Over the past few days, Donald Trump’s presidency has been one of the biggest stories in the Western news.
The story has also been big among the environmental crowd. Many commentators are worried that Trump becoming the new US president will mean stopping the progress achieved with the development of the Paris Agreement and its unprecedentedly fast ratification within a single year – a phenomenon which, compared with eight years needed for Kyoto Protocol, has been definitely hope inducing. Trumpsidency, according to some, means we shouldn’t be too hopeful.
Over the past few days, however, I have also read articles which argued that Trump would need four years to cancel the US participation in the agreement, or that he could possibly do it within a year – an action which, apart from being most certainly bad for the global emissions outlook at first, would also be an opportunity for the EU and China to impose carbon taxes on the US imports, which could possibly even speed-up the global decarbonisation process. There are also others stating that even if the new president would cancel the US participation from the Agreement, the energy market would take care of itself anyway. The trend for steadily decreasing prices of renewable energy will hold and equal with more investment in the development and implementation of renewables – definitely not coal, a revival of which Trump has been advocating so confidently.
Having said that, something seems to have been brewing across the Western world for quite some time now. Trumpsidency is a continuation of what’s been happening in the UK (Brexit, Ukip and Nigel Farage), France (National Front and Marine Le Pen), Poland (Congress of the New Right and Janusz Korwin-Mikke) or Austria (Freedom Party and Norbert Hofer). Naomi Klein has commented that the same reason as to why Trump has been elected is that members of Western societies are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the capitalistic system. People want a change, and so they choose charismatic leaders who seem to know how to make their lives and countries better. However, voting for extreme right-wing leaders means voting for their views – hatred, blame-casting and self-preoccupation – too, and that will not change anything for the better, but only create more hatred, blame-casting and self-preoccupation. People need a different choice, and we have seen that there are different choices available that people can identify with – an example here could be Bernie Sanders, who has been very close to becoming a presidential candidate, with some pondering whether he could have won the elections instead of Clinton. Sanders has resonated with many voters, including young people which is no easy thing, thanks to his social policies valuing average Americans and promoting equality, tolerance and peace.
The question of how to change people’s political beliefs and voting choices is intertwined with the question of how to make people act on climate change. Political views are connected with environmental beliefs through individual values – people who hold materialistic self-enhancing values are also more likely to support right-wing ideologies and are less likely to perform any environmentally-friendly behaviour due to their ecological beliefs (they could save light for example, but only for financial reasons). Values and beliefs can be difficult to change, however not impossible. According to Corner and Randall, social ties are one of the most important factors in changing people’s attitudes and behaviours. An example: most people would be more comfortable in taking action on climate change, for example by attending a public protest, if their friends or family was going as well. We all are more confident when a part of a group with similar beliefs and motifs, and what’s more, our social ties are likely to influence our political attitudes and behaviours. This pattern has also been visible during the US presidential election run-ups, with people supporting Sanders throwing parties to gain more support for the candidate and encourage voting through mobilising their friends and connecting socialising with a specific political attitude and behaviour inducing purpose.
Therefore, social change should be led by societies and communities, where people feel comfortable with each other, support each other and motivate each other to do something good for the general benefit of their community. This approach has been already implemented in some Western countries – an example of that could be Australia, where individual states are taking steps in reducing their carbon footprints and are doing so through community-led programs. This is even more encouraging if we take into consideration the fact that the Australian federal government has been quite reluctant in encouraging renewable energy development over the past few years, with some citing its links to the country’s powerful coal industry as a reason (hopefully ratification of the Paris Agreement last week will be an impulse for changing the federal government’s ways).
I have previously been quite sceptical about community-led transitions to low-carbon future. I still think that governments need to act and enable and motivate their nationals to act too, however communities can act anytime and anywhere, no matter who is their country’s president or how their country’s government works. That said, it’s also the NGOs, as usual, who have a big role to play here by putting bigger pressure on community-led projects not only in the Western, but also the developing world. I would also like to see a bigger emphasis being put on involving younger people. As we have seen with the Sanders presidential campaign, millenials do want to get involved, however in slightly different ways than older generations. A good example of an interesting and youth-focused environmental campaign is Generation Yes developed recently by the University of Melbourne Sustainable Societies Institute. Even its website looks engaging enough for a young person to want to find out what’s all this ‘zero-carbon future’ mess about. A website is of course not enough but creating engaging digital content is a great first step in engaging the generation that tends to be disconnected from the politics but will be the one that will have to face the climate change impacts.
Leading politicians have been, are and always will be important in sparking action among the public – whether for positive or negative reasons. Seeing what has been happening over the past few days in the US, I think that Trumpsidency might turn out not to be a bad thing, if only the movement retains its momentum and motivates people to act and change things where they can – in their own communities. This is no easy task, however it is achievable and it is needed.