In the United States, there is a shift in political dialogue in response to the growing concerns regarding anthropogenic climate change. Although public awareness of climate change is growing each year, we still see strong polarization between climate skeptics and climate activists. There are now three main groups leading the climate debate, but the first signs of convergence among these groups are appearing.
With an eye on the 2020 presidential elections in which climate change will become a major topic, three different political groups are emerging. First, there is the climate–skeptic group represented by Donald Trump. His political stance towards climate change is embedded within his populist rhetoric, in which he creates a juxtaposition between the elite in Washington and the American people. Trump argues that the leftist political elites haveintentionally subordinated the will of the people to benefit their own political agenda; a view shared by many in respect to the Yellow Vest movement in France. In fact, Trump won the presidential election by advocating the belief that economic hardships persisted due to policies by the political elite. To show that he was taking measures to restore economic growth for his voters, Trump identified Obama-era legislation as a symbolic culprit and eitherrevoked or delayed several Obama initiatives (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, changes in the Clean Water Act, measures by the Environmental Protection Agency to combat air pollution).The same symbolism can be seen in Trump’s consistent campaign to fund the border wall with Mexico. Trump’s stance toward climate change is an extension of his anti-establishmentpolitical rhetoric and the symbolism that is embedded in this type of politics, namely thestruggle against a corrupt elite for the benefit of the American people. By discrediting scientific consensus by claiming these scientists have a leftist political agenda, Trump may once again succeed in convincing his constituency that the discussion on climate change exists to extract more wealth from the American people. All in all, the staying power of his populist climate skepticism should not be underestimated.
The second political group that can be identified in the discussion is the progressive Democratic group. During the 2016 presidential campaign, this group was unable to provide an adequate response to Trump’s populist rhetoric. However, with proposed legislature such as the Green New Deal by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this group is formulating a response to Trump’s rhetoric by adopting an alternative populist rhetoric. We have defined populism as a political approach which emerges in or after a time of uncertainty and which creates clear-cut division between the people and an elite. Whereas Trump’s climate–skeptic rhetoric is aimedat the fears many Americans have of economic hardship, the Democratic plan for climate change presents a grand vision that addresses the same concerns by offering more opportunities in a new “sustainable economy”. Even with the selection of its name, the Green New Deal harkens back to the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal, instilling in voters a sense of nostalgia similar to what Trump achieved with his slogan “Make America Great Again”. Indeed, the Green New Deal is a new type of populist rhetoric. It argues thatpolitical elites who fail to address humanity’s impact on climate change are opposing the future benefit of the United States people. We can see this viewpoint reflected in the Juliana versus the United States legal case.
The increasing polarization between these two political groups, the right-wing populists on the one hand and the left-wing populists on the other, would initially appear to leave little room for a middle ground. Yet with the growing belief of anthropogenic climate change among the American people, many Republicans have revised their own stance onanthropogenic climate change. Around 55% of liberal/moderate Republicans now believe in anthropogenic climate change, which is an increase of 14% compared to October 2017. Indeed, the majority of the Republican party does not share Trump’s climate-skeptic views (only 26% of conservative Republicans do). In spite of these numbers, Republicans greatlyoppose the Green New Deal proposal due to the fact that it implies a government intervention. Though there may not be a Republican alternative to the Green New Deal as of yet, the fact that Republicans now acknowledge the gravity of climate change and increasingly accept the scientific truth of humanity’s impact on the climate, increases the likelihood that Republicans will support something akin to the Green New Deal. What is certain is that during the 2020 elections, climate change will be a major topic.
If something along the lines of the Green New Deal was implemented, this could have major economic consequences. It is beyond doubt that a huge socio-economic project such as the Green New Deal would be highly expensive. The populist rhetoric of the Green New Deal is apparent as Ocasio-Cortez argues that it will only succeed if there is broad active participation by the country as a whole, so–called: “national mobilization”. In addition, Ocasio-Cortez argues that in the long run, economic growth would pay for the entire project, rather than increased taxes. However, economists are divided regarding the plan’s feasibility. On the one hand, economists argue that these kinds of programs would add trillions of dollars to the nation’s debt. Others claim that these engineered spending programs are a less efficient way of reaching sustainability goals than the further development of new clean technology.Indeed, economists argue that the cost of renewable energy is plummeting and sustainable innovations are not driven by a top-down government approach, but instead by the market’s own forces. Furthermore, economists point to the impact of sustainable infrastructure on the American economy: besides an increase of electric vehicle adoption, part of the plan could also affect the aviation market, which could potentially lead to a loss of 10 million jobs in this sector alone. From this perspective, it is unlikely that the Green New Deal will pass Congress in its current form. However, as bipartisan support for climate action is growing, a new type of Green New Deal could emerge in the next few years, following a trajectory similar to FDR’s New Deal.