Can Paris Exit Make 2020 Elections A Referendum On Climate Change?

06/03/2017 01:38 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2017

Every crisis must be an opportunity, this one perhaps more than any.

But before we attempt to move on, let’s take a collective moment to absorb what just happened. Perhaps overnight, the United States — as responsible as any other nation for the success of the Paris agreement — announced a violent withdrawal. Climate hawks the world over reacted with wrath and fury at a symbolic action that will leave a path of destruction in its wake that will reverberate throughout generations.

Take a moment to dwell on that anger. It’s important fuel that must now be productively channeled. Because the future of the planet depends on our next move. A move that may just turn this moment of despair into one of abundant opportunity.

First let’s zoom back to another parallel universe before Paris Exit and the debates of the 2012 U.S. presidential elections. Back in those halcyon days, despite a President Barack Obama, who was on track to make climate a signature legacy issue for the first time in a generation, climate change was not the subject of a single question in the debates. Fast forward to 2016, and a grand total of five minutes was spent on perhaps the most important topic facing humanity. The reality was climate change was not only politically toxic, it simply had no salience whatsoever with the broader public.

That of course was enabled by a toxic climate denialist campaign centered in the extremist wing of the Republican Party. The fringe of the party made it nearly impossible for any sane Republican candidate to even mention climate change, let alone vow to do anything about it. It also had the paralyzing effect of scaring off Democrats hoping to lure mythical independent creatures into their political fold. Coming out of the 2016 election with the surprise victory of a climate change denier in Donald Trump climate change in U.S. political discourse hit perhaps an all-time low.

But political pendulums swing. Climate change will be no different and perhaps we will look back and mark the Paris Exit as the turning point when the American electorate swung back fast and furious on this issue.

First and most importantly what was lost in the justified sorrow and horror at Paris Exit was the fact for the first time in decades’ climate change was a front and center political issue. Far more importantly, the blanket mainstream media coverage (some of which I watched on the Today Show of all places) it received was nearly universal in its disgust at the shortsightedness, irresponsibility, and irrationality of the move. This coverage was buoyed by new Gallup polling showing that American concern over climate change is now at an all-time high.

At the same time, in anticipation of the move, a broad coalition of actors hell-bent on stepping up to ensure climate action would not fall victim was galvanized. Three governors, 30 mayors, 80 university presidents, and over 100 CEOs all pledged to buck Trump and take action on climate change. A new coalition led by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is now petitioning the UNFCCC to submit a plan to meet the U.S. pledge with or without Trump. And internationally the former scapegoat of all climate action, China, stepped up and pledged to continue its incredible progress in addressing its emissions. Just for good measure so did Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Perhaps more importantly though an entire generation of U.S. political leaders is now poised to define their ascent in stark contrast to the apogee of the climate denial movement. From California Senate pro Tem Kevin De Leon who just days earlier successfully passed a bill mandating 100 percent clean energy in California to Florida Republican House representative Curbelo who immediately went on CNN to denounce the move, the politics of climate are shifting. Importantly though not just on the left but on the right as well.

All of which brings us to the opportunity in this crisis. The negotiators of the Paris Accord, in their infinite wisdom, built into the agreement a delay for any party wishing to exit. As a result, the earliest president Trump can complete an exit is November 4, 2020 — the day after the next U.S. presidential election. Which means if we collectively do our job right it is possible to not get a few questions on climate change in the next presidential debates but make the entire next election a referendum on climate action. Even before that we have 2018 midterms which are sure to feature Paris Exit attack ads. 

What that means is that it’s time for climate advocates the world over to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and get back to work. Because maybe just maybe in our darkest hour we have the opportunity to finally seize what has always eluded us — the ability to make climate change a winning political issue. After all, we really have no other choice.

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