The coordinated “climate strike” in more that 150 countries delivered an unmistakable message to world leaders convening this week at the United Nations. In the West, including the United States, opinion polls show majorities — especially among young populations — in favor of substantive government action to address global warming. And there’s an urgency for that action.
A major U.N.-backed report found that the past five years were the warmest on record and that annual sea-level rise has dramatically sped up from two decades ago. New data suggests that the growth rate for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 20 percent faster than the past decade. The report warned that if emissions continue to rise at their current pace, the world will be on the brink of catastrophe by 2040, rocked by disasters that follow extreme weather, drought and inundated coastlines.
“Governments always follow public opinion, everywhere in the world, sooner or later,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told reporters last week, adding that “we need to keep telling the truth to people and be confident that the political system, especially democratic political systems, will in the end deliver.”
Guterres raised the alarm ahead of a U.N.-led climate action summit on Monday, where about 60 world leaders will announce major new commitments to cutting emissions and transforming their economies along more sustainable lines. Not unlike his itinerary at the Group of Seven summit in France last month, President Trump will skip the special session on climate for a meeting on religious freedom, one of his administration’s pet ideological projects.
That’s hardly a surprise. Abroad, Trump thumbed his nose at the international scientific consensus and commenced his nation’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate accord. At home, he has worked to unravel myriad environmental regulations, including a ruling last week revoking the state of California’s ability to set its own auto emissions targets. Trump argues that multilateral pacts and state regulations are an unfair shackle on the American economy. He has waved away American responsibility for curbing emissions by pointing to the mammoth energy needs of developing nations such as India and China, whose governments and state-run companies are still expanding investment in coal.
And he’s not alone. Just last week, Trump hosted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who memorably once brought a lump of coal to Parliament as a prop to brandish against his opponents’ plans to push renewable energy.
Trump also has a kindred spirit in Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who became the environmental villain of the moment when international attention fell on the fires in the Amazon and the role his right-wing government’s loosening of forestry protections played in the spread of the blazes. Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo defended his boss during a visit to Washington earlier this month, casting the rhetoric around climate change as a leftist conspiracy and “a pretext for dictatorship” because its activists somehow seek to “silence debate.” He said Trump and Bolsonaro were outliers “fighting” against a “globalist pact.”
Wielding this ideological animus, Araujo told Today’s WorldView at a briefing that his government would bring to the United Nations a message anchored around the sovereignty of nations. That would comfortably echo the politics of Trump’s last two speeches from the dais of the General Assembly.
“Our political climate is not friendly to this discussion at this moment. Multilateralism is under attack. We have seen the rise of authoritarian governments,” Alice Hill of the Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times. “We see these pressures as working against us. We don’t have leadership in the United States to help guide the process.”
For that reason, the impetus may have to come elsewhere. A handful of U.S. governors will be in attendance in a bid to fill the political vacuum left by Trump. Dozens of major multinational companies with a combined market cap of $2.3 trillion have signed on to a U.N. climate pact committing themselves to bring down their emissions and “decarbonize” in the years ahead.
In an interview with Today’s WorldView last week, American billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates said it was “unfortunate” that climate change was not a bipartisan cause in the United States. He pointed to the need not just for symbolic gestures, but for significant public and private investment to transform economies and foster “an innovation ecosystem” that would “reduce the cost of going green very dramatically.” (If that entailed raising taxes on the wealthy, Gates told Today’s WorldView, he would have no problem obliging.)
“Climate change is a very difficult problem,” said Gates, whose influential foundation identified in a report last week the effects of intensifying droughts and floods as one of the factors exacerbating inequality in countries around the world. “It’s kind of like disease eradication. You need to succeed throughout the world.”
Gates is struck, though, by the volume of the current conversation around the climate and “the intensity of interest” among the public. “It’s quite a contrast versus five years ago, where it was hardly discussed at all,” Gates told Today’s WorldView.
That growing awareness is fueled by real events. “It’s impossible to not be terrified by the unraveling that we are seeing from the Arctic to the Amazon, as well as the terrifying human impacts in places like the Bahamas. And how can we not be enraged that planetary arsonists are occupying the highest office, from Brazil to the United States?” prominent leftist activist and author Naomi Klein told the New York Review of Books. “At the same time, it’s not just the planet that is on fire. So is the climate justice movement, shaming politicians, demanding a transformational approach to the crisis, redrawing the political map.”
After deliberations in New York, a new wave of climate protests are planned for Friday.
“I have the feeling that politicians are often just [focusing on] the next vote,” said 25-year-old student Jakob Lochner, speaking to my colleagues on the sidelines of Berlin’s protest. “If you look around, there are so many people on the street; there is kind of a social tipping point.”
Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly called the Brazilian foreign minister Eduardo. His name is Ernesto.