- The United States government under Donald Trump now stands alone, a rogue nation. Aligned against it at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, is every other nation in the world – all committed to meeting national emissions goals set in Paris in 2015.
- Completely bypassing Trump and the federal government at COP23 is the U.S. subnational delegation, led by Gov. Jerry Brown of California and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
- The U.S. subnational delegation in Bonn represents non-federal actors in 15 states, 455 cities, 1,747 businesses and 325 universities. Combined they represent nearly half the U.S. economy. It remains to be seen if the delegation will be formally seated at COP23 as negotiators – a potential slap in the face to Trump’s tiny U.S. State Department delegation.
- The U.S. subnationals are committed to keeping America’s Paris goal of a 28 percent reduction in carbon emissions (over 2005 levels) by 2025. Supporters of America’s Pledge say they’re nearly halfway there. But it will take a far bigger push, and deeper cuts, to avoid the threat of escalating climate change, as heatwaves, extreme storms, and sea levels surge.
BONN, Germany – For 22 years, at United Nations climate summits dating back to COP1 in Berlin, Germany, the U.S. federal government has sponsored a large pricy pavilion that stood out among other international pavilions. It provided office space for U.S. negotiators meeting with dignitaries and for hosting high-level panel discussions. No more.
President Trump made clear when he announced on June 1st his intention of pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement that his administration would pay for no such pavilion at COP23 now underway in Bonn. He also ceded the country’s leadership role in climate negotiations.
In the days and weeks immediately following Trump’s announcement, an unprecedented climate-action initiative below the federal level formed to represent U.S. interests at COP23 (Conference of the Parties).
Led largely by Gov. Jerry Brown of California and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that unprecedented coalition also paid for a pavilion of its own – the U.S. Climate Action Center. The delegation underwrote a 102-page report describing non-federal U.S. progress toward meeting the nation’s Paris Agreement goals. And it hosted a standing-room-only event on Saturday, 11 November, at the end of the first week of the COP, dubbed America’s Pledge, with the hashtag We Are Still In.
“The federal government doesn’t decide whether or how the U.S. takes action on climate change,” Bloomberg told a crowd of international leaders and media. “Those decisions are made by cities, states, businesses and civil society. The goal of the federal government is to support and coordinate those efforts. But if Washington won’t lead, mayors, governors and CEOs will. And there is nothing Washington can do to stop us.”
It was a stunning, high-profile rebuke of a U.S. president and an unambiguous message to the world: Trump may mock climate change as “a hoax,” but most Americans believe climate change is real; that it is impacting the U.S. with sea-level rise, powerful hurricanes, record wildfires and drought; and moreover that action must be taken in line with the Paris Agreement to reduce the rate of global warming.
Bloomberg, (whose foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, is underwriting much of the initiative’s cost), and others who spoke throughout the day, including Brown, former Vice President Al Gore and a delegation of five U.S. Democratic senators all emphasized the same fact: that non-federal actors in 15 states, 455 cities, 1,747 businesses and 325 universities combined represent nearly half of the U.S. economy.
If together those forces were a nation unto themselves, they would rank third in GDP behind only the entire U.S. and China. Also, their combined efforts in reducing emissions, increasing energy efficiency and promoting environmental protections are adding up.
“Over the last decade, the U.S. has reduced its emissions more than any other large country in the world, and the federal government was on the sidelines for most of that progress,” Bloomberg said. “The U.S. Congress did not pass any comprehensive legislation requiring cuts to carbon emissions. And the major climate initiative of the former administration – the Clean Power Plan — was held up in court. Despite that, the U.S. is already halfway to the goal it set in Paris of reducing carbon emissions by 28 percent by 2025 (over emissions measured in 2005).”
Still, everyone recognizes that there is a long, hard road ahead. Even meeting Obama’s goal of a 28 percent reduction won’t be even close to enough to prevent dangerous climate change.
Grateful and bemused
America’s Pledge speakers stressed that most real climate action in the U.S. has long come from below the federal level – occurring at the state, city, corporate, academic and NGO levels. But now, given the Trump Administration, real climate-action leadership, for the first time on the global stage, needed to come from the so-called subnationals as well.
Two non-U.S. speakers at Saturday’s event appeared relieved, grateful and bemused by the post-Trump reality at this climate summit: Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), and Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, president of COP23.
A year ago, at COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco, global leaders were thrown off balance by the unexpected election of Donald Trump. They openly feared the impact the loss of U.S. leadership would have on talks to strengthen the carbon-reduction pledges made in the Paris Agreement, negotiations that are crucial if average annual global temperature rise is to remain below 2 degrees Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.
Now the two speakers embraced those Americans who claimed COP stands for Climate Outlasts Presidents: “This is a very special moment,” Espinosa told the crowd. “We welcome America’s Pledge and I will bring it to the parties (national-level negotiators) here in Bonn.”
Added Bainimarama: “They may be called non-state actors in this process, but make no mistake, they are leading actors in guiding climate action in their cities and states. And we cannot do this without them.”
Still to be decided is whether Bloomberg and/or Brown will get an unprecedented seat among national-level negotiators (even as the Trump administration fielded a small, staff-level State Department group at COP23). All indications suggested that they would be.
Ironically, Brown’s 15-minute talk was loudly and persistently interrupted by protesters from California chanting slogans such as: “Carbon trading is a false solution for the planet.” “Nature is not commercial.” “Respect Mother Nature.” “No offsetting.”
Brown, who has spent a lifetime in California politics, rolled with the hecklers and shouted above them, “I agree with you!” When the protesters quieted, he said: “This is why California has the most aggressive climate goals in the country; no matter what we do, we’re challenged to do more. And we will do more.”
Why they are in
Other speakers at the event explained why they are committed to America’s Pledge.
“With renewables, we found it to be really good for business,” said Laura Phillips, senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart, the U.S.’s largest employer. “We have more than 350 on-site solar installations in the U.S. alone. We’ve saved $1 billion in fuel given increased efficiencies over the past 10 years. These efficiencies are important to our suppliers and producers throughout our international supply chain.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto explained that his city’s renaissance – going from near-dead steel town to ranking among America’s most livable cities – has been built on environmental innovation, energy efficiencies and cleaner air and water.
“If you look at what Pittsburgh has been able to do in changing its economy from the highest depression level in American history and building a new economy based on energy innovation,” Peduto said, “you can see where that can be expanded out to our friends and neighbors in coal country.”
Aldon Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, attended the event. He said he was encouraged by the America’s Pledge initiative, but added:
“It’s not going to be easy to get to the original [Paris Agreement] goal without the federal government. It will take more action at the subnational level. This effort is so important because they are going to try to get more people in the game. To reach the Paris goal of net zero emissions by 2050, we have to do much more. And that means getting the federal government back in the game, hopefully in 2021.”
Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University. Follow him on twitter @jcatanoso
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