In June 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he intended to take the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change—one of many indications that the country was vacating its leading role as a supporter of multilateralism and the norms-based order. In July of the same year, the world’s biggest iceberg ripped from the Antarctic shelf and started drifting in the Scotia Sea, south of Chile.

On November 4, 2020, as the world still anxiously awaited the results of the American elections, the United States officially left the Paris Agreement. Concurrently, the same A68a iceberg entered its final collision course with the British overseas territory of South Georgia. The iceberg is now most likely days away from an irremediable crash into the island and its biodiverse colonies of penguins and seals. And at nearly the same time, a message was just literally released from the Arctic. On Sunday, November 1, a time capsule that an icebreaker had placed in the ice floe in 2018 was just found in the northwestern tip of Ireland. It contained the following message: “Everything around is covered by ice. We think that by the time this letter will be found there is no more ice in the Arctic unfortunately.”

Olivia Lazard
Olivia Lazard is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Her research focuses on the geopolitics of climate, the transition ushered by climate change, and the risks of conflict and fragility associated to climate change and environmental collapse.
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The situation is not that bad yet. But scientists have just had a panicked realization that the Arctic is, for the first time in recorded history, not yet freezing this year and leaving open waters in the Laptev Sea.

All Eyes on the Wrong News

The discrepancy between U.S. politics—global politics, in fact—and the reality of ecological disintegration across the planet could not be starker or more chilling.

Climate change is not a prospect in the future. It is unfolding now. And yet it is relegated to side news and covered as a soft or marginal issue. The world remains too compulsively busy, focusing on short-term news cycles, to notice the bigger picture—the iceberg-sized picture emerging from both poles.

The United States has drifted away from the political world it once contributed to creating, and it has put the planet and its inhabitants on a collision path with a violent reckoning. President-elect Joe Biden has won the electoral race to the White House. There is reason to rejoice about this and yet to sober up quite quickly too. In any case, the Republicans hold a majority on the Supreme Court and will likely keep control of the Senate. Climate action will not be fully ignored or mocked any longer over the next four years, but it will be severely restricted in substance at the federal level.

Hold Your Sigh of Relief

Some parts of the world—Europe included—have been hoping that Biden will save the day and that the United States will, after all, reenter the Paris Agreement in early 2021. But this sigh of relief needs a glacial reality check. Political observers have seen enough indicators during the campaign to show where the United States is largely at. Presidential debates paid lip service to the topic of climate change. During the last one, when Biden mentioned his plan to transition away from fossil fuels, he was immediately met with opposition from oil strongholds such as Texas and even Democratic members of Congress from oil-producing states like Oklahoma. Biden eventually backpedaled, saying the United States would not be getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time—just subsidies.

This was not just an electoral tactic deployed in the hopes of securing more votes—it is simply a reality. If Biden manages to get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels in a country that territorially has been built to rely almost exclusively on private forms of transportation, he will likely face a violent political backlash. It will reinforce a perception that Democrats crush middle- and low-income families in the United States with taxation. It is evident from the geographical distribution of votes across the country that the Democratic Party does not speak any more to a significant portion of Americans, whom former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton once called “deplorables.” They are often the ones who are most underserved by accelerating global economic integration. In some areas including the Midwest, Texas, and at the northern border with Canada, they also happen to be already highly impacted by climate change. Yet these same populations perceive the Democratic Party as elites aiming to actively stifle their freedoms, their economic opportunities, and their security. They also see climate change as an issue that has nothing to do with their own priorities—regardless of the economic impact it has on their livelihoods and personal safety. This dissonance is an aberration and a sign of political failure on the part of all political parties. Republicans bear an immoral responsibility in preying on that dissonance for partisan gains, and Democrats must urgently remedy their failure to engage with “anti-globalist” voters on the basis of a narrative that assuages their socio-economic disenfranchisement and helps them reckon with the climate-related risks they are facing.

If the U.S. federal government is to have a chance at significant climate action over the next four years, it will need to look at what drives economic disenfranchisement. This prevents affected populations from seeing climate change as a pressing issue. In other words, the Democratic Party will need to engage in a deep repositioning of its discourse and its own priorities. It must convey the message that U.S. security is best assured through international cooperation to meet a threat of planetary scale—a threat that many Americans already experience. The federal government should provide a framework and incentives to establish bipartisan taskforces at the federal and the state levels to find out how climate change makes communities vulnerable and how they can be supported. These taskforces should identify contextualized climate action pathways that encourage dialogue and socioeconomic regeneration.

But before any substantial climate action in the United States can happen, there must be political depolarization and dialogue. Otherwise, the climate issue will remain politicized in a way that threatens sustainable and reliable U.S. action beyond the next four years, and Republicans will impose painful compromises that thwart democratic legitimacy and effective climate action.

The United States remains the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. It is simply not going to offer the leadership on climate that the planet needs just yet. The focus over the next few months and years will legitimately be on healing a profoundly divided nation and managing the collateral damage of a four-year assault on international and national interests for the benefit of a corporate few. The United States may rejoin the Paris Agreement. But the international community should be legitimately wary of a symbolic gesture without a true capacity to deliver. The time for multipolar leadership has truly come.

Where Will Hope Spring From in the Meantime?

U.S. climate leadership will keep on coming from the subnational level and from certain private sector companies. States and cities may remain a more appropriate venue for meeting the fundamental challenges related to the climate transition in the United States—reorganizing space, transportation infrastructure, and urban-rural relationships. These urban-rural ties are in urgent need of fixing and would benefit from a subsidy transfer for new forms of upscaled regenerative innovation, including on agriculture.

The United States is also home to visionary private actors such as the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which bases its business model on regenerative models, aiming to combine environmental and social recovery. The company insets its emissions within the cost of its products, invests profits in the protection of key ecosystems (thereby contributing to the protection of global public goods), and actively supports environmentally regenerative practices, all the while offering local communities good employment benefits.

Such a company offers a more comprehensive approach to tackling the climate crisis, compared to other firms, like Tesla, for example. The latter naturally has a role to play in transitioning toward cleaner energy and transportation systems, but the business model at Tesla narrowly reproduces the economic mistakes of the past with negative environmental and social externalities. The raw materials they rely upon for their technological innovation do have important environmental impacts such as pollution, consumption of water tables, and extraction-related consequences. The focus with electric vehicles has been on the fact that they do not produce emissions when they are used, but that doesn’t mean they are emissions-free or environmentally friendly—a sober truth hiding behind the energy transition at play in these times.

Finally, recent carbon-related announcements from Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, and Indian private sector associations signal a structural shift toward new energy systems. This shift will lead to a rapid decrease in prices for renewables over the short term. Change is indeed around the corner—the challenge now will be to rein in the negative consequences of a rapid uptake both in technological innovation and in the competition for raw materials. The world has decided to move ahead, regardless of what the United States does. This means that the drop in prices and international competition will eventually draw the United States back into a more rapid transition path—for the simple reason that the country will lose out from lagging behind. In the meantime, transatlantic partners should stand ready to support the United States with disaster relief operations—because disasters will hit. Only then may the American people as a whole perceive again the value of international cooperation and partnerships.

Until then, climate leadership will need to be reimagined in a new world. Climate change will be the defining factor of that world. Let no one forget that, as the international community moves away from a toxic electoral news cycle that has failed to reckon with reality.