Yesterday, at three o’clock, the crescendo of “Will he or won’t he? He can’t, can he?” ended with “He just did.” Surrounded by nature’s greenery and a brass band, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. That decision brutally ended the era of complacency, and firmly established the nouveau environmentalism
Our years of environmental complacency came, not from disinterest, but from a sense that we’d found more common ground, that our administrations were paying attention, and that leaders including some in the private sector were taking care of the environment and business. While conflicts certainly persisted, we didn’t feel compelled to rise up. The dramatic protests notable for activists spending years sitting atop ancient trees, spiking trunks slated for logging, sinking fishing boats, and other vandalisms had given way to calmer discourse.
Complacency is over.
The nouveau environmentalism that Trump in essence, if inadvertently, enshrined yesterday shares some traits of the past but has four modern features that will define us into the future.
1. Commonality of Cause
Previously, environmentalism was seen as synonymous with loss and divisiveness. Saving trees and fish implied that logging towns lost jobs and fishermen went bankrupt. But today’s problems cut across those boundaries. Rising sea level, nuisance flooding, emerging pandemics, shifting agricultural yields, and coastal erosion affect all members of the community and unite rather than divide us. The evident inequality and global nature of the problems strike a new moral chord that engages communities and nations across the world. Coastal rural areas in the U.S. and many small island states are disproportionately bearing the cost of climate change ― facing problems that they did nothing to cause and cannot afford to fix. Solutions forged in places like Silicon Valley to reduce carbon emissions, implemented by national governments, can ameliorate problems of communities thousands of miles apart. New alliances will be forged as groups and nations previously in opposition come together because they are similarly affected. This environmentalism embraces the local and global, public and private sectors simultaneously.
2. New Activism and Litigation
Already, many of the Trump Administration’s environmental decisions have galvanized a new activism. Scientists, better known for staying put in their labs, are taking to the streets in protest. Environmental groups are mobilizing and litigating. Donors are quick to support them. The Center for Biological Diversity expects to file five times as many lawsuits in 2017 than in the previous year. A recent study found that 894 climate change cases have now been filed in 24 countries, 654 of them in the United States, and with environmental groups winning most of them. Governments have been the primary focus of litigation but that is changing. Companies and the financial institutions that support them are being increasingly targeted and this trend will continue.
Threats of investor-lawsuits and pressures on company boards are becoming commonplace. Any company that has environmental vulnerability either in the USA or internationally is probably already in someone’s crosshairs. Financial institutions too. Regulation by litigation and growing risks to institutions are contributing to a new awareness and in some cases new leadership
3. New Environmental Leadership
Leadership and consequential decisions are moving away from the federal domain. States, cities, corporations and communities are eager to show initiative and take action. Within hours of Trump’s announcement yesterday, California, New York, and Washington formed a Climate Alliance; 68 U.S. mayors pledged to uphold the Paris agreement. Across the USA, institutions, companies and CEO’s publicly vowed to continue climate change agreements. IBM released a statement showing its commitment and actions taken for the environment. The first tweet of Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO, was to decry Trump’s decision to renege on the Paris agreement. Internationally, China made an agreement with California to work together on climate change, the EU and China made a similar alliance, while Putin declared Russia’s support for the Paris accord.
Some companies have been pursuing sustainability for years and without much fanfare. Levi Strauss instituted global water saving initiatives to help sustain people and the planet, and they did it without cost to their bottom line. Expect these kinds of companies to showcase their efforts more and be willing to have them scrutinized.
4. Technology-based and solution oriented interventions
Today’s environmentalism is focused on interventions and solutions. We are far more willing to embrace options that are based on science and technology than ever before. It’s no longer sufficient to study the problem or leave nature alone to solve it. Whether it is renewable energy, emission-reducing technology, seeding artificial reefs, or combining ecosystems with engineering to protect coasts and purify water, we embrace the need for human intervention. Nouveau environmentalism is firmly anchored in protecting nature and the planet in order to manage transition and sustain our health, prosperity and children. This is a big shift from the past approach, and it will continue to catalyze technological innovations and investor choices.
In a brief few minutes, Trump’s announcement crystalized how environmentalism has changed and elevated it into the mainstream.
In 1916, Irish poet and Nobel laureate W.B. Yeats wrote about a small uprising that, through the bad decision of a government leader, became an independence revolution:
“All’s Changed - A Terrible Beauty is Born“
Yesterday, all changed in America and a new era was born. Welcome to the nouveau environmentalism.