Global climate fight comes to California with new resolve after US pullout
Posted September 8, 2018 8:22 p.m. EDT
SAN FRANCISCO -- When President Trump announced last year that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, many feared that international momentum for tackling global warming would be lost.
It wasn't. The widespread exodus from the landmark deal that some expected never came, and no major nation has since backed off its commitment to reducing heat-trapping pollution. In many places, Trump's defiance has only hardened resolve.
This week, thousands of people from across the globe are expected to descend on San Francisco to show they're still in the climate fight, from environmental superstars like former Vice President Al Gore, musician Dave Matthews and astronaut Mae Jemison to frontline policymakers from China, Brazil, Germany and elsewhere.
The three-day Global Climate Action Summit starting Wednesday, initiated by Gov. Jerry Brown when Trump disengaged, is intended to get cities, states and other regional actors to step up the pace of shifting to cleaner, nonpolluting economies, especially in spots where national governments have been slow to act.
This bottom-up effort, however, has a long way to go. While nations in many parts of the world are making progress in putting climate policies in place, their actions are not doing enough to reduce Earth's warming. Local players can only do so much to pick up the slack.
Already, the threats of a hotter planet are surfacing amid a summer of catastrophic heat waves, drought and wildfire. Carbon dioxide, the primary pollutant driving atmospheric warmth, hit record concentrations this year, and worldwide temperatures are likely to be recorded as the fourth hottest on record. The warmest years have been the past three.
``National governments are critical in making the improvements, but a lot of the action and policy innovation seems to be happening at the sub-national level,'' said William Boyd, professor at UCLA School of Law, who leads the Governors' Climate and Forests Task Force, which helps regional leaders reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
``Is it going to be enough? It's not clear,'' he said. ``But what other options do we have?''
More than 170 nations stand by the 2015 Paris Agreement, but many of the biggies are not on track to meet the emissions cuts they pledged, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a much-watched independent monitoring initiative.
The European Union is falling short. Brazil, Canada and Mexico are behind. As for India and China, they've committed so little in the way of greenhouse gas reductions, that even if they're on schedule to meet their pledges, they should be doing more, climate analysts say.
``My guess is we're going to end up with having a lot more global warming than is optimal,'' said David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego, who has written extensively on diplomatic efforts to address the changing climate. ``Collectively, the whole world is not doing enough.''
The individual commitments made by the world's nations in Paris are seen as the best chance of getting a handle on the climate problem. The goal was to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
That's the point at which scientists expect unrelenting weather extremes as well as irreparable harm to Arctic ice sheets, coral reefs and vast tracts of coastline and forest. An increase of nearly 1 degree Celsius has already occurred, and many studies suggest current policies, including those designed to reduce emissions, will lead to at least 3 degrees of cumulative warming.
Even before the Trump presidency, the United States was struggling to follow through on its part to cut emissions. As the world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, following China, it committed to a 26 to 28 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2025. But models have consistently shown that no more than 20 percent is likely to be trimmed. Some scenarios suggest far less.
Although Trump has chosen to abandon the U.S. commitment in Paris, the nation doesn't technically leave the accord until 2020. The president's recent policy proposals, such as undoing the pollution-reducing Clean Power Plan of the Obama era and rolling back fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, promise to move the U.S. only further from its target.
Climate analysts say this is where sub-national leadership can play a role. Regional policymakers have a variety of ways to help reduce greenhouse gases, from passing local pollution rules to developing cleaner public transit systems to making buildings more energy efficient.
An alliance of 16 states, including California, is vowing to uphold the pledged Paris cuts as are hundreds of cities and businesses under the America's Pledge initiative, started by Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
A major report last month found that climate commitments of states, cities and private companies, which together produce about 38 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, are on track to offer half the pledged cuts that the nation is projected to fall short of.
``What we're trying to do is so big, the more initiatives that we have pulling in the same direction, the better it is,'' said Niklas Hohne, a co-author of the new report and founding partner of the German research group NewClimate Institute.
California, which would rank as the world's fifth-largest economy if it were a country, is leading the sub-national pack in the United States.
The state's cap-and-trade program is helping clean up industry by setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions and requiring businesses to buy permits to pollute. Low-emissions vehicle regulation has helped put nearly 400,000 electric cars on California roads. Just last month, lawmakers approved a far-reaching bill that would require the state to get all its electricity from renewable sources by 2045. The legislation is awaiting a decision from Brown.
And on Friday, Brown signed an executive order directing the heads of his state's agencies to develop plans to protect California's plant and animal species from the threats of climate change.
The climate summit underscores the state's initiative, say participants, and many say it also offers a powerful rebuke of federal leadership.
``I think it was very smart move to have the event in California to show the world that the U.S. is more actors than just Trump,'' said Hohne, who will be attending the summit.
Globally, the sub-national efforts have been modest, however. While in the United States regional leaders are expected to plug half of the country's gap in pledged emissions cuts, in most places it's much less.
Hohne's report estimates that the current commitments of local forces worldwide will cover only 10 percent of what remains to be done to meet the two-degree Paris target. The impact of regional policymakers in the European Union, China, India, Japan and Mexico is described as ``relatively small.''
For organizers of the climate summit, which is being held at the Moscone Center South, the limited contribution of local and regional groups is no reason for disappointment, only motivation to accelerate the effort.
Delegates of local governments and businesses from close to 100 nations this week plan to roll out scores of new strategies and initiatives for trimming emissions.
In the run-up to the event, two dozen cities around the globe have already agreed to slash the amount of waste they send to greenhouse gas-producing landfills. Nineteen cities have pledged to power new buildings with renewable energy. And in the private sector, 289 institutional investors that manage more than $30 trillion in assets have committed to working with the companies they back to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
``There's no doubt that the challenge here is great,'' said Matt Rodriguez, Brown's secretary for California's Environmental Protection Agency, who has helped spearhead the state's climate program. ``But we've been able to demonstrate in the past that we've been able to meet our targets and be successful. We want to use that momentum.''
Attendees acknowledge that greater success on the regional front hinges on ensuring that companies and communities follow through on their pledges as well as expanding the climate network beyond the usual bloc of supporters.
``These events are clubs of the converted, meetings being held by folks that already get it,'' said Victor, at UC San Diego. ``What's crucial is turning these clubs of leaders that develop processes into follow-ship. The only way to make a dent in the global problem is to have global cooperation.''
Having so many businesses and advocacy groups involved in the summit's programs, from Google to Levi Strauss & Co. to European insurance giant Allianz to sustainability nonprofit Ceres, as well as states and nations with different political stripes will extend the reach of the effort, organizers say.
Most of the speakers lean left, but the roster also includes more conservative names such as former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who is scheduled to appear on a live video feed because of a scheduling conflict, and Janos Ader, the president of Hungary.
Xie Zhenhua, a special representative from China, where climate policies haven't always been a priority, is a co-chair of the event, alongside Brown, Bloomberg, United Nations climate representative Patricia Espinosa, Indian businessman Anand Mahindra, and United Nations youth envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake.
Summit organizers also hope that the proven record of California and other environmentally progressive cities and states will inspire the uninitiated.
A recent critique of the summit is that the climate efforts being championed, including those of organizers like Brown, aren't aggressive enough.
The governor has faced criticism from environmental groups for not doing more to stop fracking and for being too accommodating of the fossil fuel industry, a major source of greenhouse gases. Demonstrations calling for greater action are planned.
But Nick Nuttall, the summit's spokesman, said what's going to bring everyone together, both critics on the left and the right, is the collective risk they face.
``I think what's charging people up is the reality in front of their eyes,'' he said. ``When they see California on fire ... when they see the droughts and the floods and people hit by hurricanes, this is what is firing people up, in every part of the globe.''