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The Divided States of America

It has taken a long time to finally determine who will sit in the White House for the next four years. But what already became abundantly clear on election night, November 3 – and continues the trends of past U.S. elections – is that America is deeply divided. Whether dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic or the climate crisis, policy preferences among the U.S. population fall into two seemingly irreconcilable camps regarding the paths to be taken towards solutions.

Even a Democratic president would have to contend with a Congress dominated by different camps in the coming years. In the next few years, ambitious climate policy in line with the Paris Agreement can therefore hardly be expected from the American capital alone. Nevertheless, the announcement that former Secretary of State John Kerry is to assume the role of special envoy for climate raises domestic and foreign policy hopes that climate change will be given the urgent attention it demands.

And now?

The gridlock in Washington is contrasted by a dynamic international climate policy arena. And the need for action is also immense: updated nationally determined contributions for the next few years are due to be submitted – with a significantly higher level of ambition. In addition, governments are expected to present long-term strategies for mid-century that are strongly influenced by the goal of climate neutrality. China's announcement in this regard at the end of September of its intention to be climate carbon neutral by mid-century was almost unexpected. In the meantime, Japan and South Korea have followed with similar announcements.

Of course, these decisions must be backed up by comprehensive packages of measures, but they do raise hopes for global decarbonisation. However, they can only be globally effective if, and only if, the United States once again play a role in climate policy. With the country’s share of global emissions still this large on the one hand, and important innovative momentum spurring from parts of the U.S. society on the other hand, there is a need for new stimulus in transatlantic climate policy cooperation. To this end, Germany and Europe must position themselves more broadly and diversely. In addition to alliances with climate activists in politics, society and business, this must also involve new strategies for those regions and citizens deeply sceptical about or even denying the climate issue.

What can be built upon?

Germany has already had to cope with the withdrawal of the U.S. government from global climate cooperation in the past. Already U.S. President George W. Bush, with his withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, triggered a stronger liaison of U.S. allies with those national alliances that allow for effective solutions in climate. This applies, for example, to exchanges on the design of carbon markets, as is being pursued in America at the level of individual states.

A transatlantic tradition of cooperation between Germany and California has also developed in the expansion of renewable energies, which can be further strengthened in order to jointly drive forward ambitious climate protection. These activities are also fed by the American self-image of taking one’s destiny into one’s own hands, independent of the government in faraway Washington.

The devastating forest fires in California have impressively illustrated how vital this state-level drive for independence is. It is also particularly evident in the response to the announcement of the United States' withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, with the formation of a multi-layered alliance of US governors, cities, businesses, and civil society groups who emphasize "We are still in!" on global climate change efforts.

What needs to be redesigned?

As significant as this pillar of transatlantic climate cooperation may be, it will not work in the long term without the entire American society. Rather than letting the thread of conversation with the climate- sceptical part of America break, we need a strategy for diversifying the climate narrative. The prerequisite for this is an infrastructure for cooperation and conversation that reaches beyond the East and West coast of the U.S. and hits where it hurts in the face of fundamentally different, sometimes populist, worldviews.

The necessity of spaces for political, cultural and scientific dialogue is not due to a transatlantic nostalgia that has fallen out of time. Rather, they follow the realisation that the global climate crisis demands the exploration of every possibility for dialogue, especially with the U.S., the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, in order to remain in conversation regarding possible solutions.

For this purpose the diplomatic kit provides for bridgeheads such as consulates general, Goethe Institutes or chambers of commerce. On top of the existing demand to expand these for example in the Midwest, there needs to be much more focus on individual target groups such as farmers or ”losers” of a changing energy structure. One example are joint town hall events between German and U.S. farmers and foresters to share ideas on coping with environmental conditions such as increasing drought and to develop common levels of solutions.

In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, we especially need to develop hybrid formats that also enable digital exchange. In addition, these centres of exchange must be further developed in light of the interests of younger generations, for which social networks and digital exchange formats must be used. This kind of bridge-building is certainly an arduous long-term project that requires the deployment of additional resources. Yet, given the scale of the global climate crisis, it is a definitely a sustainable investment.