As citizens of the United States cast their ballots in the 2020 elections, the world holds its collective breath for the outcome, and perhaps both strangely and especially, for the first time, so do Small Island Developing States (SIDS) such as the Maldives, whose fate in the climate crisis likely depends on these results.
According to scientists, policymakers and environmental activists, the US administration’s stance and actions over the next four years will have lasting impacts on efforts to combat the adverse effects of climate change on a global scale.
The opposing ends of the climate spectrum loom ahead as incumbent US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden battle for the polls.
Trump has long been a notorious climate change denier, stamping the crisis as a hoax and enthusiastically championing the fossil fuel industry. Over his first term, the Republican president has rolled back over 160 significant environmental regulations in the US, as tracked by researchers at Columbia University, including numerous policies established in the Obama-era, claiming that they hindered efficient energy production.
Most notably and with resounding repercussions on the world at large, especially on vulnerable SIDS such as the Maldives, in 2017 Trump announced that the US will pull out of the 2015 Paris agreement, which committed almost 200 countries to cap global warming below 1.5-2 degrees Celsius to fight climate change. While the Paris accord seeks to hold the top contributors to pollution accountable and push world leaders to cut emissions, the US’ exit comes into effect on November 4, a day after the elections.
In sharp contrast, his Democratic rival Joe Biden has declared climate change “an existential threat to humanity”. His campaign pledges include a USD 1.7 trillion climate plan which shifts the focus from non-renewable sources to clean energy and green jobs. It sets a target for the US to achieve carbon-free electricity by 2035 and become entirely carbon neutral by 2050. Several other nations, including the top polluter China, have made similar pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by then.
Furthermore, and perhaps most significantly, Biden has vowed to immediately put the US back in the Paris agreement.
With two opponents on starkly opposite ends, one may ask how and why the outcome of this year’s US election would impact the world at large.
On one hand, the United States of America has a moral obligation to act as the world’s second-largest contributor to pollution, after China. On the other, being a leading power, many nations take their cue from US policy.
The effects of these facts have been evident, perhaps most significantly in the wake of US’ walkout from the Paris agreement. Dubbed the ‘Trump Effect’, studies indicate that the US’ refusal to lead the world in the fight against climate change has enabled other countries to renege on their climate commitments.
In addition to confirming the US departure from the Paris agreement, experts say that a second term for Trump would see an increase in fossil fuel production, with serious consequences for global temperatures.
"The 1.5C temperature target is very difficult to achieve right now, although it is theoretically possible", Professor Michael Gerrard from Columbia University told the BBC.
“If Trump is re-elected, I think it goes into the realm of physical impossibility … We'd have to wait another four years for another election to try to rectify that. But by then, a lot more fossil fuel infrastructure will have been locked in and a lot more greenhouse gases will have gone into the atmosphere. So, it would be very bad news for the climate indeed”.
Similarly, climate scientist Zeke Hausfather from the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California told the Star Tribune, “Losing most of the world's coral reefs is something that would be hard to avoid if the US remains out of the Paris process. At the margins, we would see a world of more extreme heatwaves".
However, should Biden lead the US back into the fight against climate change, “the whole world is going to start reorienting toward stepping up its action”, according to climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck, the dean of the University of Michigan's environment programme.
Experts concur that a Biden administration would, over the upcoming four years, lower US carbon emissions compared to a second Trump term. According to calculations run by Trevor Houser, a climate modeller for the independent Rhodium Group, and Climate Action Tracker (CAT), current emission trends in the Trump government would result in 5.4 billion metric tonnes more greenhouse gases emitted in the next 10 years compared to a Biden presidency working toward net-zero emissions, which mark a significant margin of 11 percent.
CAT calculated that the reduced emissions in the possible Biden scenario would result in the world being one-tenth of a degree Celsius cooler - and “every tenth of a degree counts," said CAT, in order to avoid a catastrophe.
As American voters head to the polls with the aforementioned facts hanging over the world, the final result would undoubtedly have lasting implications around the globe, particularly on SIDS.
For over a quarter of a century, the Maldives has been one of the most vocal island nations observed across the international arena, advocating against the dangers of increasing global temperatures, rising sea levels, and the overall repercussions of climate change.
Beginning with former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s stand at the Vancouver Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the UN General Assembly in 1987, former President Mohamed Nasheed’s plea at COP24 to “please do not kill us”, and former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom signing off on the Maldives’ Climate Change Policy Framework in 2015, every leader of this small archipelago - which is among the smallest contributors to overall global pollution but first on the death row of extinction - has appealed the major players to hold themselves accountable and take on their moral responsibility and roles.
Although experts note that it is already too late to stop all the impacts of climate change - which has exacerbated the wildfires burning across Western US and Australia this year, brought about unprecedented floods across the Asian continent, marked the hottest heatwaves and droughts recorded in history over the past decade, and resulted in rapid loss of the polar ice caps - further hope, particularly for islanders, is deeply tied in with the election of a leader committed to fighting climate change, at the head of the United States of America.
No matter the US outcome, as the IPCC report deeply emphasizes, there is absolutely no doubt that, over the next decade, world policy on climate issues and emission controls stands at a critical juncture, one that hold existential implications for the likes of Maldives.