Anxiety Mounts Abroad About Climate Leadership and the Volatile U.S. Election

“The outcome will have profound consequences for the future of Earth’s climate.”

Oct 3, 2020
Protesters gather outside the U.S. embassy in Vienna in June. Credit: Martin Juen/SEPA Media /Getty Images

Protesters gather outside the U.S. embassy in Vienna in June. Credit: Martin Juen/SEPA Media /Getty Images

VIENNA, Austria—Whenever artist Michael Aschauer returns home after an extended stay in the United States, people here pepper him with questions about the direction America is heading. 

With gallows humor typical of the city, they often ask, "Will it fall apart slowly, or very fast?" he said, adding that Vienna has plenty of experience with how rising and falling empires can destabilize global systems.

Aschauer is married to an American and keenly watches climate and energy politics on both sides of the Atlantic while trying to imagine a post-carbon future. In an informal social media art project, he documents gas stations that have been abandoned or converted to other uses. 

He said it's hard to imagine that Americans would re-elect the incumbent president, but that it can't be ruled out, either, given the current volatility of U.S. politics. "The outcome will have profound consequences for the future of Earth's climate," he added.

Carbon budgets detailed in recent climate reports show that four more years of pro-fossil fuel policies in the U.S. would make it much harder for the world to reach the Paris climate agreement goal of preventing catastrophic global warming, he said. On the other hand, Biden's decarbonization plan would accelerate demand for renewable energy in the world's biggest consumer economy and speed the global shift to a zero-carbon economy. 

 

He also said he's noticed a brain drain away from the U.S. in fields like the arts and technology, and expects that to continue if Trump is reelected. Vienna, Berlin and other European cities are already full of American political refugees, he added.

In terms of climate policy, four more years of Trump would be damaging indeed, said Austrian-born Gernot Wagner, a climate economics professor at New York University. "We don't have another presidential term to waste," he said. "A Trump win would be devastating, especially since it's not about emissions in any given year, but about the trajectory." 

And what happens in the U.S. affects China, Europe, India, Nigeria and elsewhere, he added. "A lot around climate policy is about momentum: 'If you do something, then I will, too.' A race to the top, rather than the bottom," he said. "That's what Paris was all about and still is. It's also where a Biden victory can have the biggest impact."

But China's recently announced carbon neutrality goal could be a game-changer for global climate policy, he wrote in a recent commentary.

Political commentators in Europe say people care deeply about the American election because they understand it affects them, and not just because of climate policy. Some fear Trump, in a second term, could be prone to rogue actions that would trigger widespread economic and political instability.

There are also concerns about malignant U.S. influence in spheres like social media, trade and energy policy. Iran sanctions and differences over a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany are potential flashpoints. Recent polling shows America's reputation has sagged under Trump.

Debate Debacle

But it's not all fear and loathing—people here say they feel a cultural, social and economic affinity with the U.S. And the interest is even more intense this year, after extensive international media coverage of the escalating cycle of police violence and destructive protests, as well as wildfires, hurricanes, the botched pandemic response and potential election chaos all painted a picture of a country in turmoil. 

Last week's presidential debate reinforced global concerns about the direction of the U.S., said Reimund Schwarze, an environmental economist with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany. Trump's recent statements questioning the legitimacy of the election process raise the specter of widespread unrest, he said.

"It's much deeper than environmental concerns. The motherland of democracy is stumbling, and this is a scary time," said Schwarze, who has collaborated with the United States Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years, and whose daughter is currently a student at the University of Washington. 

During the recent civil uprisings in Seattle, he said his daughter described scenes of arbitrary law enforcement actions that reminded him of the totalitarian regime in East Germany back in the 1980s. Through his contacts with the EPA he's also seen how Trump is undermining government institutions at the deepest level, another warning sign of incipient authoritarianism, he said.

To explain why Germans perhaps are especially interested in the American election, he described the shared sense of elation in both countries at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as well as the intense alliance that formed in the preceding Cold War decades.

"We felt this would bring a period of prosperity, of freedom to the world, at least our part of the world," he said, adding that the direction of the U.S. under Trump puts that security and stability at risk, just as his abandonment of international commitments, like withdrawal from the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement, threaten international order.

Global Governance

Those worries were underlined by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in a Sept. 22 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, warning that the withdrawal of the U.S. and other countries into national shells does not bode well for pressing international policy questions. 

Addressing climate and other environmental challenges requires more, not less, international cooperation, he said. The builders of the U.N. 75 years ago had lived through a global depression, a pandemic, genocide and world war, and "knew the cost of discord and the value of unity."

In terms of climate, the future course of the U.S. is important because the country has emitted more total greenhouse gases than any other nation—29 percent, as much as the next four nations—China, Russia, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. 

 If the U.S. is not a big part of the push to limit the global temperature increase to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, that goal seems even farther away than it is already, regardless what the rest of the world does. 

The world needs a U.S. president "who will value the lives of people across the world more than fossil fuels," Ugandan youth climate activist Vanessa Nakate posted on Twitter recently.

Equally important, European analysts note that American technology and science are critical parts of the global push to limit global warming. But the past four years of anti-science rhetoric and efforts to suppress climate science by the Trump administration suggest that the U.S. at the national level has abandoned that goal, they say, making it easier for other countries to do the same.

Climate Finger-Pointing

"The number-one question I get asked is, why should we do something if the U.S. isn't doing anything," said climate scientist Cara Aisling-Augustenborg, a lecturer at University College Dublin who has also been a climate activist and climate adviser to the Irish government.

"Global climate policy is eking out an existence, barely, as it is," she said. The lack of U.S. commitment and leadership may have encouraged other countries that already have motives to delay climate action. Australia wants to mine and export coal, and Brazil wants to slash forests so it can sell palm oil and cattle feed to Europe. "You can see why they would have an agenda," she said.

The American withdrawal from the Paris agreement garnered a lot of media attention in Ireland and helped build climate consciousness in a way that may have been  perversely beneficial. No politicians wanted to be associated with Trump's outright climate denial, which led to more climate action from the Irish government, she said.

But if Trump is re-elected, the pendulum could swing further toward gloom, with an attitude of "we're all going to hell anyway," she said. "When you hear about how fast the ice is melting, and birds falling from the sky, it might be hard for me to continue advocating for climate action," she said. 

New Zealander Kevin Trenberth, a long-time climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, is gloomy about U.S. prospects if Trump is re-elected. Climate policy is one thing, but he thinks survival of U.S. democracy is at stake in the election, he said.

"I don't think the U.S. can survive four more years of Trump and there could be a civil war of sorts," he said. "Democracy in the U.S. does not work, dark money dominates, the whole system is corrupt, and major changes are needed. Science priorities are wrong, and that is why I am in New Zealand."

Global climate policy can't take another four years of Trump, he added.

"No. After Paris in 2015, there was hope but it has been downhill ever since and no countries are meeting their goals," he said. " Real leadership is required from the U.S. and China. There are no penalties in the Paris agreement and so it is only peer pressure that matters."

Trenberth said the "utter failure of the President and administration" in response to the pandemic was astounding, and a clear sign that the rest of the world can't look to the U.S. for leadership as it once did.

American climate scientist Jason Box, a Greenland ice expert working for the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, considers himself part of the brain drain from the U.S. He moved to Europe in 2013, partly spurred by a tax break that is part of Denmark's "brain gain" policy, he said.

He wouldn't move back to the U.S. if Trump is reelected, he said. "But that's not the only reason. Others would include too many guns in the U.S.," as well as general security and environmental concerns. "I mean, there was looting around where my folks live after the fire evacuations. I think too many folks are desperate," he said. 

Public interest in U.S. affairs is high, and the general reaction in the scientific community is a mixture of "shock and pity," he said.

Cavalry No More?

The effect of the U.S. election on global climate policy can't be separated from other policy areas, especially economic and energy policy, said Susanne Dröge, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

U.S. policies the past four years have rattled transatlantic relations more than any time since the post-World War II realignments, including the end of the Soviet Union, and interest in U.S. affairs in Germany remains high "due to the general interest in the little world order we still have," Dröge said. 

Even before Trump, the U.S. was signaling that Europe should take on more of a global leadership role, she added. "But even with that, there was a strong reliance that the U.S. will always be the cavalry that comes in when things go bad."

Obama helped lead the charge for the Paris climate agreement, she said, in what turned out to be a "very short, exceptional period" for cooperative climate policy. She fears that with four more years of Trump, it could be very hard to find a way to return to a cooperative path forward. 

In climate policy, Trump's "U-turn in all dimensions" was not unexpected, but stunning nonetheless. And in spite of all that, to add complexity, U.S. emissions have generally declined the last few years, she added.

U.S. antipathy to global climate policy, in any event, is like an ill wind that spreads mistrust and triggers disengagement by other countries. 

"Russia, China, Turkey, the Saudis are all saying, if the U.S. is not participating, why should we," said Dröge, who closely monitors and analyzes global climate policy. "The bad example from the U.S. is more critical because it has such high leverage," with the country still being a major economic power. If U.S. markets were to turn strongly to clean energy, it would help propel the rest of the world in the same direction.

Climate Blues

The U.S. has, for many years, determined war and peace at the global level. At the moment, the country's policies are "moving the world towards climate disaster and possibly nuclear war," said Helga Kromp-Kolb, director of the Global Center for Change and Sustainability at the University of Vienna.

"No wonder Europeans have a deep interest in the results of the U.S. elections, as do the people the world over. I believe a significant part of the scientific community sees the threats clearly and is deeply concerned, not only regarding what the U.S. does, but also who will take over if, or when, U.S. leadership is lost," she said.

Trump's emergence magnified an anti-science undercurrent that has always been part of U.S. culture, she said, adding that the real problem is that science has been misused, not only in the U.S., to support commercial products, like fossil fuels. 

"Of course climate science is hit especially hard by the denialism of the present U.S. government at the time when the world needs all the data and the expertise it can get," she said.

But a Biden win wouldn't be a panacea for global climate policy, she cautioned.

"With the U.S. back as part of the effort, the world would no doubt be on a better path in the climate issue," she said. "But to reach the climate goals takes more than Mr. Biden has so far committed to."

Other Europeans also see a stormy political horizon for the U.S.

"The U.S. system is struggling right now, and it's not too big a frame to ask if democracy itself is at stake," said Austrian political scientist Paul Schuierer-Aigner, who became interested in U.S. politics when Barack Obama became president. Trump's tilt toward authoritarianism is all the more frightening because the U.S., for whatever its other failings, used to be a bulwark against such political tendencies, at least in Europe, he said.

Now, just a few hundred miles east of Austria, Trump's example has emboldened authoritarian leaders in Hungary and Poland, he said. "There are a lot of mini-Trumps in Europe, and we can learn a lot from those who are trying to defend democracy in the U.S. right now," he added.

For Schuierer-Aigner, Trump is more a symptom of the root problem, which he says is growing existential stress caused by late-stage neoliberal capitalism, including wealth disparity and economic insecurity. He's encouraged by strengthening backlash led by young people in the Sunrise Movement and the leadership and policy alternatives presented by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat.

"From what I see in the Democratic Party, there is a lot of movement, a lot of mobilization from the other side." Even with time running short for meaningful climate action, he said, there is a hopeful scenario that a generational shift in politics in the U.S. could upend the political landscape for many years to come, leading to fundamental changes in U.S. policy. 

All over the world, people are waiting in suspense to see if Nov. 3 marks the start of that shift.

"I don't want to put any pressure on anyone," Austrian ecologist Sarah Höfler posted on Twitter recently, "but the American election will, in my opinion, decide whether humanity has still a chance in the #ClimateCrisis. It is as simple as that."

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