Civil Society Can Provide Needed Climate Leadership

Michael John Williams

New York University

Michael John Williams is Clinical Professor of International Relations, Director of the International Relations Program and Affiliate Professor of European Studies & History at New York University. His functional area of research is war studies with a regional focus on the twentieth century Atlantic world. He is particularly interested in comparative civil-military relations amongst NATO allies. His most recent publications include “Brexit and the Future of the US-EU and US-UK Relationships” in International Affairs (May 2016) and Science, Law and Liberalism in the American Way of War: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict (2015). Dr. Williams is a Stephen M. Kellen term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on the Armed Forces and Society and an alumnus of the International Summer Policy Institute at American University. He has held a Robert Bosch Fellowship in Germany, a Visiting Fellowship at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford & Nuffield College and a DAAD Fellowship at the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Science in Potsdam, Germany. Educated at the universities of Delaware, Bayreuth, Hamburg, Bath, Berlin, and Moscow he earned his doctorate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

The United States is fast abandoning leadership of the liberal world order. The withdrawal of the U.S. from the recently negotiated and signed Paris Agreement is the latest self-inflicted wound. Many Americans, however, are not happy with Trump’s decision and they are determined to advance a progressive environmental agenda at the local, state, and regional levels. While not as effective as centrally directed efforts by the U.S. federal government in Washington, this leadership is welcome and would benefit from external support. Because the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) is devolved to a higher extent than most in Europe and was inspired by the U.S. federal system, Germans are well placed to work below a central government level to address political change. This experience could benefit U.S. groups—indeed the lessons would flow in both directions.

There are hundreds of environmental NGOs in the U.S. and Germany whose knowledge and membership can be utilized to foment positive change in both countries. It would be most beneficial to form a “German-American Network on Local and Regional Environmental Leadership” (GAN-LRE). Rather than creating a new organization, this network will bring together specialist environmental NGOs from the U.S. and Germany, for the purpose of training and developing the skills to advance a political agenda at the state, local, and regional levels. Part of the network would focus on the development of information with research projects and analytic work. But much of this occurs already within organizations such as CAN-International (Climate Action Network), the UN’s Geneva Environmental Network and the International Network for Environmental Management (INEM). There is no bi-lateral German-American network focused on linking environmental science with policy engagement at the state level in a federal system.

This civil society cooperation would focus on sharing best practices in the lobbying of state and local governments to engage with international efforts to alter climate change. The focus on a federal system will benefit both sides since a federal government allows for a greater divergence between center and periphery than a centralized system like the UK or France. Hence the applicability of political lessons from those countries is less applicable to the U.S. than those from Germany. Furthermore, German leadership on climate change policy and the green economy will benefit in a trickle-down effect via the network to U.S. organizations. Ideally, in the short run this network will help American NGOs impact sub-federal policy to create a better environment, while in the long run laying a foundation of policy and activism that can easily be “activated” at the national level when the winds of politics bring change to Washington, DC. This civil society will also create strong German-American, person-to-person links around a touchstone issue of the twenty-first century—an important development given the changing nature of the German-American relationship over the last twenty years.

A network such as this recognizes the fact that although Donald Trump is an American, not all Americans are Donald Trump (in fact, nowhere near a majority of Americans share his political views). There is a broad base of support for positive climate change policies across the U.S. and it would behoove the planet, Germany, and the United States for individuals and NGOs to take over where the U.S. government has stepped aside. Civil society is the place to make this change a reality.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.