We know how frustrating it can be to watch world leaders waffle on the subject of climate change. The science is settled. We know it’s happening and we know why. And the very people we elect to deal with the issues that affect our lives are so often punting when it comes to dealing with one of the biggest issues of them all.
But luckily for us (and the planet!), a few heads of state actually have made climate solutions a priority in their policy agendas. But because developments in policy areas like fuel economy and energy efficiency don’t always make for the most riveting headlines, these leaders don’t always get the credit they deserve and a lot of people don’t realize the important ways we are making progress. So here are three world leaders setting an excellent example of what it means to actually lead in fighting the climate crisis and working for a bright, sustainable future for their constituents.
US President Barack Obama
President Obama has been among the world’s most outspoken leaders on the issue of climate change, calling it the greatest threat to future generations in his 2015 State of the Union address. Without his personal commitment on the issue, chances are we wouldn’t have seen the historic bilateral agreement with China in 2014, which was instrumental in energizing the international talks leading up to last year’s breakthrough Paris Agreement. What’s made his efforts all the more impressive is the fact that he’s faced serious opposition and obstruction at pretty much every step of the way, including the legal challenges to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
Among the most singular policy achievements of his two terms in the Oval Office is his broad-based Climate Action Plan. First announced in the summer of 2013, the plan has three key objectives: to cut carbon pollution in America, to prepare the US for the impacts of the climate crisis, and for the US to lead international efforts to combat global climate change.
“Climate change is perversely designed to be hard to solve politically,” Obama said at a White House event in October. “Political systems are not well designed to do something tough now to solve a problem people are going to feel the impacts of later. If we are going to solve this, we are going to need remarkable innovation.”
According to the White House, full implementation of the policies in the plan would:
- Cut nearly 6 billion tons of carbon pollution through 2030.
- Enable the development of nearly 12,000 megawatts of wind, solar, and geothermal energy, enough to power more than 3 million homes.
- Train more than 75,000 workers to enter the solar industry.
- Save households and drivers nearly $300 billion on their energy bills.
- Improve the energy efficiency of more than 1.5 billion square feet of city buildings, schools, multifamily housing complexes, and businesses.
- Protect the health of vulnerable Americans, including children and the elderly, by preventing 150,000 asthma attacks and up to 6,600 premature deaths.
We can only hope that as he gets ready to leave office amid enormous public support for expanding renewable energy sources like wind and solar, growing concern among young people about the climate crisis, and national security concerns like “increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water,” future leaders will share his enthusiasm for climate solutions.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Chancellor Merkel has such a long history of environmental advocacy she is affectionately referred to as the “climate chancellor” by her country’s media. Her commitment to the cause is not especially surprising – Merkel is a former research scientist who was appointed minister for the environment in Germany in 1994, just four years after first entering politics.
By 2005, she had become Germany’s first woman chancellor.
Only a few years later, in 2011, the center-right politician announced a sweeping new energy policy – called the German energiewende (energy transition) – that sought to transform the nation from one powered by nuclear and fossil fuel energy to one receiving almost all of its energy from wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass. And she intended for it all to happen within just a few decades.
"We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible," Merkel said at the time.
It was an ambitious goal, to say the least. Merkel's administration set out to shut down all of the country’s then-17 nuclear reactors, which provided up to a quarter of Germany's electricity needs at the time, by 2022, while ramping up its renewable energy output. She planned for Germany to get 35 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020, 50 percent by 2030, 65 percent by 2040, and more than 80 percent by 2050. At the same time, Merkel vowed to cut carbon emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 40 percent by 2020, 55 percent by 2030, and more than 80 percent by 2050.
So how’s she doing? Pretty well, all things considered. As of 2014 (the most recent year for which complete data was available), Germany was getting 27.4 percent of its gross electricity consumption from renewable sources, and greenhouse gas emissions were down 27 percent, compared to 1990 levels. And by 2015, nine nuclear reactors had been switched off.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chancellor Merkel was a key supporter of the Paris Agreement, which formally enters into force on November 4. “The Paris Agreement is thus proving to be a historical milestone in international climate protection. It is a sign of hope,” she said this summer when the bill came before her federal cabinet for formal ratification. “The task at hand is to create and safeguard prosperity – and to do so not at the cost of the foundations of life, but rather on a sustainable path. It is no exaggeration to say that climate protection is no more and no less than a question of survival.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Still a relatively new face on the world leader scene, Prime Minister Trudeau has proven to be a major ally of President Obama’s on climate action. Trudeau and his Liberal Party campaigned on a platform that advocated quick action on climate change, and their victory in October 2015 made it easier for Obama to make an important environmental decision – rejecting the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Obama held off on rejecting the pipeline, which would have carried oil from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the US Gulf Coast, until after Trudeau’s election. All to avoid, according to the New York Times, straining relations with Canada and its then-prime minister, Stephen Harper, who resisted major climate action throughout his term and reneged on Canada’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.
But beyond helping to facilitate the work of other leaders, Trudeau himself took a major risk recently in the name of climate action by announcing a national price on carbon.
The move, which has been called “a big turning point for his country,” gives each of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories two years to implement their own carbon pricing plan – be it a direct tax on emissions or a cap-and-trade system. Trudeau’s government has committed to cutting emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, a goal he has described as a "floor" rather than a "ceiling" for what he hopes Canada can accomplish.
“Carbon pricing is one of the most efficient ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Trudeau’s government said in a statement. “Clearly pricing pollution will stimulate innovation, clean growth, and the creation of jobs for the middle class.”
It’s been said that President Obama sees Prime Minister Trudeau as a “kindred spirit” on the issue of climate change. With Obama’s second term nearing its end, let’s hope that truly is the case, as we need world leaders who will keep fighting to make climate solutions a reality. Just as important, we also need to make sure they know we’ve got their back and are behind them every step of the way.
If you support the work President Obama, Prime Minster Trudeau, and Chancellor Merkel have done and think it’s time for more politicians to stop talking about the crisis and start working together to solve it, pledge below to support world leaders who are committed to climate action.