USA and Europe: Partnering for Climate Protection?

How valuable will the transatlantic relationship still be in the future? Will the USA and Europe manage to partner up and address the global climate challenge together? On November 20, 2019, experts discussed these and other questions at the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s representative office in Berlin. The event was part of the “Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative” (BBTI).

David Weyand | December 2019
Participants of the panel discussion
Anita Back

Participants of the panel discussion „Are trans-Atlantic Relations Obsolete?“ (from left to right): Moderator Andreas Wunn, public broadcaster ZDF, Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at Brookings, Norbert Gorißen, German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Susanne Dröge, Senior Fellow at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (the German Institute for International and Security Affairs), and David Victor, Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate.

For decades, transatlantic relations were regarded as one of the most stable pillars in global politics. More recently, however, differences and conflicts have become evident in many policy areas. Particularly in matters of climate protection, the USA and Europe don’t see eye to eye: “While the U.S. administration wants to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and is once again promoting fossil fuels such as coal, the German Bundestag recently adopted a new climate protection package,” summarized Christian Hänel, Senior Vice President for International Relations, America and Asia at the Robert Bosch Stiftung. “Despite current political differences, however, both sides have a common interest in overcoming global challenges, and climate change is one of the most serious,” added Tom Wright, Director of the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) at the Brookings Institution.

Missing the leadership of the USA

“The United States played a leading role internationally in the Paris Climate Agreement, and we feel it missing now,” commented Norbert Gorißen, Deputy Director General of the Department of International Policy, Europe and Climate Protection at the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, on the political ramifications of the American withdrawal. While he acknowledged that contacts between his department and its federal counterparts in the United States had declined considerably, he did not see a stalemate in the transatlantic discourse on climate policy. On the contrary, “the USA doesn’t just represent one position; there are a multitude of voices and subnational actors on both the American and German sides with whom we are in touch.” As an example, he cited the commitment through the Transatlantic Climate Bridge initiative set up in 2008, which promotes cooperation between states, cities, companies, scientists, foundations, as well as artists and other stakeholders.

David Victor during the discussion
Anita Back

“It is a bit ironic, but since the Trump administration took office, more has been happening in terms of climate protection than ever before,” said David Victor, University Professor and Co-Chair of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate.

University professor David Victor, Co-Chair of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate, agreed: “It is a bit ironic, but since the Trump administration took office, more has been happening in terms of climate protection than ever before.” The difference is that the action has shifted to many individual initiatives and levels beyond the nation state. Hawaii, for instance, is aiming to convert its energy supply to 100 percent renewable energy sources, California is aiming for 60 percent, and other U.S. states are laying out similarly ambitious targets. In fact, a lot is happening in the area of climate protection, the only thing missing is the support of the national government, Victor concluded.

Nevertheless, climate change is not a hot topic in the U.S. – unlike the potential impeachment of President Trump, Second Amendment rights, or immigration, commented Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at Brookings. In the U.S., climate policy is a matter strongly divided along party lines, with the climate policy of the current U.S. administration representing the Republican mainstream. “Trump is delivering on his campaign promises.” Since the President is generally skeptical about climate change and opposed to government regulation, the planned withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement under the current administration doesn’t come as a surprise.

Climate hype in Europe?

In Europe, on the other hand, climate protection seems to be the only topic right now. “Is there also a cultural clash between the USA and Europe on the climate issue,” asked TV journalist Andreas Wunn, who chaired the panel. Susanne Dröge, Senior Fellow of the Global Issues Research Group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, pointed to current events to explain the special focus on climate policy in Germany and Europe: “Greta Thunberg’s message was a trigger for people to channel their political dissatisfaction with the grand coalition government and climate policy and take to the streets.” When the Green parties then emerged the clear winners of the elections to the EU Parliament, it led to some activity also on the part of the German government.

Next year it will be about the next big step

However, 2020 will be the crucial year for international climate policy, with important conferences coming up and decisions to be made. “Next year is about taking the next big step,” stressed Norbert Gorißen, and not only because of the forthcoming U.S. presidential elections on November 3, 2020. With the 2020 UN climate summit in Glasgow (COP 26), the Paris Agreement officially enters into force and countries are obliged to tighten their national climate targets. In the second half of the year, Germany is assuming the EU Presidency and will conduct the international climate negotiations together with the EU Commission. “We want to focus on this step and on ensuring Europe’s leading role,” said Gorißen. The first litmus test will be the EU-China summit in Leipzig in mid-September 2020. Gorißen remains skeptical as to whether it will be possible to involve the USA more closely in international climate protection efforts as early as next year: “All relevant political actors are busy with the election campaign in 2020.”

A change in US government – a change in direction?

Would a new U.S. administration support a different climate policy? “If there were a new president, the climate issue would depend on the general attitude of a new government to multilateralism,” David Victor assumed. Rejoining the Paris Agreement is relatively easy, both in technical and legal terms. The biggest challenge, however, is to regain trust and credibility on the international stage. Amanda Sloat is also convinced that, “the Obama era is not coming back.” In her conclusion, she agreed with Gorißen: “Europe must do more!” And not only in matters of climate policy.

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