The US President will meet with Theresa May and businesses in the UK this week - but will they really be bold enough to raise their concerns about US climate policy?
President Trump - scourge of scientists, Scottish wind farm developers, press freedom advocates, and minority and women's rights groups - once again touched down on UK soil today, and in typical fashion controversy and headlines have already preceded him.
Following protests which greeted him almost a year ago in London, Trump is sure to face a similar reception this time around, with the Stop Trump coalition campaign group planning to once again fly the infamous 'Trump Baby' balloon over the capital. For his part, the US President was still on Air Force One when he this morning tweeted his latest barrage of insults aimed at London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Protestors' complaints are myriad - their issues with the White House include everything from foreign policy relations, inequality, minority discrimination, and corporate greed, to name just a few - but undoubtedly one of the biggest issues for street protestors, politicos, and business leaders alike remains climate change, or to be precise: Trump's stubborn refusal to engage with its existence.
After all, since the President's last state visit to the UK in July 2018, the climate emergency alarm bells have been ringing far louder among the public, with IPCC scientists' warning last autumn that we have only just over a decade to transform the economy if we are to keep temperature increases below 1.5C. A few Greta Thunberg-inspired school strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests, Sir David Attenborough documentaries, and extreme weather events later, and climate is now a key electoral issue to contend with for any politician in the western world. The EU election results last week, which saw a surge of green MEPs elected across the continent, provided the latest evidence that climate concerns have more salience amongst voters than at any point in history.
The raft of Tory leadership hopefuls have picked up this new reality, with much of the field vowing to prioritise environmental action and embrace a new net zero emission target for the UK. Even figures from the right of the Party who would previously have been characterised as hostile to climate action have either kept quiet on the topic or signalled they are on board with a net zero transition. Front-runner Boris Johnson - who is also slated to meet Trump this week - this morning relased his first campaign video, which included a notable reference to environmental protection.
So when Theresa May - who will step down as the UK's Prime Minister just two days after Trump's visit ends - meets with Trump today, she will surely be mindful that the overwhelming majority of the British public do not share the President's climate sceptic views, and will face pressure to strongly take him to task on the issue. During the PM's discussions with the President, trade policy, Brexit, tensions in the Middle East, and May's impending departure will no doubt feature heavily, but if she is truly serious about securing a green legacy of her premiership before she goes, then climate change should join them on the list.
Today Downing Street confirmed the PM would indeed broach the subject during the President's visit, stressing that "tackling climate change is a priority for the UK".
"The prime minister has raised climate change with the President before and will do so again during his visit," a government spokesperson told the BBC. "We are driving forward international action through our work at the UN and with our Commonwealth partners, and we're proud to have offered to host COP26 (the UN climate summit in 2020). As the prime minister has said previously, we were disappointed by the US decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2017 and continue to hope they will return."
The statement from Number 10 came in response to calls today from more than 250 scientists and climate experts from leading UK institutions for the PM to "robustly challenge" Trump over his "reckless" approach to climate change.
The public letter, signed by academics from universities and research bodies, praises the UK's climate action, highlighting its 40 per cent cut in emissions since 1990 and current bid to host the COP26 UN climate change summit next year. But it argues the UK's leadership on these issues is incompatible with honouring the President's state visit, and urges the PM to push Trump for three key actions: to accept the scientific consensus on climate change; to draw up policies for the US to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century; and commit to ensuring the US abides by the Paris Agreement.
The letter was co-ordinated by Bob Ward, director of policy for the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE, who said Trump's refusal to accept and address global climate change was "putting at risk the lives and livelihoods of current and future generations in the UK".
"The State Visit is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to challenge the President's reckless approach and advance the UK's reputation as an international leader on climate change before she steps down as Prime Minister," he said. "The special relationship between the UK and USA is meaningless if the government does not use it to confront the actions of a President that are a threat to UK citizens."
Similar calls for May to challenge the President on climate change also came from the Mayor Khan, who said the UK government should be able to tell its closest allies to "stop governing in self-interest". "Of course we will always stand shoulder to shoulder with you in times of adversity, we're gonna carry on being close allies but listen, you're bang out of order here, you're wrong," Khan said in an interview with Unearthed. "The science shows that you're wrong."
But scientists, politicians, and protestors won't be the only people with important messages for the leader of the free world. After all, climate change and the low carbon transition is an existential economic and business issue - as last week's calls backed by the CBI and a raft of major corporates for the UK to legislate for a 2050 net zero emissions target once again demonstrated. The UK could deliver on its net zero emissions goals, but the global impact of decarbonising the UK and Europe will be drastically undermined if the US fails to tread a similar path.
As Sky News reported on Friday, a handful of FTSE100 business leaders have also been invited to meet for talks with Trump at a roundtable breakfast tomorrow, including bosses from Barclays, GlaxoSmithKline, Estee Lauder and National Grid.
Many of these names have been at the very least outwardly supportive of rapid decarbonisation - especially National Grid, which has been at the forefront of the UK's transition away from coal towards more than 50 per cent low carbon power over the past decade.
So might this small band of corporate leaders take the chance to reiterate the clear economic and scientific consensus of the need for radical climate action when they meet with Trump tomorrow? None of the aforementioned companies wished to comment when asked by BusinessGreen, and declined to provide any details on what might be on the agenda for the roundtable. Diplomatic protocol evidently remains firmly in place, even as Trump himself tears up the rulebook.
It could be argued that, with Trump's background in business, he might be more likely to listen corporates than outgoing politicians. But given the President's clear and repeated dismissal of climate risks and his proven refusal to listen with US corporate leaders he perceives as critical of his record, it would still be an incredibly difficult message to get across.
Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, suggested business leaders would need to talk in Trump's language, by stressing that climate change "goes straight to the heart of economics", and pointing out the huge risks of inaction and great opportunities from decarbonisation. Moreover, the UK's leadership on climate change will also be a key pillar of its post-Brexit trade policy - a major topic of discussion for Trump's visit - he argued.
"He's from a business background, so I think having people from that side giving their views as to why they see such an important economic issue would be tremendously powerful," Molho tells BusinessGreen. "And to say we, regardless of the next PM, are going to be pushing the rest of the EU to have a very strong agenda on this, both in terms of domestic commitments, but also in terms of how we trade with the rest of the world, that would be incredibly powerful. We need to say we won't support a trade policy that goes against our domestic commitments to achieve net zero emissions. We will want to make sure we don't enter into any trading arrangements that could undermine that, either by diluting our standards or allowing imports that don't comply with increasingly stringent carbon standards."
Of course, there is even less chance of changing Trump's mind on climate change as there is of getting him to declare a truce with the Mayor of our capital city. But regardless of whether business leaders or May manage to bend Trump's ear over his climate, the message provided by a forceful intervention could still be heard much more widely than the current White House administration.
"It may really help to directly influence US policy, because if one of America's key trading partners is going to really be at the vanguard of the low carbon transition, this is going to have some kind of impact," he says. "Even if it doesn't have an impact on Trump, it will be noticed by members of Congress and the Senate. Potentially, over time and under future administrations after Trump, it could actually start to have tangible impact in terms of a softening or improvement in the US position."
With May set to leave office in just a couple of days, she does now have an excellent opportunity to secure a strong green legacy, by providing a net zero framework for her successor and publicly standing up for British interests in the face of Trump's barely concealed hostility.
"She needs to use the fact that she's got her last few days as PM where she might have more chance to be bullish and cement a really strong legacy for herself, both by setting a net zero policy agenda, but also by creating a clear framework that her successor will have to follow," Molho argues. "She's got the ability to actually influence what the next government - perhaps the next series of governments - will have to focus on delivering, which is both an ambitious net zero government and a water-tight trading policy."
Trump may well grab the headlines during his visit to the UK this week, but the message the UK sends on climate change will reverberate far wider and far longer than either the President's or the PM's terms of office. These next three days aren't simply about maintaining good relations with the current White House administration, but shaping the direction of the 'special relationship' for the long term.
Does the old transatlantic alliance have the ability to help drive the 21st century net zero transition, or will it remain wedded to 20th century technologies, economics, and thinking? As the UK's record-breaking coal-free streak continues perhaps it is time to provide the 45th US President with some hard truths from its oldest ally.
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