Climate justice has always consisted of two political approaches. While global climate governance struggled hard to achieve a global consensus for effective climate protection, social movements battled to shift the balance of power in society and the realities on the ground. One approach acts from above, the other from below – and I am not saying whether one is better than the other. Without the German government’s decision to phase-out nuclear energy from above, for example, Germany’s grassroots anti-nuclear movement would not have won its final victory.
From the governance perspective, global issues such as climate change require global solutions. This is the rationale behind the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and global climate governance institutions in general. These institutions – in spite of their obvious shortcomings – are important, because, although social movements can achieve significant progress at the country level, only a global institutional framework can ever hope to translate such progress into broad-ranging development on a global scale. Moreover, central questions of climate justice, such as who should foot the bill for adaptation to climate change or pay the billions to cover for loss and damage, can only be effectively negotiated at the international level.
Grassroots activists, on the other hand, have always pointed to the elitist and aloof nature of global climate governance institutions, the fact that they are incapable of asking more radical, yet nonetheless necessary questions and ultimately that these institutions have not produced any positive and palpable changes on the ground. Twenty years of negotiations at the UN level have not led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, nor have they resulted in firm and adequate financial commitments. This is the background to their dire criticisms of the Paris Agreement. Many argue that the truly significant changes to our societies have always been initiated from below and that they have only been formalized (and at times perverted) by the relevant political institutions.
The climate (justice) movement encompasses both approaches – and for obvious reasons this is not always conflict-free. Is it better to mobilize people to protest against the climate summit in Paris or to call them to block an open pit lignite mine in Rhineland (the Ende Gelände campaign)? Do you demonstrate on the streets before the congress center, or take part in negotiations and attempt to make tiny changes to the wording of agreements and achieve small improvements or simply prevent the worse? Or – in rare cases – gain remarkable achievements such as the inclusion of a 1.5°C target?
The consequences of Donald Trump’s election as the 45th US president
Which consequences will the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US president have on both of these approaches to climate (justice) policy? Trump is the worst-case scenario for all forms of climate policy. He questions the very existence of human-made climate change. He has announced his intention to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to phase-out the US’s most polluting coal-based power stations. He wants to revive the Keystone XL oil pipeline project that would cement in place fossil-fuel-based infrastructure for decades to come. He has also stated that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement (even though such a step could prove difficult). All of this shakes the foundations of the fragile climate policy negotiations, which the Paris Agreement had just infused with new dynamism.
Whilst this is not the end of climate governance, it is a severe blow, and will most likely result in little more than stuttering progress during the coming years. Just one day after the election, the shift in climate diplomacy discourse is already becoming visible. Cooperation between the US and China was fundamental to achieving the Paris Agreement. Now, a scenario, which a member of an African government delegation described in the following words, can no longer be ruled out: “If you lose the Americans, you lose the Chinese, and that’s it.”
If US climate policy comes to a total standstill under President Trump, then the other industrialized nations will need to bolster their efforts. To prevent the new yet fragile dynamic of climate diplomacy from being stifled governments will need to slash emissions even more drastically, provide more money and invest even more energy. This, at least, is what the movements and NGOs will demand. How tightly climate diplomacy is already bound becomes apparent if we consider the fact that the climate commitments that governments have already made clearly fall short of the 1.5°C target. Already complex negotiations over the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and financial commitments will become even more complicated if a traditionally central actor in climate negotiations drops out, becomes unpredictable and thereby dramatically increases the pressure to act. All of this will cost time. However, considering that if we wish to limit global warming to 1.5°C, we will have used up our emissions budget in 2020, this is time that the world does not have. How should we set our prerogatives then?
But why did we lose the Americans?
An explanation of how Donald Trump is shifting the coordinates of climate policy, however, must not limit itself to describing the threat he poses to the Paris Agreement and the fresh but fragile dynamism of climate policy the agreement has led to. A far more crucial question is how Trump could win the election at all. This is a pivotal issue for social and left-wing movements and is equally essential to the question of the form that progressive climate (justice) policy should and must take.
The question is: Why did so many people, who do not necessarily share his racist or sexist views, vote for Trump? As the Washington Post rightly put it: ‘Many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest claims – and they don’t care.’ That is, Trump voters support him not because of but in spite of what he says. They apparently do this, because they are not concerned with the content of Trump’s political program in the classical sense. This explains why even constant and blatant lying does not harm Trump. It also explains why, when people prove that Trump’s political plans do not even make sense from Trump’s perspective – as John Oliver’s excellent dismantlement of Trump’s intentions to build a wall did – have no adverse effect on Trump.
Trump’s political discourse and the discourse surrounding him is an example of the phenomenon that is discussed in Germany under the heading of ‘post-factual politics.’ The English term is post-truth politics, which goes even further, because truth is more than just pure facts. The term describes the phenomenon that Trump’s political statements make no classical claim for truth. The traditional socialist strategies of critique of ideology are therefore also toothless against him. Trump says: “I’ll build a wall, and Mexico will pay for it.” The left then answers: “The wall cannot be built, and Mexico will never pay for it.” This answer, however, completely misses the point and is more proof of the left’s rational discourse (and which, for historical reasons, is stronger still in Germany than in other countries). As Stephen Colbert remarks: “These legitimately angry voters don’t need a leader to say things that are true, or feel true. They need a leader to feel things that feel feels. And that’s why I believe Donald Trump is a leader for our times: an emotional megaphone full of rage [...]”
Trump does not appeal to interests in the classical sense. At least not, if we define an interest as a political statement that more or less relates to a specific policy and serves a particular (personal, social, economic etc.) interest. Trump’s comments are about pure emotional resonance. His supporters do not cheer because of the content of what he is saying. First, they cheer because someone is standing there who feels what they have felt for years or even decades. Second, they cheer, because Trump bestows them with a feeling of strength and relevance, which they have missed for decades.
Therefore, we should not put too much hope into achieving significant progress during the next UN climate negotiations. Trump’s rise to power will slow the process; we will have to wait and see to which degree. Secondly, at a deeper level, the UN climate process is itself rooted in classical claims to truth and remains more or less outside of emotional politics.
If we consider that the elites in our age use allegedly irrefutable truths (‘there is no alternative’) to drastically reverse the historic achievements of the working class, and that we are living in a time in which social media creates resonance spaces, where ‘truths’ massively and destructively manifest themselves, then it is a mistake to simply point to the truth of climate (justice) policies. From the perspective of the climate justice movement, we need an empowering climate (justice) policy that does not argue purely based on CO2 budgets, but highlights the struggles of frontline communities, i.e. those most affected by climate change. This means that the climate justice movement will need a sufficiently attractive climate (justice) policy to counter the racist, sexist and demagogic trend currently haunting the Global North.
To summarize, as activists from the climate justice movement argue, we need to stop focusing primarily on the COPs and instead put greater energy into campaigns such as Ende Gelände. Besides fighting for a CO2 tax in Congress, we need to take sturdier and broader action against Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline. From a climate justice perspective, this means more emphasis on civil disobedience and less UN summit hopping. Not because these summits are unnecessary or ineffective, but because climate policy today is primarily defined by reason and logical arguments and in a world, where global elites dominate the course of history, this is no basis to prevent the crisis caused by climate change. From this perspective, we only stand a chance to overcome the climate crisis with a climate justice policy that is emotionally more appealing than the disaster offered by the other side.