The Elephant in the United Nations’ Room

The Elephant in the United Nations’ Room: André Shimizu, FGV-EAESP Winner of the 2022 student CSR article competition, tackles the climate crisis from a fresh angle – that of political populism and how this “elephant in the UN’s room” obstructs united climate action.

André Shimizu, FGV-EAESP Winner of the 2022 student CSR article competition, tackles the climate crisis from a fresh angle – that of political populism and how this “elephant in the UN’s room” obstructs united climate action. 

The Elephant in the United Nations’ Room by André Shimizu.

André Shimizu, FGV-EAESP Winner of the 2022 student CSR article competition, tackles the climate crisis from a fresh angle – that of political populism and how this "elephant in the UN's room" obstructs united climate action.

As for climate changes, scholars already have a consensus about what needs to be done: reduce greenhouse gasses emissions until worldwide energy generation becomes net zero-carbon. This objective needs to be reached before it becomes too late, and it is only possible with wide cooperation of a diverse set of stakeholders – namely governments, companies, political parties, non-governmental and international organizations.

However, an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about sits right in the United Nations building, in the very discussion room where national leaders discuss dealing with global warming. The elephant of the global alt-right rise blocking the real capacity of the efforts to revert climate changes.

It happens because there is little effectiveness of the actions to solve this problem without the participation of the two largest American countries: The United States of America and Brazil. Both have essential roles in global environmental protection. First, they are among the most polluting countries in the world being respectively in the 2nd and 12th positions (GLOBAL ATLAS CARBON, 2022). Second, the USA has an immense potential to develop sustainable technology and help other countries with investments in their environmental areas. Third, Brazil has one of the largest green areas in the world, Cerrado and Amazonia, which must be protected to avoid climate change.

Why is there an elephant in the UN room, if they are so important for this discussion? Because both are on the main stage of a political phenomenon that attacks democratic principles, the scientific community, and the logic of international cooperation: the alt-right denialist populism represented by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the USA. More than just denying the necessity of reaching Net-zero carbon emissions, these movements attack all the bases that sustain the efforts against climate change.

A recent past

Climate change is a serious and urgent problem that is no longer debated in the scientific environment, only in politics (FANCELLI, 2021). These two presidents have been discrediting science to gain arguments on political discussion among their follower base. The way in which those two led their countries during the Covid-19 pandemic shows the deadly consequences that alt-right denialism presents and why this problem needs to be resolved – else, there will be no effective progress on environmental causes. Trump stated in February 2020, without evidence, that the virus would be weakened by the change of seasons because the heat should cause negative effects on the virus. He also lied by announcing several times that the pandemic was under control, defending that the USA was the country with the lowest daily death rate in the world (PAZ, 2020), where actually it was the country with the most Covid-19 deaths in the world.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro made many similar statements. Even further, he encouraged his supporters to invade hospitals to check if the media was not lying about Covid hospitalizations; often defended the use of medicines such as Hydroxychloroquine in medical protocols to treat Covid-19, even when researchers indicated that these were not effective; and did not reply to 53 e-mails from Pfizer about purchasing vaccines. Further, he stated that: “As for Pfizer, it is clear in the contract: ‘we are not responsible for any collateral effect’. So, if you become a Crocodile this is your problem. If a woman grows a beard or if a man starts to speak with high tones, Pfizer has nothing to do with it”.  (AOS FATOS, 2022).

The two presidents demonstrated arguments and actions in common: discrediting science; repeating that their government was doing well while avoiding the critics; blaming the media; spreading lies and distortions about facts through their social networks. But they did not start to act this way with the pandemic – they were already ruling their countries with denialism. What the pandemic did was just to show that these leaders would defend their ideologies even if they cost hundreds of thousands of lives: it is happening with Covid-19 and has not been different with climate change.

Condemning actions like these should be something common in any functional justice system. However, when such actions come from heads of state of two influential countries, condemning these actions becomes difficult. Moreover, they have the legitimacy of votes and expressive popular movements to support them, while their belligerent way to govern makes any negotiation or cooperation for the environmental cause unfeasible.

It is true that Donald Trump lost the elections in 2021. Also, Jair Bolsonaro will probably lose the presidential elections in 2022 according to recent electoral research in Brazil. Although, do these facts mean the end of the alt-right, which is not just an American phenomenon? Sadly, solving the horror of this recent past is more complex than just winning an electoral process.

Can elections stop the alt-right phenomenon?

The Elephant in the United Nations’ Room
André Shimizu, FGV-EAESP Winner of the 2022 student CSR article competition, tackles the climate crisis from a fresh angle – that of political populism and how this “elephant in the UN’s room” obstructs united climate action.

They cannot. That is the answer of Michele Prado, a Brazilian writer who researched different alt-right groups. In her book Tempestade Ideológica(Ideological Storm), she states that this movement is bigger, older, and independent of its leaders. In the Brazilian case, the author highlights that the bases of what would become Bolsonarism have been widespread since 2004 by Olavo de Carvalho, a self-styled philosopher who deeply influenced the president and his followers. Moreover, Prado said that it is Bolsonarism that needs those groups and not the other way around (PRADO, 2021).

In 2020, the message of the United States elections was that Trump lost, but Trumpism did not (TACKETT, 2020). Research revealed that 56% of the politicians elected by the Republican party believe mostly or partially in QAnon theory, which believes in the existence of a wide organization composed of artists and politicians from the Democratic party that worships Satan and develops a scheme of child trafficking and paedophilia in the world (RUSSONELLO, 2020). Besides the population, at least two dozen Republican candidates who believe in the conspiracy ran for congress seats in 2020. Two of them won (BERGENGRUEN, 2021).

Even away from their presidential posts, their influence remains in politics and among the population. And, the environmental cause requires efforts from the whole population in daily decisions like consuming habits and recycling. These changes are difficult to make even among non-denialists as soon as they demand to give up habits that always existed in their lives. However, in the case of people blinded by denialist ideologies, which is an expressive and organized part of the population as Trump’s election had shown, this challenge becomes even harder.

What can be done?

The German government established a partnership with the USA to combat radicalism and, consequently, the alt-right development in their countries. The subject is so important that this program received an investment of one billion euros to strengthen research and initiatives toward democracy. They select subjects such as racism, gender inequality, extremism, democracy prevention, and others to develop research to understand and deal with the alt-right.

One of the main objectives of this program is to help these countries to develop an education towards radicalism prevention as those movements are recruiting and radicalizing teenagers using social networks. In this way, education is a fundamental aspect to develop a civic-mindedness that knows how to deal with social networks, fake news, scientific facts, tolerance of differences, and the seriousness of climate change.

Another important element is to demobilize this movement through the improvement of the relationship between entrepreneurs and anti-democratic politics. The American elections in 2020 were the most expensive in history, costing approximately 14.4 billion dollars (HILLSTROM, 2021). It is improbable to reach this quantity of resources just with spontaneous acts from citizens. These numbers are just a symptom of the lobbying influence from main donors, usually businessmen, in political decisions. Regularizing lobbies is necessary to end this kind of relationship that makes it possible to benefit companies who support politicians that are going to destroy the bases of democracy and the efforts for the environmental cause. Even being a hard decision, this funds needs to be prohibited or at least hampered because they are being used to conduct the world to a global collapse.

Dealing with the elephant

The Elephant in the United Nations’ Room
André Shimizu, FGV-EAESP Winner of the 2022 student CSR article competition, tackles the climate crisis from a fresh angle – that of political populism and how this “elephant in the UN’s room” obstructs united climate action.

The elephant in the UN room seems invincible by its sovereign right and democratic legitimacy. It came to stay and there is no way to easily take it out of the room. The best thing to do is to research and learn how to deal with it: limit its movement; define strategies for media and the population to deal with offenses and threats; pressure the financial sectors that profit from these politicians; establish laws and protocols to identify and punish efficiently cases of denialism that can put the population in dangerous situations. Step by step, this elephant is going to lose its strength until it becomes possible to execute the plans of net-zero carbon.

An important detail is that the elephant cannot be defeated directly. The best way to combat it is by engaging people in their daily lives; educating them about their usage of social networks; preventing radicalism in schools; teaching them to identify and deal with conspiracy theories when someone from their circle starts to believe in them. It is in the private spaces where radicalism can be weakened because the elephant is strengthened when discussed under the spotlight, regardless of the arguments.

In other words, our society needs to achieve a different level of maturity, which will need an effort from all sectors of society. It is similar to the environmental cause. In other words, solving the problem of alt-right rise and climate changes requires similar, synergistic, efforts, even being different subjects. Both are difficult, urgent issues, without clear answers. On the upside, however, it is possible to deal with both simultaneously.

The elephant should not be understood as a whole different problem from climate change, it is just a different part of the same problem which is not receiving the necessary attention. Dealing with the elephant is not another problem to solve beyond the environmental cause, but actually, a more efficient and holistic way to understand and solve it.

Consult the full list of references cited in this article.

The Elephant in the United Nations’ Room by André Shimizu, student at FGV-EAESP.
André Shimizu

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The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

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- Africa: Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa; ESSEC Africa, Morocco. 
- South America: FGV-EAESP, Brazil.

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