In just two days, millions of American voters will head to the polls to decide where the United States stands on the fight against climate change.
While presidential candidate Joe Biden has declared climate change the “number one issue facing humanity” and announced a $2-trillion clean energy plan to tackle the crisis, many worry that another four years under President Donald Trump – who has repeatedly denied climate science and shunned global climate efforts – will sound a death knell for the environment.
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Ahead of the US elections, we take a look at the last five years of United Nations climate talks, and what is at stake for the health of the planet.
November 2016: United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP22, Marrakesh, Morocco
Donald Trump, who had called global warming a hoax, has just been elected president of the United States.
Shock, scorn and disbelief echo around the halls of the United Nations climate conference in Marrakesh. Some younger activists are even in tears.
“My heart is absolutely broken at the election of Trump,” Becky Chung, a delegate for youth advocacy group SustainUs from California, tells a journalist.
She goes on to correctly predict: “We will see a rising up of people’s movements committed to keeping fossil fuels in the ground.”
November 2017: UN Climate Talks, COP23, Bonn, Germany
Trump has pulled out of the Paris Agreement and is ripping apart Obama-era environmental regulations. But at this year’s conference, there is defiance in the air.
A growing coalition of US states, cities and organisations called We Are Still In set up camp, even as Trump is determinedly walking away from the fight against the climate crisis.
I interviewed Todd Stern, Obama’s chief climate negotiator. He told me the Trump presidency would be a blip, a set-back for sure, but temporary. The sentiment was that the world would march on in the fight against climate change with or without Trump.
December 2018: UN Climate Talks, COP24, Katowice, Poland
White House representatives arrive at this year’s climate talks to promote coal and other fossil fuels. They are obviously out of step with the mood, as an important group of investors managing $32 trillion in assets call for an end to coal as a source of energy.
Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old climate activist, takes the stage to castigate world leaders for their lack of concerted action.
December 2019: UN Climate Talks, COP25, Madrid, Spain
Naturalist Sir David Attenborough speaks at the opening ceremony and says climate change is humanity’s greatest threat for thousands of years.
Trump, meanwhile, continues his term rollback of auto emissions standards, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and rejecting stronger air pollution standards.
November 2020: UN Climate Talks, COP26, Planned for Glasgow, Scotland
The 2020 conference is cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now set to take place in November 2021.
Record temperatures and ongoing wildfires from California to Brazil – plus hurricanes and cyclones, floods and landslides, and ongoing ice melt – continually demonstrate the urgency for action. Yet across the world, there is a sense we could be on the brink of a substantial change in the way we live, as renewables kick in and the pressure builds on fossil fuel usage.
But the outcome of the US election is critical.
Columbia University’s Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law counted 159 actions “to scale back or wholly eliminate climate mitigation and adaptation measures” since Trump took office. The words “climate change” have also been eliminated from government reports, while other reports have been buried.
A month ago, Trump said it will soon start getting cooler while dismissing the expertise of climate scientists.
While our world is burning, the US president is denying science at every opportunity. And on November 4, the day after the election, the US will exit the Paris climate agreement, a global pact that has wobbled but not yet collapsed.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden meanwhile has promised to immediately rejoin the Paris deal should he win and has unveiled a $2 trillion clean economy job programme. He has a long way to go to get the US on course towards a zero-carbon future, but as the former Obama adviser on climate policy, John Podesta, said:
“It would be pretty much game over for the international system if [Donal Trump is] re-elected … We’d miss the chance to avoid warming at a catastrophic level.”
The world holds its breath.
Your environment round-up
1. La Nina weather event: A “moderate to strong” La Nina event is developing in the Pacific Ocean, the World Meteorological Organization said. The phenomenon causes ocean surface temperatures to cool. Despite this, experts say it will not change the fact that 2020 will be one of the warmest years on record.
2. US’s “oldest city” threatened by floods: St Augustine, Florida – which was founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers – is under threat from severely rising sea levels. While climate change is not the direct cause, it is increasing the severity and frequency of flooding events.
3. All in the tentacles: Scientists have uncovered how the sensors in octopus suction cups work, and how they help the animal touch, taste and identify whether an object is prey.
4. Used cars are driving pollution: Developed nations export millions of used vehicles to lower-income countries every year, mostly in Africa. But a new UN report warns these old cars are adding significantly to the world’s air pollution levels.
The final word
There's about as much scientific consensus about human-caused climate change as there is about gravity.