Not scared: The end of climate self-censorship

February 7, 2017

Reducing carbon emissions within the United States is far more important than the little bit of money that Washington provides for international climate finance.

The big bad wolf will come—for so long, this threat has dictated the global narrative about climate change. The world has tiptoed around curtailing carbon emissions at the necessary speed and scale. Global agreements have been bent out of shape to appease climate deniers. In Paris, nations negotiated a weak, unambitious agreement for the sake of reaching any agreement at all. All this—because the world believed that attempting more would rile up those, particularly in the United States, who oppose climate action.

Washington, as the price of its participation in climate negotiations, has forced the multilateral world to change its rules. It has insisted on reconfiguring agreements, mostly reducing them to a lowest common denominator. Then, after the world reaches weak, worthless, and meaningless deals, it walks out. All the while, powerful civil society and media organizations in the United States hammer the point that the world must accommodate and be pragmatic toward Washington. The common refrain has been that “Congress will not accept ambitious climate action”—or, even worse, “the Republicans will come.”

This happened at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992—when, after much “accommodation” of the United States, the agreement to combat climate change was whittled down; emissions targets were removed; and few specific actions were agreed. Then came the Kyoto Protocol—the first and only framework for specific action to reduce emissions. But at the Kyoto conference itself in December 1997, when climate change proponents Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in office, the agreement was reduced to nothingness. The compliance clause—meant to penalize countries that would not meet their specified targets—was removed; cheap methods for reducing emissions, such as carbon offsets, were added; and loopholes were included. All of this was supposed to bring the United States on board—but Washington rejected the agreement.

Later came Barack Obama and his welcome commitment to climate action. But even under Obama, what did the United States do? It forced the world to completely rewrite the Paris climate agreement so that, instead of establishing emissions targets based on science and past national emissions, it establishes only voluntary goals. This will lead to weak action and will not limit global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, never mind 1.5 degrees. All this watering-down was meant to please American politicians who said that they would never sign a global agreement binding them to specific actions or targets—or accept an agreement establishing equitable rights to the common atmospheric space. The Paris Agreement has fatally and fundamentally erased nations’ historic responsibility for greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and has reduced the notion of climate equity to sweet nothings.

At times, the world has censored itself where climate is concerned. It has failed to tell the truth about the urgency of climate change; about the need for drastic, effective action by the world’s rich and powerful countries; and about the need for many to change their lifestyles so that efficiency gains are not lost to greater consumption. This restraint has been intended to gain the participation of the country most unwilling to participate—the proverbial (and now the real) big bad wolf.

The big bad wolf has come to power in the form of Donald Trump—who, even among those who oppose climate action, is a different shade of gray. He denies that climate change is happening. He is certain that the United States needs to dig and burn more coal, which would increase greenhouse gas emissions. He is bad, bad news for the climate.

Meanwhile, as shown by extreme weather events around the world, climate change is happening now. It is impacting the poorest people in the world—those who have contributed least to the emissions already in the atmosphere. It is devastating the lives of farmers and other vulnerable populations. The fact is that the world needs to do much more to address climate change than is envisioned in the weak and meaningless Paris deal.

But now that the big bad wolf has come to power, what will the world do? That is the zillion-dollar question. Will the world call a spade a spade? Or will it engage in more meaningless self-censorship in an attempt to woo those who don’t wish to be wooed—and, in my opinion, cannot be changed?

I can’t speak for US civil society, which seems to relish playing Beltway games. But I do know that humanity has no option but to push for greater action on climate change. In India, the priority is to reinvent growth—that is, to achieve growth without pollution. We must find ways to urbanize without first investing in private transportation systems and only then investing in cleaner air. We must find ways to provide the poor with clean energy without first investing in electricity grids that leave the poor without energy access. These are our imperatives, and we will push. Countries like India have the opportunity to do growth differently—and we must.

But the coming of Trump will make all the boys want to be men. As protectionists do battle against globalization, many will wish to dig deeper and harder to get at the last shred of coal. “Forget the crisis of climate change,” some will say. “That’s tomorrow’s problem.” Environmentalists, particularly in the emerging countries of the South, will only find it harder to make their arguments.

But in the Trump era, environmentalists will no longer scare themselves into restraint and self-censorship. The big bad wolf is not coming—it is here. The only way forward now is to confront reality: The world is getting warmer, and an insecure and potentially catastrophic future awaits. Only when we face these realities can we hope to change the future.