Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?
FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.
The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.
US Elections Untangled – EP 8: 2020 Elections – A Lot at Stake for Climate Change (with Emma Hakala)
November will determine, what American environmental policy will look like for the next four years both domestically and internationally.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden are in many ways different, but one of the biggest differences in their policy platforms concerns the environment. In what ways has the US influenced the global fight against climate change so far and just how different a part might it play in the future? Visiting Senior Fellow Emma Hakala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs offers her assessment.
Read the text version of the episode
The host Maria Annala: Welcome to US Elections Untangled – a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Audio recording of Donald Trump: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America first, America first.
Audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often led to America alone.
Maria Annala: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series.
Annala: In today’s episode we’ll be talking about what the 2020 elections mean for climate change. Our guest today is visiting senior fellow Emma Hakala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Hi Emma, thanks for being here.
Hakala: Thanks for letting me come here.
Annala: You’re an expert on climate security and environmental security and those are obviously global issues. But what has been the role of the US in the attempt to address these issues internationally, and what kind of an actor has the US been specifically under President Trump?
Hakala: Well, traditionally, of course the US has been like an important actor just because of it so large. It’s such a large country and it’s such a big sort of source of emissions. So of course only for that reason it kind of has to be included in any sort of credible effort to mitigate climate change. I think that for all international actors it has been one of the priorities to get the US on board, but it has traditionally even been maybe a little bit more reluctant like compared for example to the EU, which has been rather some kind of a maybe global leader in this in these climate efforts. So compared to that, the US has always been a bit more sort of hesitant about at least sort of compromising its economic performance in order to cut emissions or anything like that. But then, for example, during the Obama presidency, of course the US was a lot more forthcoming, and it was an important actor, for example in the Paris agreement. That kind of maybe gave some kind of knew vigorousness to the climate negotiations to some extent. So, the difference between that period and then now the Trump presidency has been quite huge. So whereas the US was kind of at least starting to be some sort of a climate leader of its own during the time of Obama. During Trump’s presidency, it has really been sort of like not just somehow passive in these efforts, but actually like trying to hinder any effort to mitigate climate change. For example, the fact that Trump announced that the US will withdraw from the Paris agreement has made a big difference I guess in the in the dynamic of the negotiations. I mean not in the sense necessarily that the other countries would have sort of given up on the agreement. In fact they have been maybe even more committed to sort of sticking to their own emissions cuts goals, but definitely the US has had a very sort of in a way you can maybe even say harmful role from the point of view of the negotiations.
Annala: Yes, the global example they’re setting is definitely being undermining the fight against climate change, in my opinion. Aren’t they even importing fossil fuels and sort of trying actively to make other countries embrace more fossil energy?
Hakala: Yes, it has actually been like one element of Trump’s foreign policy. They have even sort of been exporting this whole fossil fuel based economy. For example, they have had negotiations with India about trade in fossil fuels, when in fact India is one of the really sort of crucial countries that should be able to cut its emissions while still sort of keeping up this economic growth and so on. So these kinds of efforts are again, from the point of view of like trying to somehow cut emissions, they are really going to the other direction. It seems like there is this sort of very conscious effort from Trump’s government to keep this fossil fuel economy going when the rest of the world or at least many other parts of the world are sort of trying to give up on that already.
Annala: Yes, Trump made a promise to these mining communities. Some of his core supporters, some of his voters come from these small towns in the US. I’ve visited one of those towns and it’s… I can see where they’re coming from, these people why they want to cling to this idea that coal mining is still going to be relevant in the future. That’s the only employer in town. If the mines closed down, their houses become worthless, their property becomes worthless, and they’re going to have to leave the place where their family has lived for many generations and move somewhere else, start over. They’re not going to even have a penny in their pocket to start over with because no one’s going to want to buy the house in the dying village where the only employer closed down. So these are the people I think Trump is trying to lookout for and looking out for, but of course, from a global perspective that’s a disaster.
Hakala: Exactly, and I think that kind of only shows how important it is to do this climate mitigation and the energy transition and all of these things somehow globally and also to have governments very much involved in these efforts. It is very sort of true that for the, for example, coal mine employee or people who are very invested in their own life or in terms of their own livelihoods in these kinds of businesses, it’s very understandable that they don’t want to lose their jobs. You know, it’s a very big and crucial issue for individuals who are dependent on the fossil fuel economy. In a way nobody said that it was going to be easy to transition from fossil fuel based economy into a sustainable one, but that’s exactly why it would be so important to kind of do this transition in time first of all, like so that it wouldn’t have to be so rushed. Now we’re already like kind of behind in our efforts to cut our emissions. Then also to do it in a somehow controlled, governed and just way, so that there wouldn’t be… I mean, of course there are in a way going to be winners and losers, but so that you would be able to then somehow compensate the losses of the people who are already the worst of maybe in the economy. So that it wouldn’t be so much feeding into this inequality in a way in a society.
Annala: Yes, I think that’s why it’s important that elected politicians are the ones participating in the fight against climate change because they have to think about their voters. They have to think, OK, if I close down all the mines all of these voters are going to be very upset. So what can I do? Can I start a new clean energy placed industry in this particular town, so that then they will keep voting for me? Or is there something else I can do to sort of make it up for them? Whereas what we’re seeing in the US now, and you mentioned this earlier when we talked, that the American companies, some companies are trying to make innovations and trying to still keep up the fight against climate change despite what Trump is doing. But if it’s just companies, if we leave it up to the companies and the politicians stay out of it, a Californian company has zero interest in thinking about how the West Virginia Coal Miner family will survive.
Hakala: Exactly, and this is why, in a way like for once democracy is working in this situation that there is some accountability for the politicians, so they have to think about these things. Whereas otherwise it’s yeah likely to be quite unequal and maybe the best way to govern the transition.
Annala: I wonder how much all that would change if Joe Biden were to win in November. I mean, after all, his climate agenda is totally different from that of President Trump. It’s actually quite ambitious for an American major party presidential candidate. He is for example, about to bring the US back to the Paris agreement, and he’s got goals to make the energy sector fossil free, I think it was by 2035. So these kind of goals have not been seen before in the American politics. So how much do you think the US the Americans role in this game would change, if he were to win?
Well, I think it would be perceived in a very sort of positive light internationally by other countries, obviously. That in a way now it seems like the US is being sort of counted out from all of the climate action, the global climate action during Trump’s presidency. So it would kind of mark big change in the way that other countries… what they expect from the US and how much they sort of can rely on the US also to do something about these issues. I mean of course there maybe is now after Trump’s presidency, there is a lot of uncertainty about how the US is going to act in the future in the climate negotiations and maybe a bit of a sense of distrust in the US efforts. I still think that because Biden has been so sort of… well, maybe not outspoken, but he has made it a part of his campaign, for example, to work on climate change. I think that would already in itself have some kind of impact on the whole kind of setting for the climate negotiations and everything. It would maybe give some kind of a positive new breeze into the negotiations
Annala: Yes on his campaign website, he talks about making the USA a leader, to lead by example, to set a good example globally, try and even use the American sort of negotiating power to get other countries into the table. If he really were to do that, I think that would have a big impact.
Hakala: I do think so. Yes, I mean, I guess in a way that has been what is being expected from the US or like people have been sort of hoping maybe that the US would be taking this kind of a role. Then when that hasn’t happened then maybe the US has become to be seen, or at least the EU seems to think of itself as kind of a climate leader. So maybe in the in the best scenario there would be this kind of global competition for this sort of climate leadership role that the countries might actually be sort of trying to beat each other in this game in a way.
Annala: Yes, that would definitely give them incentive to try and be very efficient and in cutting emissions and coming up with great innovations for cleantech.
Annala: Competition is always welcome when you’re, especially when you’re kind of running on the Clock. We are definitely running out of time.
Hakala: Yeah, it’s not very helpful for the spirit to have like a really important global economy and global power kind of like holding back in these efforts or even trying to sort of destroy what others have been trying to do.
Annala: Biden came out with a new climate plan this summer and it’s more ambitious than his original plan. What’s interesting from the perspective of domestic politics is that the new plan was made together with Bernie Sanders, his surrogates, and even congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was there as part of the negotiations. So this was clearly some sort of a move to try and appeal to the more leftist Democratic voters, many of whom felt about the original Biden climate plan, was not going far enough, wasn’t ambitious enough. I think, I’m hoping that that means that the fight against climate change is finally becoming an actual important election issue for at least some of the American electorate, because in 2016 that was definitely not the case. I read somewhere that environmental magazine Grist did an article on how much Trump and Clinton talked about environmental issues in their televised debates in the 2016 campaign. They had three debates, and according to this magazine, they spent less than 5 1/2 minutes in total talking about the environment. What’s quite shocking to me as a someone with a background in journalism, is that apparently the journalists who were running the debates, none of them asked a single question on the subject of environmental politics in any of the debates. So that’s really telling of how much of a non-issue it was domestically in the US in the 2016 elections. Perhaps ironically, I think that Trump may have changed this because the anti-Trump sentiment in the Democratic camp is so strong and Trump has been so vocal about his opposition to the fight against climate change. So now, I feel that he has pushed the Democratic voters to care more about the fight against climate change because they want they want everything that’s the opposite of what Trump wants. So in a way, maybe Trump did something that will have a long-term positive effect well after he’s no longer the president. If he’s the wake up call that finally got to the American voters to actually demand that their politicians take this fight against climate change seriously.
Hakala: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting idea, although I probably wouldn’t necessarily credit Trump for this change. But yeah, I do think that it’s an interesting development that seems to have been taking place.
Annala: You’re right that it’s definitely not all Trump. I think it’s also because every year there’s more people, young people who come of age and get to vote, and the young people in general care a lot more about climate change than the older generations. So it’s probably also it’s a number of factors, of course, not just Trump. It’s just an interesting idea for me as a Trump researcher that Trump might have these effects that are contrary to what he’s trying to achieve by being so polarizing. That when he does one thing half of the US is running towards the opposite direction just to spite him.
Hakala: Yeah, yeah, I mean this is maybe in a good way, yes.
Annala: And when Trump speaks about the environment, even though he rarely does so, he likes to portray protecting the environment as a threat to economic growth. But now Biden has tried to frame things very differently. He is talking about his environmental plan as a way to create jobs and help rebuild the economy after the pandemic. So that’s kind of brings us to the question of energy transition moving away from fossil fuels and coming up with new innovations for cleantech. How has the Trump administration approached this question?
Hakala: Well, in very much the same way as the whole climate issue I guess overall in the sense that they have tended to stick to the fossil fuel based energy production. Rather being supporting this very already even old-fashioned ways of producing energy rather than giving any support to sustainable new ways of energy production. It seems that a lot of the sort of regulations and changes that Trump either has already been pushing through or is going to do in his potential next presidency. These would actually be sort of making it more difficult for firms and private actors to innovate and to introduce sustainable energy into the markets. So it’s not even just about not helping energy transition but actually hindering it, like making it more difficult in the US.
Annala: That kind of makes me wonder how the American economy would survive another Trump term.
Hakala: Exactly, I mean if you look at it from a global point of view, it doesn’t seem like a very smart or long term strategy to be sticking to fossil fuel production. Many other countries are going ahead with the energy transition a lot faster than the US is doing at the moment. Of course, you sort of lose out then in this competition where other countries are, for example finding cheaper ways of producing sustainable energy and then in a way US is losing a lot of money by supporting these old fossil fuel companies. So already in that sense, it doesn’t seem like a very sustainable idea.
Annala: It’s strange the present day US almost feels like Russia. In this sense, they’re kind of behaving similarly.
Hakala: Yeah, it’s very similar the way in which the US at the moment or during the Trump presidency has been addressing climate change or energy transition as what has been happening in Russia. I mean for Russia it’s maybe somehow more understandable in the sense that Russia is very dependent on its fossil fuel production and fossil fuel exports and so on. But there has been like very strong no, they haven’t even tried in a way to somehow adapt to the new situation where energy transition is like a reality globally. There is a very clear similarity with the way that the whole issue is discussed in the US. So in a way, these two countries seem to be at the moment going to the same direction of like not much innovation in terms of energy transition and then just very much trying to stick to some past that is probably not going to last for very long. That of course creates a lot of kind of troubling and concerning questions about how… you know somehow these countries will have to come to terms with the fact that the rest of the world is going to move into sustainable forms of energy production. It’s just not going to be possible, for example, to rely on exporting fossil fuels necessarily, at least to that extent that for example Russia has been doing. Then it means that the countries will lose a very important export industry. How do you then adapt to that situation when you haven’t really been thinking ahead and not doing that over the longer term? I think it will actually impact the whole society in these countries. Um, I mean, Russia has already been spoken of and kind of researched and discussed as this sort of potential in a way loser in this whole energy transition. But I think that, at least during the Trump presidency, the US is in increasingly also starting to be a big question mark as to how it will be able to come to terms with the whole issue and this development.
Annala: So how was it the US hasn’t actually left the Paris agreement yet? Was it that it takes so long that even though Trump began the process almost right away, it still hasn’t happened?
Hakala: Yeah, it’s quite a long term procedure, so you don’t just like leave the Paris agreement just like that. There are a few and it takes a few years and now the sort of earliest possibility for the for the US to formally leave is in November of 2020. So basically the US can still leave during Trump’s time, and it seems like that’s then going to happen. So then we will have to see, of course, the outcome of the election and then what happens after that. I would imagine that if Biden is elected, then he would somehow find ways to re-enter the agreement. I would imagine that the other parties in the agreement would be quite willing to still have the US on board, even though as I mentioned, it has maybe created some kind of mistrust in the US involvement. On the other hand, I do think that there is a lot of understanding that this is sort of dependent on the current presidency and that the potential Biden presidency would then be a lot more committed to the climate mitigation goals. Of course just in general for the rest of the world, it would be important to have the US as a strong actor.
Annala: The timing is very interesting from the perspective of these elections. From what I understand is that the day that the US can formally leave is right after the election. As it’s going to take longer than usual to counter the votes in this election, we might not even get know who the winner is, but will probably have some idea of if it’s looking good or bad for Trump. If it looks bad for Trump, I imagine he would want to leave the Paris agreement right away as soon as it’s possible, just to make that statement so that he’d be able to stay that he did it. On the other hand, he’s probably going to be quite busy thinking about other things. I think he’s going to try and change, like alter the election result in the courts, and his mind is probably going to be he’s going to be thinking about something totally different than the Paris agreement in those early days of November. So it’s going to be very interesting to see what he actually ends up doing. Also of course how the world will react to the US. Finally, formally leaving is probably very much dependent on what the election results are starting to look like, because if it looks like Biden is going to win, then probably people will think OK this is just a temporary hiccup. The US has now formally left, but they’re about to come back so it doesn’t really change anything if they’re out of the agreement for two months. I don’t know how bureaucratic it is to re-enter. I don’t know if it’s a huge process to re-enter, but I imagine they would try and make it easy for the US because if someone’s trying to come back to the fold you are going to welcome them with open arms if you’re smart. Because if you then alienate the US – like if Biden were to win and the rest of the world would say “no, we’re done with you, you’re not welcome at this table anymore. Go away!” that would be a really serious mistake, because then that would be a huge missed opportunity.
Hakala: Yeah, definitely.
Annala: It’s definitely going to be one more interesting thing that’s going to happen at the exact same time as there’s going to be this most likely very dramatic vote counting. This whole game of who won and how much litigation there’s going to be, and how big a fight there’s going to be over who the next president is. At the same time we have this Paris agreement deadline coming up.
Hakala Yeah, exactly. Then of course like, if Trump turns out to have the second term, then I do think that in a way the other countries in the world and the other parties of the Paris agreement are going to kind of perceive it as a clear sign that, OK, the US is going to be out of this game for the next four years at least. That will kind of then just be the reality and people have to accept it in a way and then just realize that the rest of the world then has to do more.
Annala: All of this I feel has altered the relationship the US has with the rest of the world. It’s of course only one small thing Trump has done many things internationally that have altered America’s standing in the world and the relationship, but this is clearly one of them. The rest of the world, a lot of countries are really coming together on this climate issue now and the US has stayed out of it. What do you think will happen to the global fight on climate change if Biden wins and the US really starts to resume this active leadership or active participation at the very least?
Hakala: I think that … well, it would be interesting to see in a way, because now like I said, for already several years now during the Trump presidency the US has kind of been outside of the whole climate effort. That has defined a lot of other issues of like foreign policy or trade policy or whatever that are connected to climate change or climate mitigation in one way or another. So then Biden presidency would be, I would say completely different and I think it would maybe take some time for the rest of the world to come to terms with that again. In the sense that probably this would be very much sort of welcomed in many ways, but at the same time then it might mean that the US sort of presents a new kind of competition in terms of innovation and the sort of whole economic and trade side of climate mitigation. So it would become or sort of re-become reemerge as this sort of potentially innovative climate actor. That is interesting, for example, when you think about the relationship between the US and China, which has… now there has been sort of clearly this dynamic where China has been kind of rising, as this this global actor. One, of course very minor element, but still from the point of view of climate change very important element has been that China has kind of started to act on climate mitigation and on developing sustainable energy. Of course, the extent to which that has actually been cutting emissions or whatever is another question, but I think it has maybe… this sort of Chinese activity has had an important influence on, for example, the climate negotiations. China has started to become seen as a potential climate actor as well. Of course there is a lot of potential for innovation also in China and of producing, for example wind energy or solar energy and so on. So this maybe also adds to this dynamic where the US is already starting to be seen as this this kind of more sort of old-fashioned sort of declining Dinosaur in terms of many other things maybe as well, but also in terms of the fight against climate change. Maybe there also you can quite clearly see this sort of kind of economic potential that there is in sustainable energy China embracing that and the US sort of letting it go away.
Annala: Yeah, that brings an interesting twist to this whole rise of China and the question of whether the US power is diminishing, this whole dynamic if China really embraces cleantech development and tries to be one of these leading innovators. If they were to do that, and if Trump were to get a second term and continue with his present day policies, that would really be an interesting twist where suddenly China… In the US, the politicians, Trump loves to trash China and attack China. Also his supporters, these people in these mining villages, one of the justifications they gave me for not caring about climate change, was that “it doesn’t matter what the US does because China pollutes so much anyway that it’s just a little drop in the sea. I’m not willing to give up everything that’s personally dear to me if it’s not going to make a difference globally.” But if China actually steps up and starts to care about climate change, not just in rhetoric but also in action, then Trump no longer has that argument, the American climate change denialist camp no longer has that argument. Well, they might still have it, because they might just ignore the fact that China is actually doing something and just keep using the old rhetoric because a lot of their voters would still believe it. Nevertheless, it’s a really interesting dynamic. How that’s going to kind of play into the larger question of the US-China relationship and the role both of those countries have globally. Right now one interesting thing Trump has been doing in this respect has been the trade war aspect. One of the first things he put tariffs on I recall… I think were these components that are used in clean energy production?
Hakala: Yeah, solar panels. First of all, the trade war in itself already kind of maybe shifts attention away from any potential, for example, to achieve even sort of mutual benefits out of sustainable energy production through trade or whatever. Then when sort of one element and of course maybe kind of it may be expected from prompt that solar energy would be something where he would be setting tariffs from China because you know it’s also an area where he’s maybe not that keen to have innovation on anyway. But yeah, the trade war is definitely also hindering these climate efforts then maybe from the point of view of both China and the US.
Annala: I’m not sure if Biden has said anything about the trade wars specifically, but I think pretty much anyone who will follow Trump whenever that happens, be it a Democrat or a Republican. I don’t think any American establishment politicians are pro trade war. Trump seems very alone in his thinking that trade wars are good and easy to win.
Hakala: I think the sort of conventional understanding is that it’s anything but.
Annala: Yes, so I imagine that whoever precedes him whenever that is, that will be an end to these trade wars as we now see them. To finish off this fascinating discussion could you describe one nightmare scenario and one optimistic scenario about what the 2020 elections or the election results might mean for the global fight against climate change?
Hakala: Well, here it is quite easy to see this very sort of clear cut from the point of view of climate change. So the nightmare scenario, maybe it would be that Trump wins and he sort of completes the withdrawal from the Paris agreement. Then that will have significant consequences in the in the rest of the world. Maybe some other populist leaders are going to withdraw as well, or at least like have very serious doubts about climate mitigation overall. That could then mark the end of the whole UN FCCC treaty. The sort of kind of framework treaty behind also the Paris agreement on climate mitigation, which would then go even further to destroying all of these global efforts to somehow coordinating this this climate action. For the US at least this would probably mean that definitely all kinds of climate action would be hindered even further and overall the sort of economic or environmental governance in the US would be in a lot of trouble. I would also imagine that the US ability to kind of adapt to climate change… its ability to have any resilience against these potential environmental disasters like storms and whatever we have already seen that will also probably diminish in the in the case of a Trump presidency. If he doesn’t really acknowledge climate change, then he probably wouldn’t build resilience towards it. Then the good scenario would be in this case that Biden wins and that he re-enters supposedly to Paris agreement, assuming that Trump has already decided to leave. Biden would go on to fulfil his campaign promises about climate governance and about all of these incentives to businesses to innovate on climate mitigation and sustainable energy production and so on. Then globally that would quite probably have a positive impact on the climate negotiations, but overall I guess on this general sense of commitment to efforts against climate change.
Annala: Yes, if the US really wanted to put its weight behind this issue, it could even use it as like a bargaining chip when it deals with other countries. It’s a huge economic power, it’s someone everybody wants to be in good terms with, well almost everybody. The rest of the world wants to make deals with the US and have business and other cooperation with the US. If the US started saying, oh, we’re not going to sell you this or that unless you commit to these goals, they could really pressure more reluctant countries into acting more decisively against climate change.
Hakala: Yeah definitely. I would say that the US has kind of this leveraging power in terms of the rest of the world to encourage them to continue the fight against climate change.
Annala: So we could see a really positive impact, but we could also see a very negative impact. This is really a crossroads; these elections are a crossroads also from the perspective of what our planet will look like in the future.
Annala: Thank you so much for being here!
Hakala: Thank you for having me!
Outro: Thanks for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll be discussing the relationship between the US and the EU. Our guest will be EU Program Director Juha Jokela from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.