People demonstrate against climate change

“A Race We Must Win”

Public pressure is ratcheting higher on the climate crisis, with a series of global climate strikes planned for September. But can the upcoming United Nations Summit in New York galvanize change despite international clashes?

By Jess Smee

From viral images of a smoke-shrouded Amazon to fresh global temperature records, concern about climate change abounds both in classrooms and the corridors of power. Now the United Nations (U.N.) is set to tackle the world’s top talking point, with its Climate Action Summit slated for 23 September. 

Ahead of its meeting in New York, the U.N. is sounding a decisive tone with its official pledge: “A Race We Can Win. A Race We Must Win,” and its aim to galvanize support among the highest echelons of economic and political power. 

Top-level politicians around the world are all too aware of the urgency - a fact which will be hammered home in the week after September 20, when adults are set to join children on the strikes for a week of demonstration. And big crowds are expected, reflecting the power of a movement which began just over a year ago, when Greta Thunberg held her first solo protest in a yellow raincoat on a Stockholm street. 

Political clashes 

But on an international level, there are entrenched divisions on how to respond to the crisis - and, in fact, whether or not it is a crisis at all. While some nations are starting to transform environmental concern into policy, others drag their heels, or even, in the case of the United States President Donald Trump, for example, question whether global warming is even man-made. 

Illustrating the cleft in opinion, the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2018 survey on environmental policy, shows how OECD nations are divergent in their response. At the most proactive end of the spectrum, Estonia, Latvia, Sweden and Switzerland score 9 out of a possible 10 points, reflecting “environmental policy which effectively protects, preserves and enhances the sustainability of natural resources and protects the environment”. Worryingly, at the other end of the ranking the U.S. languishes with just 4 points. And the SGI report paints a dismal picture, describing how "the Trump administration has been a rapidly escalating disaster for environmental policy.” 

And these contrasting positions cast a long shadow ahead of the closely watched summit. Ahead of the meeting, U.N. Secretary General, António Guterres reportedly asked leaders to outline plans they will set next year for 2030 emissions reduction commitments, as well as their plans to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, but so far responses have been sluggish.

Amazon fires fuel tensions 

And while the New York climate summit ticks closer, headlines and social media images of the burning Amazon underscore the necessity of swift and united international action. A record number of fires blazed across the world’s most famous rainforest, which covers an area so vast it provides around one fifth of the world’s oxygen, making it vital in slowing global warming. In late August the fires were extreme enough to darken the skies above western hemisphere’s largest city, São Paulo, thousands of kilometers away. 

The burning Amazon has widened international divisions. Amid the international outcry, a diplomatic row has erupted between Brazil and Europe, with Brazil’s populist far-right President Jair Bolsonaro shunning foreign interests as remnants of a “colonial” mindset.

Observers’ ire moved up a notch after Bolsonaro doggedly refused to accept money from the G7, offered in a bid to contain the damage. Local media in Brazil reported that Brazil will prohibit burning for the next 60 days – barring some exceptions in cases of approved agricultural and forestry practices – but this is hardly likely to signal a new political direction. 

After all, Bolsonaro, who took power at the start of the year, has espoused extremist views in multiple directions - including denying climate change. He and his similarly minded Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles are pro-development, effectively encouraging the fires. Simultaneously they have reined back the powers of the national environmental agency, putting the “lungs of the planet” even more at the mercy of agriculturalists and developers. 

So the abyss between the far-right populists and environmentally minded international leaders show no signs of shrinking, despite the rallying slogans from the U.N. ahead of the summit. Worse still, there are signs that polarization is growing. Showing how climate skeptics are shoring each other up, Trump has tweeted his support for Bolsonaro, praising his “great job” and saying “he is working very hard on the Amazon”. And the 2019 SGI’s country report on the U.S., scheduled to be released in the Autumn, offers a bleak prediction for its environmental policy: “no national action can be expected during Trump’s presidency… he appears to want to reverse any action that was taken by the Obama administration, for no more than that reason”. 

And even Greta Thunberg, who has managed to drum home the climate emergency more than anyone, was circumspect about her chances of getting her message through to the U.S. leadership. After arriving in New York after her zero-carbon boat trip across the Atlantic, she was asked about her message to Trump ahead of the summit. Her answer was telling: “I say ‘Listen to the science’ and he obviously does not do that. If no-one has been able to convince him about the climate crisis and the urgency, why would I be able to?” 

Jess Smee is a Berlin-based journalist and editor of SGI News and the Bertelsmann Stiftung's BTI blog.