Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
With a potential environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Amazon, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro blocked aid offered at the Group of Seven leaders’ summit. His childish behaviour, amid heated words with French President Emmanuel Macron, reflects the growing way in which climate change has become part of a political culture war between populist and centrist politicians.
The irony here is that 2019 has been a year in which consciousness over climate change has grown with unprecedented speed. This underlines that the issue, perhaps the biggest facing humanity in the 21st century, has the potential to completely reshape politics in a way that few others have.
Yet, for now at least, Mr. Bolsonaro’s actions highlight the potency of climate-skeptic counterarguments, however scientifically illiterate and ill-founded. Mr. Bolsonaro, sometimes known as the “Tropical Trump,” is a noted anti-environmentalist who favours a host of policy positions controversial with many audiences, including nostalgia for the country’s previous political dictatorship, and relaxing gun laws.
And it is no surprise that U.S. President Donald Trump, who didn’t attend the G7 session on climate change on Sunday in France, has supported Mr. Bolsonaro’s position.
Mr. Trump, as with Mr. Bolsonaro, has argued climate change is a “hoax” and wants to see the United Nations’ 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change dismantled. This argument, utterly reckless given the strong scientific consensus on global warming and its potentially calamitous perils, is already proving damaging to overall global attempts to tackle climate change.
Take the current example of the blazing Amazon, a vital carbon store slowing the pace of climate change. Most of its geography is in Brazil and the number of wildfires has increased 80 per cent this year, according to the country’s space agency. It is no coincidence that this significantly increased number of fires coincides with a sharp drop in fines for environmental violations under Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency.
Indeed, it is the very opposite of the argument advanced by populists that is the more credible narrative. This is put forward by climate campaigners who argue that the Paris treaty does not go far enough, and that even the G7 aid of US$20-million is a drop in the ocean of what is needed to tackle the current calamity affecting the so-called “lungs of the Earth.” While the position of Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro will eventually belong to the dustbin of history, the key question now is how fast other key countries across the world can move to ramp up the ambition in the Paris deal. This underlines that while the Paris agreement – reached by more than 190 countries – was a very welcome shot in the arm for attempts to tackle global warming, it is only the beginning of a longer journey that governments and legislators must now make in the 2020s.
The road map for moving forward from here is already clear starting with September’s UN Climate Action Summit in New York. Growing evidence will be showcased that we may be facing a climate emergency, with the UN World Meteorological Organization reporting that 2015 to 2019 are on track to be the five hottest years ever recorded.
Beyond this, implementation of the Paris agreement’s targets is now needed as speedily as possible to provide a baseline for future action. This will be most effective through national laws where politically feasible as country “commitments” put forward in Paris will be more credible – and durable beyond the next set of national elections – if they are backed up by legislation, not least because the targets in the deal are not legally binding.
Once these domestic legal frameworks are in place, and cemented, they will become crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, countries are required under the Paris deal to openly and clearly report on emissions and their progress in reaching the goals in their national climate plans submitted to the UN. Into the 2020s, the ambition must then be that these frameworks are replicated in even more countries, and progressively ratcheted up. There are clear signs of this happening already in numerous states, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas, as countries seek to toughen their response to global warming.
Taken over all, the irony of the Amazon tragedy is that it coincides with what appears a growing opportunity to co-create, and follow through to implement, what could be a foundation of global sustainable development in coming decades for billions across the world, starting with implementation of the Paris agreement. While populist counterarguments will remain potent with many, this narrative will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of history.