By Peri Dias*
We, Latin Americans, have a reputation for loving convoluted soap operas but it is the writers of history in the United States who have been working on some of the most dramatic scripts in recent years.
With the 2020 presidential elections, this taste for drama seems to have reached its peak. The entire world followed, apprehensive and somewhat hypnotized, the plot twists in the United States campaigning, voting and tallying process.
For the climate movements, the anxiety about the elections was not just related to a curiosity about the outcome but also to the fact that the American government’s choices regarding the climate crisis do influence, indeed, the fate of the world.
Now that we know that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be in charge of the United States government for the next four years, starting in January 2021, it is a good moment for a brief, definitely not exhaustive balance of the impacts this change may have on the climate activism and politics in developing countries.
The Trump effect
One of the ways in which the election in the United States can influence the climate policies of developing countries is the direct influence that the Donald Trump administration has on some governments.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has Trump as an inspiration and a source of security. His three politician sons, who in practice rule together with their father, have direct contact with some of Trump’s strategists and import the entire arsenal of tactics from the outgoing president.
Furthermore, Bolsonaro likes to say that he has a special relationship with Trump. He often pulls this letter out of his sleeve when the press, NGOs, Indigenous leaders or investors pressure him. All these groups have been pointing to the fact that Brazil is isolating itself from the world and suffering economic damage because of increased deforestation in the Amazon. The Brazilian government keeps denying it.
Following a renewal in the US policies for the climate, the Brazilian government will probably be more susceptible to the pressure to protect the Amazon, encourage more sustainable ranching practices and invest in renewable energy. Or, if it decided to double its bet on climate denialism, it would have more difficulty convincing its citizens that such isolation in the global scenery is not hurting the country.
It is important to remember that Brazil, as the largest territory and largest economy in Latin America, has some influence on regional directions. Specifically, on the theme of climate, it is also a player of global relevance, due to its population of 210 million people and the share it has of the Amazon rainforest.
The same is true for some other developing countries, notably India. Like Bolsonaro’s government, the current Indian government has made combating social movements and threats to democratic institutions a strategy to maintain the enthusiasm of its hardcore voters.
Removing one of the Indian government’s external support points can have an impact on the fight for better climate policies in the Asian country of more than 1 billion people. As we know, India is an emerging power, which means that it is yet another important piece in the puzzle of reducing global emissions
The Uncle Sam effect
In addition to the direct influence that a change in the United States government may have on Brazil and India, two of the countries with the greatest weight on the global stage of climate, it is possible to predict an effect of the US elections on other developing nations.
This effect has less to do with the figure of the current US president and more with the economic and political importance of the country, regardless of who is in power. The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement and the refusal of the US government to honor consistent climate commitments have served as an argument for several governments in Latin America, Africa and Asia to keep their climate ambitions lower than they could be.
It is important to recognize that the United States, as the greatest historical contributor to global warming and the second-largest current emitter of greenhouse gases, has a greater responsibility to act to solve the problem. The poorest nations in the world and the emerging countries are the ones that suffer the worst consequences of the climate crisis, despite being the ones that least benefited from the factor behind this crisis, the burning of fossil fuels. But this is not an excuse for the governments of these countries to sit back and wait.
Looking at Latin America, for example, Argentina would be much better off without fracking in the region of Vaca Muerta. Non-conventional gas extraction damages the environment, threatens agriculture and buries literally billions of dollars in subsidies annually. Still, when questioned about why to proceed with the drilling authorizations, the Argentinian government often replies that the country should not give up the revenues generated by fossil fuel while richer countries continue to explore their own reserves.
In the game of seducing the electorate, inherent in politics, the inaction of the United States becomes one of the factors that feed the discourse that low, middle and upper-middle-income countries, such as Argentina, cannot afford to seek an energy transition. If the US government shows leadership in climate action, sustaining that vision will be more difficult, and the lives of climate activists around the world will be a little easier.
The Benjamin Franklin effect
There is also at least one more path for the influence of the US elections on climate activism in developing countries: the influx of dollars (on which Benjamin Franklin is one of the faces) to the fossil fuel industry.
As 350.org has continually pointed out, climate colonialism is in full swing in today’s world. While announcing the closure of coal mines and investment in renewable energies in their territories, developed countries allow their companies to operate or finance the operation of new fossil fuel ventures in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
From coal mines in the Philippines to oil extraction in Nigeria or the Ecuadorian Amazon, the digital printing of companies such as the French-based Total, the Dutch-based Shell, and the American-based Exxon are everywhere. Japanese, European and North American banks also profit from these ventures, financing and helping to structure operations.
What would make us happy (& not contribute to destroying the planet) would be the Fed no longer propping up an industry that a) destroys the planet & pollutes communities b) is firing workers left & right, c) misleads the public about the harm it causes & d) is losing tons of $$.
— Moira Birss (@moira_kb) November 19, 2020
A change in the American policies for the climate could interfere in this dynamic. As 350 Asia financial campaign coordinator Chuck Baclagon pointed out in an interview with CNN, the United States could use its influence to pressure banks, insurance companies and pension funds to cut the financial flows that enable new oil, gas, and coal projects.
“If the new administration makes it clear that the climate is back on top of the agenda, financial institutions around the world will take this into account,” he said.
It’s the people who will continue to lead
Having considered all the effects we mentioned, is time to recognize that, regardless of the changes in the US, the climate fight, especially in the poorest countries and in those where authoritarianism has been growing, will remain challenging.
The rights of Indigenous Peoples will keep being under attack around the world, and these communities will continue to be valiant in defending their way of life and protecting the Earth. Their worldview will remain a fundamental inspiration for the transition we need.
Oil and gas companies will proceed with their work of misinformation and lobby against changes in climate legislation and policies. Thus, the communities most affected by them will need to maintain their mobilization to protect the livelihoods and health of their families.
Another urgent issue for the most vulnerable nations is the lack of resources for building climate resilience and mitigation, a matter in which the United States have a significant responsibility to contribute, given their role as a major CO2 emitter in the last three centuries. The pressure to increase funding for a just transition, up to the point it really reaches the level it should, will have to continue in place.
Another important and yet unheard demand from climate activism in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Latin America is the forgiveness of the external debt of the poorest countries. As a result of a colonialist history, this debt must be redirected towards measures of resilience in the face of climate change and investment in clean energy and other decent job opportunities.
After so many years of fighting, traditional communities and climate advocates in the most vulnerable regions of the world became experts in sailing against the tide and still not letting the boat capsize. They will remain steadfast in their demands and in their work to deviate us from the collision course, whether the engine “made in the USA” starts to work to its full potential, whether it spends another four years slowly turning. The climate activists in developing countries know very well that we just don’t have the time to wait.
* Peri Dias is the Comms Manager for 350.org in Latin America.