The nail-biting US election has clarified one thing: the truly gargantuan scale of the climate challenge in an age of populism and division
All is uncertain. The world hits refresh, longing for clarity, but none comes.
The hottest of takes flood the airwaves, but commentators can speak only in generalities knowing that their analysis could quickly age like milk left in the sun. With just a handful of states yet to complete their counts it remains unclear whether the US is about to usher in a new era of responsible, progressive multilateralism or descend deeper into the swamp of authoritarian-apeing, overtly nationalist populism. The routes forward are diametrically opposed, and yet right now the crossroad is a disorientating and dangerous swamp.
Joe Biden appears to have the edge in the run in. On the same day as the US formally quits the Paris Agreement and disavows any serious attempt to tackle the climate crisis, Americans could yet elect a man committed to returning the country to the global climate accord and mobilising trillions of dollars of investment in pursuit of net zero emissions. President Trump can protest all he likes, but if the votes in the key swing states continue to back Biden then his humiliation would be complete. The US tends not to kick out incumbents, Americans instinctively rally round the flag at a time of crisis, even when the White House exacerbates said crisis. And yet if the current voting trends hold in the final straight, then the simplest historical fact about the Trump presidency, beyond even the norm-crushing, incompetent, racist, and corrupt brutality, would be its single term nature.
Alternatively, a few thousand crucial votes could yet tilt the race back in Trump's favour, either handing him an against all odds outright victory, or more likely providing him with just enough wriggle room to force the recounts that could send the eventual decision to the Republican-leaning Supreme Court. America's departure from the Paris Agreement could yet prove permanent, regardless of the fact a clear majority of voters want it to return.
Because while no one can be sure how the race ends, one thing that should have always been clear has become explicit. There will be no repudiation of Trumpism. There will be no reckoning for the GOP's planet-wrecking, kleptocratic, polluting self-interest.
There were hopes - which I must admit I shared - that a Biden landslide, triggered as much by Trump's record of incompetence and generational demographic shifts as anything the ageing Democrat candidate did or said, would force the Republican Party to submit to a long hard period of reflection. But such hopes always relied on a misreading of modern US 'conservativism', if that is still a useful descriptor. The mirror remains locked in the closet.
There is literally nothing in the GOP's track record since 9/11, and arguably earlier, that suggests it is the least bit capable of the humility and self-awareness required to change course. It is too far gone. It is a cult. A cult of both the personality and death variety.
Every now again some new initiative seeks to revive traditional conservative ideas and identify market-led responses to the climate crisis. They never go anywhere, and nor, does it seem, do they need to. Polls may show that a clear majority of Republicans and independents want bolder federal action on climate change, but ultimately when it comes to election day the tribal pull overwhelms the nagging feeling that the world is sleepwalking towards a climatic disaster.
Regardless of whether or not Trump is edged out of the White House, Trumpism will continue. It may eventually be marginalised by America's slowly shifting electoral boundaries, but for now Republican grandees will reflect, with some justification, that but for the pandemic they would have won comfortably. The GOP looks set to hold the Senate and any hopes of serious bipartisan progress on any issue, let alone climate change, will be shelved for at least two more years - and probably longer. Republicans elected on a Trump ticket will know that their base happily endorsed the President's all-consuming narcissism, policy vandalism, and hate-filled rhetoric. It turns out nationalist populism can be popular. Who knew?
What then are the implications for those committed to climate action that flow from the realisation the reality-defying madness that grips the GOP will not pass?
The obvious lesson is the one that was being wisely preached by climate diplomats and analysts ahead of the election: we should put more faith in economics and technology than in politics. Green businesses and investors will warmly welcome a Biden victory if it comes to pass, but there has to be a recognition that policy support and US engagement with the climate crisis can never be fully relied upon in the long term. The focus, as always, has to be on accelerating clean tech deployment and green behaviour change regardless of who is in office. On this front there are many reasons for optimism, given plummeting renewables and clean tech costs, surging demand for green products, growing public awareness of the climate crisis, and the emergence of net zero goals as the animating project for literally thousands of businesses and governments around the world.
But the other big lesson, which really should have been obvious by now, is that the battle between environmentally responsible progressive forces and reactionary, pollutocratic, quasi-authoritarianism will stretch over decades. There is no end to history any time soon. We are in it for the long haul.
As such, countries that have not seen their politics scarred by tribal division on climate action need to remain ever watchful. Any and all attempts to stoke culture war style backlashes against climate action need to be challenged as quickly and forcefully as possible. Progressives need to become as ruthless as their opponents in wielding power - Biden could start, if elected, by throwing everything at reforming America's sclerotic and gerrymandered democratic processes. Political and business leaders need to move as swiftly as possible to normalise clean technologies and the pursuit of net zero emissions, so as to build impregnable defences against Trumpism's wrecking ball.
Because ultimately it is hard not to see Trump and his fellow travellers around the world as being a predictable response to the escalating climate crisis. Some people were always going to react to the dislocation created by climate change's rolling crises by building walls, blaming others, stoking conflict, and hoarding resources. Worryingly no one has yet quite worked out a fool-proof playbook for defeating this modern take on some of the oldest and most harmful political and tribal impulses. But any hopes of averting a climate catastrophe in the second half of the century are contingent on these forces being vanquished. As such, anyone who wants to bequeath a habitable biosphere and sustainable economy to the next generation - including businesses and investors - is going to have to pick a side. That much, at least, is certain.
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