The environmental movement braces for a second Trump term

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Environmentalists failed to grasp how bad Donald Trump’s first term would be for the climate.

They’re not making that mistake again. But there are limits to how much they can do to hold back a U.S. president who just doesn’t care.

Opinion polls show Democrat Joe Biden is the overwhelming favorite to win Tuesday’s election, but then so was Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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Many environmentalists sheepishly admit that four years ago they didn’t prepare for a Trump win as a serious possibility. The next day, shocked campaigners at the COP22 climate talks crowded into massive white tents on the outskirts of the Moroccan city of Marrakech trying to figure out what it meant for the global climate agenda.

In those early hours, some groups were briefing that Trump’s most extreme impulses could be controlled by his daughter and son-in-law Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Congressional Republicans and a sober Cabinet would keep him in check. That take aged badly. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement — something that happens officially on Wednesday — gutted U.S. pollution laws, and strongly promoted oil, gas and coal.

“The planning and response last time was undercut with arrogance and largely ineffectual,” a senior European NGO official said.

The failure wasn’t only one of preparation, it was also an inability to understand how norm-busting and antagonistic to green priorities Trump’s first term would be.

“Sure, we’d written a few Google docs-worth of scenario plans, but no one was ready for the onslaught this administration unleashed,” said Jamie Henn, a U.S. co-founder of 350.org, an NGO.

The fallout inside the climate movement has been long-running. “There was a ‘can this really be happening?’ quality” that persisted for years, said Henn.

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Brace, brace

This time around, “nobody is going to be laboring under [the] illusion” Trump can be tamed, said Tom Brookes, director of strategic communications at the European Climate Foundation (ECF). “People are going to understand that there’s just no point in trying to engage with the federal level. Fight defense as best you can and understand that you’ve got an enemy in the White House.”

The movement is better set up for confrontation these days, spurred by a rise of young people and people of color.

In the U.S., environmentally conscious youth are preparing for war. But also admitting that fighting the administration on climate directly won’t be their goal.

American climate activists are battle-hardened, allying with wider social justice and anti-racism campaigns and taking nothing for granted, said Henn. “We’re hosting mass trainings on how to prevent a coup, planning efforts to go after Wall Street if Washington is lost.” Other groups expect court battles to feature heavily, despite a broad conservative shift in the judiciary under Trump.

Luisa Neubauer, a German activist with the Fridays For Future movement, said European leaders would also feel more pressure if Trump wins. “Wherever the U.S. fails to reduce emissions or finance climate mitigation, other states have to make up for that — that’s how a collective crisis works. It’s more work for everyone.”

Groups that lobby through international diplomacy, like the ECF, will focus on isolating a Trump-led Washington by encouraging other countries to simply move on.

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Talking points circulated by NGOs ahead of the vote noted that U.S. businesses, billionaires, cities and states have all come forward with their own climate agendas to fill the vacuum in Washington.

There’s also more action happening beyond the U.S., allowing the climate movement to gain traction even if Trump continues as president. Last month, China joined the EU with a net zero emissions target and they now have a budding diplomatic partnership on climate. Japan and South Korea joined the net zero club just last week.

A meeting being hosted on December 12 by the U.K., France and the U.N. to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement will be the first major test for this strategy after the election. If Trump wins, green groups will push their governments to create “a coalition of the willing, ready to benefit from the low carbon competitiveness from which the US may have counted itself out,” said the ECF’s Brookes.

Despite that, in Europe at least, a sense of unreality remains, said Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network Europe. “Most still have the same approach: it can’t be possible that the American public is so stupid to elect him a second time.”

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