Public pressure is ratcheting higher on the climate crisis. But can the United Nations summit galvanise change, despite international divisions?
From viral images of a smoke-shrouded Amazon to fresh global temperature records, concern about climate change abounds—from the school corridors to the corridors of power. Now the United Nations is set to tackle the world’s top talking-point, with its Climate Action Summit on September 23rd.
Ahead of the meeting in New York, the UN is sounding a decisive tone with its official pledge, ‘A Race We Can Win. A Race We Must Win. Its aim is to galvanise support among the highest echelons of economic and political power.
Top-level politicians around the world are all too aware of the urgency—a fact which will be hammered home in the week after September 20th, when adults are set to join the children on the climate strikes for a week of demonstrations. And big crowds are expected, reflecting the power of a movement which began just over a year ago, when Greta Thunberg held her first solo protest in a yellow raincoat on a Stockholm street.
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But on an international level there are entrenched divisions on how to respond to the crisis—and, in fact, whether or not it is a crisis at all. While some governments are starting to transform environmental concern into policy, others drag their heels or—as in the case of the United States president, Donald Trump—even question whether global warming is man-made.
The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators 2018 survey on environmental policy Illustrates the cleft in opinion, showing how OECD countries diverge in their responses. At the most proactive end of the spectrum, Estonia, Latvia, Sweden and Switzerland score nine out of a possible ten points, reflecting ‘environmental policy which effectively protects, preserves and enhances the sustainability of natural resources and protects the environment’. Worryingly, at the other end of the ranking, the US languishes with just four points. And the SGI report paints a dismal picture, describing how ‘the Trump administration has been a rapidly escalating disaster for environmental policy’.
These contrasting positions cast a long shadow on the summit, which will be closely watched. Ahead of the meeting, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, reportedly asked leaders to outline plans they will set next year for 2030 emissions-reduction commitments, as well as their plans to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. But so far responses have been sluggish.
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And while the climate summit ticks closer, headlines and media images of the burning Amazon underscore the necessity of swift and united international action. A record number of fires have blazed across the world’s most famous rainforest, which covers an area so vast it provides around one fifth of the world’s oxygen, making it vital in slowing global warming. In late August the fires were extreme enough to darken the skies above the western hemisphere’s largest city, São Paulo, thousands of kilometres away.
The burning Amazon has widened international divisions. Amid the international outcry, a diplomatic row has erupted between Brazil and Europe, with Brazil’s populist far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, shunning foreign interests as remnants of a ‘colonial’ mindset.
Observers’ ire moved up a notch after Bolsonaro doggedly refused to accept money from the G7 group of major powers, offered in an attempt to contain the damage. Domestic media in Brazil reported that it would prohibit burning for the next 60 days—barring some exceptions in cases of approved agricultural and forestry practices—but this is hardly likely to signal a new political direction.
After all, Bolsonaro, who took power at the start of the year, has espoused a plethora of extremist views—including denying climate change. He and his similarly minded environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, are ‘pro-development’, effectively encouraging the fires. They have reined back the powers of the national environmental agency, putting the ‘lungs of the planet’ even more at the mercy of agriculturalists and developers.
So the abyss between the far-right populists and environmentally minded international leaders shows no signs of shrinking, despite the rallying slogans from the UN ahead of the summit. Worse still, there are signs of further polarisation. Showing how climate skeptics are shoring each other up, Trump has tweeted his support for Bolsonaro, praising his ‘great job’ and saying ‘he is working very hard on the Amazon’.
The 2019 SGIs country report on the US, scheduled to be released in the autumn, offers a bleak prediction for its environmental policy. It warns that ‘no national action can be expected during Trump’s presidency … he appears to want to reverse any action that was taken by the Obama administration, for no more than that reason’.
Even Thunberg, who has managed to drum home the climate emergency more than anyone, has been circumspect about her chances of getting her message through to the US leadership. Arriving in New York after her zero-carbon boat trip across the Atlantic, she was asked about her message to Trump ahead of the summit.
Her answer was telling: ‘I say “Listen to the science” and he obviously does not do that. If no one has been able to convince him about the climate crisis and the urgency, why would I be able to?’