oil and coal mine workers to enter the clean energy sector, for instance, may mitigate against such workers’ support for right-wing extremism. “It’s really critical that economic inequality be addressed while addressing climate change,” Miller stated. “That’s a real bulwark against the tactics the right is using to exploit the anxiety that people that fear.”
At least in the United States, debunking far-right rhetoric may also require tackling media manipulation. The Union of Concerned Scientists works to combat the inaccurate presentation of anthropogenic climate change as a 50-50 debate. With Americans’ belief in anthropogenic climate change at a record high, Meyer believes that efforts to sow climate skepticism like those employed by President Trump represent a dying tactic, reaching only a minority of voters. In countries like Hungary, where media is largely under state control, battling far-right bias appears more difficult. Here, the willingness of experts to speak out against misinformation can be critical. Already, CEU Professor Zsolt Enyedi has seen Hungarian scholars show “incredible courage” in leading efforts to expose and protest the Fidesz takeover of academia.
The Race Against Time
Regardless of trends toward or away from right-wing politics, the greatest obstacle to achieving sufficient climate action seems not to be political inertia or resistance but a lack of time. At the moment, the most promising movements for decarbonization still cannot put the world on track for limiting serious warming. Even as public momentum for climate action grows, political will continues to lag behind. “You can’t negotiate with the atmosphere … you can’t change the laws of physics,” explained Meyer. “That’s the real challenge: we’re making progress but is it going to be enough and fast enough?”
Whether the movement for climate action can outpace institutional inertia and conquer a rise in far-right resistance in time to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius remains to be seen. As the future looks uncertain, it seems that sustaining a sense of hope in the combined efforts of individuals and societal institutions to drive systemic change may provide the only chance for succeeding in the race against time.
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