Is the rise of nationalism a threat to climate action?



It is undeniable that over the past year, the world has witnessed an unprecedented surge in nationalist movements, signalled by Britain’s bid to leave the EU in the controversial Brexit vote, and the election of conservative right-wing candidate Donald Trump as US President. Nationalism’s rise has reverberated around the world, reflected in the increasing popularity of nationalist parties including France’s National Front party, led by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, and Australia’s One Nation Party fronted by Pauline Hanson. The rise of nationalism worldwide serves as a significant threat to multilateralism, and thus holds concomitant ramifications for the way in which global issues are tackled. Climate change is no exception.

Climate change is widely regarded as one of the greatest threats to global security in the 21st Century, with 800 million people – 11% of the world’s population – currently vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Among the impacts, large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died, reaching levels of destruction previously not expected to have been seen for another 30 years. If the trend of worldwide mass bleaching of coral reefs continues a humanitarian crisis could result from the subsequent loss of food supply. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in the long list of climate change’s detrimental effects.

A renewed sense of urgency to take action on climate change led to the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015, where close to 200 states came together under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change to negotiate an intensification of responses to combat climate change. The agreement was signed by 194 countries in 2016, and aims to keep the global temperature rise to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100.

Yet all of this hangs in the balance as Trump, a self-confessed climate change sceptic prepares to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump pledged to withdraw from the climate accord within the first one hundred days of his presidency, so it comes as no surprise that as the hundred-day mark has been and gone, the Trump government is making moves to undermine the historic deal. The ease with which Trump may instigate a withdrawal from the critical agreement reflects a weakening of multilateral institutions in the face of nationalism. The rise of nationalism signals a return to realism in international relations characterised by increasing competition and aggressive pursuit of national interests. And with states acting in their own interests, led by climate-change sceptics, the world could be propelled into a race for resources in the not too distant future.

In response on April 29th 2017, which marked the 100th day of Trump’s presidency, more than 300,000 people came together in Washington DC to march for climate action. Leading businesses and scientists have written letters to Trump, calling for the US to remain in the climate accord, and British Prime Minister Theresa May has too come under pressure to use her influence in order to urge Trump to see the US remain in the climate accord. Could these calls perhaps just work to strengthen the bonds of multilateralism during this critical window, in which we may still have a chance to reduce the impacts of climate change before it is too late? Or will nationalism and neglect of climate action prevail?

Brittany Quy is studying a Master of International Relations and International Law at the University of Western Australia.

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