Over the cliff

The next U.S. President must take cues from Sanders’s Green New Deal while formulating climate policy

March 19, 2020 12:05 am | Updated 01:57 am IST

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders takes part in a FOX News Town Hall with co-moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum in Detroit, Michigan.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders takes part in a FOX News Town Hall with co-moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum in Detroit, Michigan.

The next U.S. President will decide whether the planet goes over the climate cliff or pulls back from the brink. The gravity of this moment is not reflected sufficiently in most public conversations on who should be the Democratic Party nominee.

Within the next decade, the world must reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions by 55% to have a chance at curbing warming to within 1.5°C, or by 25% to have a chance at staying below 2°C, compared with average pre-industrial temperatures. Both these temperature guardrails have implications for adverse effects from warming, though the stricter threshold is expected to cause less harm.

Currently, we do not exactly know where the planet is headed with regard to rising temperatures, as greenhouse gas emissions are still rising annually at around 1% -3% and financial pledges lie unfulfilled. The Paris Agreement commitments made in 2015, even if achieved, are inadequate to attain climate stability.

The Obama years

The last Democratic Presidency (2008-2016) was during a time when the second commitment period of the Kyoto Agreement began and the Copenhagen Accord was forged. Neither the Kyoto nor Copenhagen pledges were fulfilled by the U.S. The world’s biggest contributor to anthropogenic greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere made weak promises and did not keep them.

And, as if to thumb its nose at the world even more, under President Donald Trump, the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreement and its voluntary commitment to reduce emissions.

Currently, the second biggest emitter after China, the U.S. is responsible for between one-third to one-fourth of all the anthropogenic carbon dioxide that was discharged into the atmosphere from 1750 to the present. It is doing the least in leading the way, although some of its rich potential is being harnessed through State and local action. Yet, it must, and can, do much more and provide finance and leadership along with deep decarbonisation domestically, while making technological and financial reparations to the rest of the world.

The role of the U.S. in sharply reducing its emissions, accepting responsibility and leadership, and persuading other countries to follow suit is indeed vital. The next President, even if he is Democratic, cannot go back to old habits on global climate change policy. Far more is urgently needed for the planet even to have a chance at survival, and the U.S. is directly positioned to act as a planetary steward for climate action.

Efforts merely intended to improve the efficiency of transport or some other common practice, without demanding personal consideration and public discussion of choices in consumption patterns, will lead to window-dressing rather than deep cuts in emissions. Transformations that call for fundamental changes in energy use, lifestyles, transport, housing and values are pivotal. The Democratic nominee and future President cannot take the world back to the old ways of addressing the climate crisis, but needs to be a galvanising force within the country and then use that moral leadership to spur change elsewhere.

Going beyond Paris

The ‘Green New Deal’ is a good beginning for measures within the U.S., but details have to be spelt out on what kind of support will be given to the poorest countries, which have emitted almost zero greenhouse gases but will suffer the most. Even the fulfillment of national pledges in the Paris Agreement relies on support from the U.S. and Europe. Unfortunately, since the atmosphere is one of the largest shared commons, countries do not have a choice but to work together. What each one of us does affects everyone.

The bold ideas proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders and his team are especially promising in this regard. They call for transformative changes within the country and collaborative, responsible action with the rest of the world. His rival and current leader in the race to the Democratic Convention in July, Joe Biden, is nowhere close to having as sensible a climate call to action, but it is at least incremental. The faint hope is that he and his team can be persuaded to take full moral accountability for lost time and inaction and engage in swift effort for a sustainable planet.

The American and world public must speak loudly. Unless the next President can build on an ambitious platform, a planetary cataclysm is imminent. The current debates within the Democratic Party are no longer just domestic quarrels; they have potentially harmful global consequences.

Sujatha Byravan is an independent scholar in Chennai; Sudhir Chella Rajan is Professor, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras

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