Climate change…who are the world’s most switched on politicians?

Robin Whitlock

rsz_1cop_19_warsaw_2013_piotr_drabik_flickrCOP 19 Climate Change Conference, Warsaw, 2013 [Image source: Piotr Drabik, Flickr]

Trying to write an article ranking the world’s politicians on the grounds of their record in countering climate change would be a tall order, given that, thankfully, so many of them are now actively involved in the fight. Even attempting a brief appraisal is challenging. However, there are some politicians across the world who are particularly noteworthy because of the actions they have already taken in trying to counter climate change in their own countries and, indeed, abroad.

Here are a few suggestions as to who those politicians might be. Or not.

Al Gore

Is Al Gore even a politician anymore? Of course he is. His fame as the man who ‘used to be the next President of the United States of America’, often served as a somewhat comical introduction to presentations on his worldwide speaking tours focused on raising awareness across the world about climate change. However, Gore was active in environmental politics long before An Inconvenient Truth, largely as a result of being influenced by his parent’s discussion of Rachel Carson’s book on pesticide residues, Silent Spring, across the kitchen table during his youth when Gore was attending High School.

When he joined the US House of Representatives in 1976, Gore took the opportunity to run his political career on an environmental platform. The first congressional hearings on climate change occupy an important place on his monumental political CV.

As Vice President under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001, Gore was responsible for the GLOBE programme, launched on Earth Day in 1994. In the late 1990’s he pushed forward the Kyoto Protocol, calling for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and his activity on climate change issues since then has been relentless.

Gore’s environmental work won him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, in association with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He is also the current chair of the Alliance for Climate Protection, which he, himself, founded, while he also occupies an important position as Head of Kleiner, Perkins Caulfield & Byers climate change solutions group. He is also a visiting professor at several US universities. A busy man indeed. Yet, according to his website, most of his time is spent as Chairman at The Climate Reality Project, a non-profit group focused on the promotion and acceleration of global action to stop climate change.

As is now very well known, Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth, became perhaps the world’s most well-known, Oscar-winning, documentary on climate change, but he’s written many other books on the subject, including Earth in the Balance, The Assault on Reason, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, and The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. All of them worthy of attention.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gore is the No1 man that deniers love to hate. But An Inconvenient Truth remains an undeniably brilliant exposition of the major issues surrounding climate change.

Influential? Supremely. And he isn’t stopping yet, thankfully. Keep on going Mr Gore!

Angela Merkel

The current Chancellor of Germany and leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel is a former research scientist who, like Al Gore, helped to push the Kyoto Protocol. Remarkably, she also helped to persuade climate skeptic President George W. Bush that climate change was a serious threat. It was Merkel who helped to launch Germany’s energy transition (Energiewende) in 2010. The program was launched some six months before the Fukushima disaster in Japan. At that time, Merkel supported nuclear, but the disaster itself made her rapidly change her mind. Energiewende is now focused on phasing out nuclear power by 2022 and replacing it with a massed deployment of renewable energy, particularly solar, wind and biomass. Germany’s target is 40 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2020, compared to 1990 levels and an 80 to 95 percent reduction by 2050.

Opponents love to criticize the Energiewende on the basis that it has supposedly led to the construction of new coal plants. However, that has been hotly denied on the basis that growth in renewables has more than replaced nuclear over the past decade and that coal is not making a comeback in the country. Gas plants have been the main technology affected by renewable energy deployment, leaving the highly polluting brown coal (lignite) safe for the time being, as nuclear is also steadily phased out. This temporary reprieve is likely to last until 2022 at the latest, although Arne Jungjohann and Craig Morris argue that Germany could act on lignite much sooner by implementing a reform of the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), taxing carbon, improving efficiency and introducing a Climate Protection Act. Jungjohann and Morris also recommend an alliance with other large EU Member States in order to emulate the kind of action taken by US states, communities and cities in lieu of direct Federal policy.

President Obama

Since taking office, President Obama has initiated a wide swathe of environmental and clean energy measures, one of the first being the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which supported green energy with a hefty $90 billion subsidy. By 2013, American wind energy had doubled and solar had more than tripled, leading Michael Grunwald to argue in his book The New New Deal that the Department of Energy became a front line player in the struggle for a greener energy system. Obama has also been responsible for introducing higher standards of efficiency for the motor industry and in household appliances while additionally restricting emissions from power plants.

Obama’s environmental policies have helped stimulate innovation, particularly with regard to developing greener fuels, new and more efficient turbines, smart energy meters and various other devices. One such example is the electric vehicle (EV) technology developed by Envia Systems of Silicon Valley, which is even more efficient than that deployed in the Chevy Volt, America’s front line electric car, and which will reduce the average price of an American EV by around $5,000.

In April, the US government announced the launch of its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), the US commitment to the imminent COP21 climate change discussions in Paris. It included a pledge to cut carbon emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025.

Unfortunately, US development of shale gas hasn’t helped, although some argue that this has actually acted to lower consumption of dirtier coal by flooding the market with cheap natural gas. There was also the Solyndra episode, in which a top US manufacturer of CIGS (copper indium gallium selenide) thin film solar panels, supported by subsidies, went into administration in September 2011 as a result of the falling price of silicon.

A far more damaging criticism is that Obama opened up the Arctic for US oil exploitation, but in October this year the President changed tack, deciding instead to block future oil drilling by imposing new oil lease conditions that will make it almost impossible for companies to search for oil in the Arctic in the future. An even bigger victory for environmentalists was the Presidents rejection, on November 6th, of the 1,179 mile Keystone XL oil pipeline. Had this pipeline been constructed, it would have carried 800,000 barrels per day of high carbon oil from the Canadian tar oil sands through to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico coastline. This battle has been raging for the last seven years and thus the President’s decision is a huge win in the battle against climate change.

Overall, despite the setbacks, Obama looks set to become the greenest President the US has ever had. Even the Republican Party has had to admit as such. For example, former Utah governor Mike Leavitt, though criticizing the president for using energy as a political tool and branding oil and gas as ‘evil forces’, referred to the “innovation of independent producers and the scale of larger companies” which he described as having made the US a world economic leader in clean energy.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous for his acting roles in sci-fi and fantasy action movies such as The Terminator and Conan The Barbarian, was elected as Governor of California in 2003. In September 2006, Schwarzenegger signed AB32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, which made the state the first in the nation to cap its greenhouse gas emissions. The act also set a 30 percent emissions reduction target up to 2020.

Governor Schwarzenegger acted again on climate change issues in 2007 by implementing the world’s first Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), aimed at a 10 percent reduction in carbon emissions from passenger vehicle fuels by 2020. This was followed by the introduction of a Western Climate Initiative, in association with the governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, establishing a comprehensive regional goal for emissions reduction. In October of that same year, Schwarzenegger announced the formation of a coalition called the International Carbon Action Partnership (ICAP), including a number of US states, Canadian provinces and EU member states.

October 2008 saw the Governor sign SB 375, a law which acted to reduce emissions by controlling urban sprawl. California increased its Renewable Portfolio Standard Code to 33 percent in November 2008. This was also streamlined in order to improve the development and permitting process with regard to renewable energy projects.

In 2010 Schwarzenegger launched America’s first, mandatory, Green Building Standards Code (CALGREEN). He also launched the R20 Climate Network, which consisted of an alliance of regional leaders committed to fighting climate change. This was his final major green policy before leaving office in January 2011. He may have been Governor of California, but his actions have undoubtedly had a major influence far beyond the Golden State, and far beyond America even.

“I always was a big believer in doing things on a global level," he told The Guardian in November 2010. "Everything I have ever done, I always was interested in doing it globally – if it was the fitness, if it was the bodybuilding, if it was entertainment and acting and show business.”

Some other people worth mentioning…

A more complete list of notable and very worthy green politicians pushing for change in countries all over the world could potentially cover several website pages. The Green Party in particular has had a massive effect, although in many countries it is hardly noticed, largely due to its tendency to push other parties from behind and below. In Germany, Petra Kelly was instrumental in forming the country’s green party (Die Grünen) and pushing it forward to national prominence. Her role earned her the status of, arguably, being one of the world’s major green heroes. Sadly, she was shot dead in her bed in 1992 in what appears to have been a joint murder-suicide. Some people regard her death as potentially suspicious. An assassination perhaps? Maybe, but very probably not.

Another country in which the Green Party has been spectacularly successful, in its own way, has been the UK. Up until 1985, the party was known as The Ecology Party, but in that year it was split into three parties – The Green Party of England & Wales, The Scottish Green Party and The Green Party in Northern Ireland. High profile members of The Green Party of England & Wales have included perhaps the world’s most controversial conspiracy theorist, David Icke, who was one of the party’s four principal speakers, alongside Sara Parkin. The principal speaker system was abandoned in an internal referendum held in 2007 and in September 2008 the party elected Caroline Lucas as leader and Adrian Ramsay as deputy leader. Lucas is widely respected for her effectiveness as a national and very prominent campaigner, writer and activist, particularly following her election in 2010 as the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion. The apparent ineffectiveness of the UK Green Party at a national level is often a subject of hot debate, but this completely misses the fact that the party is even stronger at a local level, with several major successes over the years in local authority areas all over the UK.

Meanwhile in California, Governor Jerry Brown has been carrying forward Arnold Schwarzenegger’s legacy by reacting strongly to the drought that has affected the state badly in recent years, alongside several other US states such as Oregon, Nevada and Washington State. Brown declared a state drought emergency in 2015 and started to try and ‘educate the state’ by issuing repeated warnings of the measures that would be needed to counter the drought, and the numerous wildfires that have raged across the US this summer. His public image was boosted by his endorsement of the Pope Francis warning about climate change, yet he has also been strongly criticized for his tolerance of shale gas extraction in California. Despite this, he is remains widely popular as a ‘green chief executive’.

Faced with an escalating threat from climate change, the world’s nations are beginning to get into gear with regard to trying to stop it while also implementing measures to transform the way people do things during the course of their everyday lives. Global governments across the planet have been in the front line of this process, with a few notable exceptions.

Many governments have been actively involved in renewable energy deployment, Iceland, Denmark, South Africa, Dubai, Brazil, Chile, Japan, even China, to name just a few regular entrants on lists such as the Global Green Economy Index. Many more governments will be assembling in Paris for the COP21 climate change discussions in just a few weeks’ time.

Politicians are often heavily criticized, but it’s important to remember that many of those who take an active interest in stopping global warming are genuinely trying their best to achieve a good result, even if that interest has only perhaps been belatedly stimulated by the first really serious signs of climate change appearing in their own countries.

Let’s really hope they do achieve that result. The world can’t wait too much longer.

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