The Return of American Climate Diplomacy?

Preparing for the U.S. election

People voting election poll
American at a polling booth

Some of you might have heard there is a presidential election in the United States on November 3rd. Whatever you may think of U.S. politics, it is seldom dull.

Some people say the world no longer needs the United States to help fix climate change, so it doesn’t matter who wins the U.S. presidency. Here’s why that’s wrong – and why few decisions will be more important in determining global ambition on climate change.

The last four years have proven that almost nothing can be taken for granted. But one thing is certain: the world will still be warming when we wake up on November 4th.

Anyone working on addressing that problem needs to be prepared for all outcomes.

So, we thought it would be useful to provide a snapshot of the three big picture scenarios – and top that off with some advice for a potential new U.S. administration on how the world has changed since 2016, and opportunities for American diplomatic repair, re-entry and even leadership.

The State of Play

First, the state of play. With less than two months to go, Biden has a lead of between 7-8 points nationally. This has been larger and more consistent than Clinton’s lead in the polls was during the 2016 campaign. Most polls also show Biden ahead in the swing states, although some cases are within the margin of error.

Meanwhile, Trump’s support has remained solid amongst Republican voters. This has changed very little despite the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis and social unrest in several U.S. cities.  

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death 45 days before the Election Day has supercharged and further polarized the situation; the battle over her replacement on the Supreme Court is galvanizing both sides.

Democratic strategists will be jittery, until and possibly after election night, given Trump’s statements suggesting he might refuse to accept a loss.

A recent war game resulted in political crisis under all scenarios except a Biden landslide.

Which brings us to the three possible outcomes:

1. Biden wins

Particularly if combined with the Democrats holding the House and taking control of the Senate, this would almost certainly result in an energetic climate agenda both domestically and internationally. Biden has been criticized by progressives for refusing to endorse a fracking ban. But climate is an overarching priority under his ‘Build Back Better’ platform.

Several major climate plans have been released in the past year including by the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force and House Climate Crisis Committee, each with net zero emission and ambitious renewable energy targets, attached to strong social transition plans. And even if the Republicans hold the Senate, Biden would have a great deal of flexibility to reengage on climate internationally.

2. Trump wins

Based on the current forecasts this would likely be a narrow victory and possibly another popular vote loss. But structural advantages in the electoral college mean it can’t be ruled out. Trump has already set in motion a plan to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement and has spent four years rolling back every environmental regulation he could find.

When the President finally visited the deadly wildfires sweeping the western states, he offered little comfort asserting that “it will get cooler, you just watch” and when challenged about the link with climate change (“I don’t think science knows”).

Trump has made it clear he sees the world as zero-sum game where countries compete for resources and influence in purely transactional terms. There is some question about just how coordinated the administration would be in attacking the international climate alliance, but the best-case scenario would be that the U.S. remains largely a spectator internationally while tactically seeking opportunities to push fossil fuel exports. There are less optimistic scenarios.

3. Contested election

Mail in ballots are likely to make up a significant share of the vote and won’t be fully counted by end of election day. In a close race, the outcome may not be known for days, weeks or months. Even when the result is known, some on the losing side will likely view it as invalid.

There is a very real risk of continued political polarization at best, chaos and upheaval at worst, regardless of who wins.

Governments and institutions that are invested in climate cooperation need to be prepared for a long and messy process that could overshadow marquee climate and COVID-19 recovery events.

These include the Financing in Common Summit (Nov 12) and the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, which the UK is hoping to use to galvanize attention and momentum.

The future

The world has done well to protect the Paris Agreement for the past three and a half years. If Biden wins, his administration would rejoin Paris and breathe new life into climate diplomacy. There would be opportunities for governments to coordinate with each other to green COVID-19 economic recovery and bring together a global Resilience Alliance to push through sweeping structural and institutional reforms in the wake of economic crisis.

These are exactly the kinds of efforts that Washington is uniquely capable of leading, if it has a functional government with a vision for the future.

But how the U.S. choses to reemerge on the global stage will also matter, more so than it did in 2009. For one thing, allies will be bruised and skeptical. It is notable that Germans fear a continuation of Trumpian politics even more than catching COVID-19 or the economic downturn.

The US in the World

The U.S. will also find the world has changed. Climate is a now a maker of geopolitics, not a taker. A  careful look at China’s economic and industrial policy shows it is betting heavily on clean energy and electric vehicles and plans to be a dominant global power in these industries.

An intentionally more geopolitical Europe has passed its Green Deal and thrown its significant economic weight behind a green and resilient COVID-19 recovery roadmap. The EU is also preparing to accelerate climate action through Border Carbon Adjustments and financial regulations, largely unthinkable five years ago.

The United Kingdom, while still distracted with Brexit, lobbied hard to host the next climate conference in 2021 and is determined to use it to reassert itself on the global stage. In a twist of fate, the UK and Italy now host both COP26 and the presidencies of the G7 and G20, respectively.

The center of gravity will shift in these agenda-setting bodies as traditional US allies recalibrate their climate posture as they cozy up to a new US President.

A suite of pro-active, pro-climate US board appointments at international organisations such as the International Energy Agency, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, may finally mean these powerful bodies could throw their weight behind structural reforms to hardwire climate ambition throughout the international system.

Or not. The prospect of spending another four years defending a multilateral rules-based system and preventing its undoing is daunting and downright terrifying; but it might also be necessary.

Whatever happens on November 3, everyone – not just Americans – will feel the impact. When it comes to the effect upon climate politics, we should hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Photo by rawpixel on Adobe.


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