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Why there is climate hope - despite the Amazon tragedy

The populist views of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro will end up in the dustbin of history. A transformation of attitudes towards climate change is already underway.

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Students taking part in a rally at the Consulate of Brazil in Kolkata in eastern India, to protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's policies and his response towards the fires raging in the Amazon.

With a potential environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Amazon, Jair Bolsonaro blocked G7 aid on Tuesday. His childish behaviour, amid a war of words with Emmanuel Macron, reflects the growing way in which climate change has become part of a political culture war between populist and centrist politicians.

The irony here is that 2019 has been a year in which consciousness over climate change has grown with potentially unprecedented speed. This underlines the point that the issue, perhaps the biggest facing humanity in the 21st century, has the potential to completely reshape politics in a way that few others have.

Yet, for now at least, Mr Bolsonaro's actions highlight the potency of climate sceptic counter-arguments, however scientifically illiterate and ill-founded. The Brazilian president, sometimes known as the "Tropical Trump", is a noted anti-environmentalist who favours a host of policy positions controversial with many audiences, including nostalgia for the nation's previous political dictatorship and relaxing gun laws.

And like other populists around the world, he came to power through campaign tactics such as attacking multinational organisations, so-called fake media and immigrants. Here, it is no surprise that Donald Trump, who didn't attend the G7 session on climate change on Sunday in France, has wholeheartedly supported Mr Bolsonaro's position.

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The two of them have argued climate change is a "hoax" and want to see the Paris deal dismantled. This argument, utterly reckless given the strong scientific consensus on global warming and its potentially calamitous perils, is already proving damaging to overall global attempts to tackle climate change.

Take the current example of the blazing Amazon, a vital carbon store slowing down the pace of climate change. Most of its geography is in Brazil, and this year's wildfires have increased 80 per cent , says the nation's space agency. It is no coincidence that this significantly increased number of fires coincides with a sharp drop in fines for environmental violations under Mr Bolsonaro's leadership.

Indeed, it is the very opposite of the argument advanced by populists that is the more credible narrative. This is put forward by climate campaigners who argue that the Paris treaty does not go far enough, and that even the G7 aid of US$22 million is a drop in the ocean of what is needed to tackle the current calamity affecting the so-called "lungs of the earth".

While the position of Mr Trump and Mr Bolsonaro will eventually belong to the dustbin of history, the key question now is how fast other key countries across the world can move to ramp up the ambition in the Paris deal. After all, a group of senior climatologists warned last year that the planet could as soon as 2050 see global average temperatures rise to 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels, the level many scientists say we must not breach if we are to avoid the worst risks of global warming.

This underlines the fact that while the Paris agreement - reached by more than 190 countries as the successor treaty to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol - was a welcome shot in the arm for attempts to tackle global warming, much more ambition is very likely to be needed in the future. And with the fifth anniversary of the treaty on the horizon, the deal is increasingly being viewed as not the end of the process, but only the beginning of a longer journey that governments and legislators must now make in the 2020s.

While this may seem a political long shot, it needs to be remembered that there was significant concern about whether the Paris deal could ever happen in the years leading to its agreement. And the deal was then ratified with remarkable speed by more than 55 countries, accounting for a minimum of 55 per cent of global emissions pushing it forward.

The roadmap for moving forward from here is already clear, starting with next month's UN Climate Action Summit in New York. There, the growing evidence will be presented to show that we may be facing a climate emergency, with the UN World Meterological Organisation reporting that the years between 2015 and this year are on track to be the five hottest years ever recorded.

Beyond this, implementation of Paris is now needed as speedily as possible to provide a baseline for future action. This will be most effective through national laws where politically feasible, as country "commitments" put forward in Paris will be more credible - and durable beyond the next set of national elections - if they are backed up by legislation, not least because the targets in the deal are not legally binding.

Once these domestic legal frameworks are in place, and cemented, they will become crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, countries are required under the Paris deal to openly and clearly report on emissions and their progress in reaching the goals in their national climate plans, which are to be submitted to the UN every five years; these reports must highlight the moves taken to to implement the goals.

Into the 2020s, the ambition must then be that these frameworks are replicated in even more countries, and progressively ratcheted up. There are clear signs of this happening already in numerous states, from the Asia-Pacific to the Americas, as countries seek to toughen their response to global warming, but there is also backlash, as Mr Trump and Mr Bolsonaro show.

Yet, as 2019 has shown, there may well now be a large-scale transformation taking place in public attitudes across much of the globe.

What appears to be changing here is not a shift toward altruism. Instead, many countries now view tackling global warming as in the national self-interest and see, for instance, that expanding domestic sources of renewable energy not only reduces emissions, but also increases energy security by reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels.

And it is now more widely seen that reducing energy demand through greater efficiency reduces costs and increases competitiveness, while improving resilience to the impacts of global warming also makes economic sense. And that domestic laws also give clear signals about direction of policy, reducing uncertainty, particularly for the private sector.

Taken overall, the irony of the Amazon tragedy is that it coincides with what appears to be a growing opportunity to co-create, and follow-through to implement a foundation of global sustainable development in coming decades for billions across the world, starting with implementation of Paris. While populist counter arguments will remain potent with many, they will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of history.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.