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When Climate Activism and Nationalism Collide

Given the importance of the fight against global warming, the conflict between nationalist narratives and green internationalism could become the dominant political divide of the 2020s. If so, then the climate debate may import global issues into national politics like never before.

WASHINGTON, DC – There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that this decade will be the last window for humanity to change the current global trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions so that the world can get close to zero net emissions by around 2050, and thus avoid potentially catastrophic climate risks. But although the massive technological and economic changes required to achieve this goal are well understood, their political implications are rarely discussed.

While climate activists have built an impressive international movement, broadening their political support and crossing borders, the nationalist narrative has been gaining ground in domestic politics around the world. Its central message – that the world consists of nation-states in relentless competition with one another – stands in sharp contrast to the climate movement’s “one planet” emphasis on human solidarity. And these two trends are on a collision course.

Although greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions do not respect political borders, and climate change affects all parts of the planet, the impact of global warming is decidedly not uniform. An average global temperature increase of 2°C will create extreme heat stress in India and Africa. Similarly, although rising sea levels will threaten lower-lying areas around the world, and more extreme weather events will affect almost everyone, already poor and vulnerable populations are especially at risk. Another inherently international aspect of the problem is carbon leakage as a result of trade. While GHGs are emitted in one country by the production of, say, steel, it is the use of that steel in importing countries that “causes” the emissions in the exporting country.

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