The result of the vote on 3 November to decide the president of the United States for the next four years will have serious consequences for all living things. Not only is Donald Trump a climate-change denier, but he has also been doing everything he can to sabotage action on the climate crisis. It might seem surprising, therefore, that on the surface this election has not been fought over environmental matters – even Democratic hopeful Joe Biden has said little about the environment – but it has focused on the coronavirus epidemic, and this is certainly an environmental event.

The failure of Trump and his government to cope with the epidemic has been on public display, and the economic consequences of that failure are escalating all the time. Trump’s steady electoral support had been dependent on the healthy state of the economy. For the first time in decades, almost anyone who wanted a job could have one. Now mass unemployment is growing to levels not seen for 80 years. In the last congressional elections, in 2018, the impact of #MeToo led women to turn away from Trump in large enough numbers to swing the House of Representatives to the Democrats. With Covid-19 and unemployment on top of that, at the time of writing in September Trump was well behind in the opinion polls.

Popular discontent over Covid-19 and the state of the economy has also fed into the Black Lives Matter protests. It is important to understand how popular, and how large, these protests are. Opinion polls report that two-thirds of all Americans and 60% of white Americans support the protests. Polls in mid-July reported that between 18 million and 26 million adults had attended Black Lives Matter protests by that time. If you add to these the large number of protesters under the age of 18 and all the people who have joined protests for the first time since then, at least 30 million have protested. And something quite new in American anti-racism: about half the protesters are white.

These protests matter a great deal to the future of the Earth. The school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion have made achingly clear the size of the popular mobilisation that will be needed before governments will act to halt climate change. The American movements of the 1960s began with civil rights and moved on to the anti-war movement, women’s liberation and LGBT rights. More recently, Americans have moved from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, to Me Too, to the school strikes against guns, and back to Black Lives Matter.

Large-scale protests reflect and reinforce underlying changes of heart and politics in a new generation. The current protests in the US make a mass climate movement possible. Because of the international importance of the US, and the scale of pollution there, this is good news for all of us.

The size of the protests, the size of support, the size of the Trump vote in 2016, and the extent of support for the Jew-baiting fantasies of QAnon (a far-right conspiracy theory) all point to one underlying reality. Most Americans, of all politics and races, are agreed on two things: there is something very seriously wrong with the country, and they are very angry about that. People differ about whom they blame, and about possible solutions, but on that central matter they are in agreement.

This agreement springs from a reality. Of all the industrial countries in the world, the US is the only one where the median hourly wage has not increased over the last 50 years. For more than a century the majority of Americans believed that their children would have better lives. Now most Americans expect their children and their grandchildren to have worse lives.

This means that support for the traditional mainstream is falling, and support for radicals on both right and left is rising. Biden represents the mainstream.

Biden also represents all the people who want American influence and global power to remain strong. That power has been weakening. The defeat in Afghanistan, now being ratified by negotiations with the Taliban, is one sign. But the Covid-19 debacle was the moment when the balance of global power shifted towards China. Trump’s supporters will not mind. They regard globalisation as destructive of American jobs, and overseas wars as a waste of American lives. The people now protesting in the streets will not mind much either, for similar reasons.

But the people who run the banks, the large corporations, the military and the intelligence agencies mind very much. Months before the election, Biden was raising far more money than Trump, a clear sign that he had the support of the very rich.

If Biden does win, that will be a return to business as usual – no better and no worse. There will be a return to the previous levels of environmental regulation. In the midst of what looks like mass unemployment for a long time to come, the argument for a serious Green New Deal will gather force.

A final reflection is in order. Climate activists like me often say that climate change will produce unrest, upheaval, and social and economic chaos. Runaway climate change will raise the possibility of both serious action to save the Earth, and brutally repressive regimes. What we are seeing now in the United States is the effects of an environmental crisis – Covid-19 – on a much smaller scale. This is a warning of what is to come.

Jonathan Neale is a writer and climate jobs activist. He tweets at @NealeSayles