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Focus Global Player: The US and Climate Policy [Die Welt im Wandel: Agenda 2030]

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On 06.11.2017, the lecture series “Die Welt im Wandel” reconvened with a panel discussion entitled “Focus Global Player: The US and Climate Policy”. Being temporarily and spatially located in utmost proximity to COP 23, the evening promised to allow for a lively discussion of the United States’ distinct stance on environmental policy.

riggered by a question of Holger Hank, moderating the discussion, Chris Barrett, Executive Director Finance & Economics of the European Climate Foundation, immediately addressed the elephant in the room: the Trump administration’s announcement to leave the Paris Agreement. Barrett downplayed the immediate effects of this decision and highlighted that this step may only be taken by a possibly new administration in four years, further acknowledging the fact that diplomatic repercussions, fortunately, failed to materialize. He additionally pointed out that other nations may gladly replace the United States in providing impetus for fighting climate change – India and China being just two examples.

Moving to Prof. James D. Bindenagel, head of the Center for International Security and Governance (CISG) and former U.S. diplomat, Hank raised the question whether the early climate policy moves of the new administration solely serve the purpose of pleasing Trump’s core supporters. While identifying these campaign promises as driving force of the new administration, Prof. Bindenagel added a general strive to undo as many Obama-era regulations as possible. Still, expressing strong confidence in American democracy, Prof. Bindenagel explained that several states are moving to embody federal law in an effort to make it harder for the President to revoke core climate policies. Additionally, he stressed the increasing importance of actors on the non-governmental level, such as CEOs, NGOs, and scientific institutions, many of which are sending positive signals in the battle to fight our changing climate. Acknowledging the huge costs for U.S. leadership, Prof. Bindenagel called for Germany and the EU to bear with the United States in these times of a seemingly indecisive and uncertain administration in order to preserve interests on both sides of the Atlantic.

Posing the question of how the issue of climate change has ended up on the culture war battlefield, Hank brought Prof. Dr. Sabine Sielke, Director of the North American Studies Program, into the discussion. Prof. Sielke reminded the audience that environmental-conscious thinking is considered to be part of a liberal mindset and that the tonality regarding this debate is no new phenomenon within the U.S. political sphere. Hence, she put forward that Trump’s attacks on climate policy inevitably need to be read as an attack on liberalism. In an effort to deemphasize the severity of the new administration’s stances, Prof. Sielke summarized the alternating views on environmental policy of the previous four U.S. Presidents. Nevertheless, we should all be aware that climate change is trans-ideological and that nothing less than the survival of the human race is at stake. She went on to identify some of the numerous paradoxes that drive American culture. Sielke juxtaposed the U.S. as leader in science and technology with antagonist religious belief systems and notions of anti-intellectualism. Further, long traditions of praising technology as magic and nature as being improvable shape the dominant discourse on climate change in the U.S.

Turning to the fourth panelist, culture jamming activist Mike Bonanno, Hank wanted to know whether he feels the United States has seen enough disruption of its political system at this point. This led Bonanno to explain some of the causes having contributed to this development, among them that the left in the U.S. has collapsed because everybody considered them to be elitist. Driven by a perception of feeling being talked down to, an increasing number of people started to rally around back-then candidate Trump. While Bonanno did not feel comfortable joining in on the rather optimistic vibe of the other panelists, he did express subtle hope for a process of rebuilding confidence in the American political apparatus after it having hit rock bottom with the current administration.

Asked to offer his perspective on how the new yet-to-be-formed German government should behave towards the U.S., Prof. Bindenagel urged the country to stay with the liberal order and to frame the issue of climate change according to its values. This, on the other hand, led Prof. Sielke to express her concern that Germany, having lost its place as front-runner in the fight against climate change, first needs to implement a coherent environmental policy before voicing recommendations for other countries – namely the U.S. Barrett agreed and added further gravity to the argument by stressing that the climate crisis can be solved with existing technologies. He phrased Trump’s short-term economic planning in favor of the fossil fuel industry as huge danger that will increasingly backfire over the next ten to fifteen years. 

Hank then posed the question whether we need a cultural transition with regard to how we talk about climate change and the environment in order to act collectively.  Bonanno identified the global culture of capitalism spread across a finite planet as departing points for a much needed transition phase. Acknowledging that this dominant system has many negative repercussions for our climate needs to be followed by pressuring national leaders into sustainable decision-making. Prof. Bindenagel added that we currently lack a common narrative on how to act towards the issue of climate change. Yet, with regard to the many actors from civil society as well as from non-federal levels he expressed optimism that finding common ground will not be impossible. Voicing skepticism towards the process of finding a common narrative, Prof. Sielke alternatively stated that it rather takes people becoming more politically active in order to prioritize the fight against our changing climate. Before the panel took questions from the audience, Prof. Bindenagel concluded the discussion by remarking that it is a healthy “Streitkultur” that needs to dominate the discussion on climate change. 

  • For our Social Media summary, read our Storify.
  • Visitor and participant Jan-Frederic Kuhlmann shared his own brilliant storify on "Focus Global Player".

In cooperation with: 

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GIZ.jpg    DW Akademie

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