With the Trump administration keeping noticeably mum on climate change throughout this year's U.N. week, U.S. cities, businesses and states were busy auditioning for understudy.
Cities including Boston, Los Angeles and New York City outlined plans to further the objectives of the Paris climate agreement. Corporations, too, voiced their support for climate action and opposition to the Trump White House's decision to leave the Paris accord at forums hosted by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York and former Secretary of State John Kerry at Yale University.
And governors from 14 states and Puerto Rico reassured concerned international partners visiting the Big Apple for the U.N. General Assembly that they would keep U.S. climate progress going even as President Trump dismantles the federal controls that underpinned the last administration's commitments to Paris.
“There's nothing Donald Trump can do in our states to stop us from advancing our policies,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said during a press conference in New York hosted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). The event also featured Kerry and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D).
All three states participate in greenhouse gas emissions-capping programs and other policies that they've been keen to highlight on the world stage. And all three governors will visit the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, this November to bring the world a message: U.S. climate action is not dead.
It's still unclear whom the Trump administration will send to lead negotiations for the United States.
The climate crusader role has already given the three Democratic leaders of the governors' alliance unusual prominence within the United Nations. Inslee was the sole U.S. participant in a March meeting highlighting Paris action. Brown, who is now the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change's special envoy for states, will host a summit on subnational action next year in San Francisco to be co-chaired by UNFCCC chief Patricia Espinosa. He laid out some of the objectives of the summit in a closed-door meeting Monday hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Antnio Guterres. Robert Orr, a climate adviser to the secretary-general who helped plan this week's events, said Brown's message was that the United States' authority to make emissions reductions is decentralized, and subnational actors will do much of the heavy lifting to achieve their country's Paris targets.
Cuomo, meanwhile, heads the U.S. Climate Alliance — a group of states that have declared themselves still aligned with the 2015 climate deal even as Trump has announced that the United States will leave it.
They're eager to give foreign partners frustrated by the Trump administration's aversion to climate action a story that they'll like.
“We're already ahead of where we should be in reaching the Paris accords, so we're doing very well,” said Cuomo.
The trio unveiled research Wednesday showing that participants in the alliance are on track to meet or exceed their share of the Obama-era nationally determined contribution to Paris, which called for a 26 to 28 percent cut in emissions by 2025 compared with 2005 levels. They also stressed that those reductions haven't come at the expense of economic growth — alliance states outstrip the national average in gross domestic product growth over the last decade.
Orr, who is also the dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, said U.S. cities and states lead the world in important aspects of climate resilience and mitigation precisely because the Trump administration has rolled back federal ambition.
“Because of the political realities playing out in the United States, the state and local elements are supercharged,” he said, adding that they can pass on lessons learned to nonstate actors in other countries that must also play a role.
But some climate advocates worry that opposition to Trump, while motivating, might also play into the narrative that climate change is a political issue important only to Democrats.
Republican Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Phil Scott of Vermont are members of the alliance, but it is overwhelmingly a Democratic club, and its members have had harsh words for the current administration.
“In my opinion, this federal government is the most ignorant federal government we've ever had when it comes to the environment and climate change,” Cuomo said at the New York press conference.
At the Yale forum Tuesday, Brown dismissed the Trump team as “troglodytes,” which he defined as “dwellers in deep, dark places.” Inslee expressed hope that those who reject mainstream climate science could be defeated at the ballot box.
In a short interview with E&E News after the panel, Inslee attributed his own 2012 election as governor in part to his focus on climate issues in the campaign. But he predicted that politics nationally would shift to the point where federal climate legislation would be possible and presidential contenders will need to have a position on the issue.
“The reason is that what used to be a hypothetical graph on the chart is now a real forest fire on your TV screen. What was a numerical indication of parts per million in carbon is now a giant hurricane, repeatedly,” he said.
'The world should not give up on Americans'
The governors aren't the only ones doing an end run around Trump to project an image of continued U.S. climate action to the rest of the world.
Jeff Immelt, the Republican chairman of the board of General Electric Co., said during the Yale event that Trump's Paris withdrawal showed that industry needs its own foreign policy independent of the federal government. And Bloomberg has emerged as a major independent convener and funder of climate work. The billionaire businessman, who will also travel to Bonn, offered to fund the U.S. contribution to the UNFCCC secretariat after the Trump budget for fiscal 2018 proposed cutting it. The Senate version of the State Department spending bill would restore those funds.
Sue Biniaz, a lawyer and veteran climate negotiator who left the State Department earlier this year, said nonfederal actors need to walk a fine line between usurping the federal government's role and just showing their own initiative. Presenting themselves as a substitute for federal action would not only be viewed as provocative by the current administration but might let the White House off the hook for actions it should take to limit emissions and support countries struggling with climate change, she said.
But she said America's Pledge, the Bloomberg-Brown initiative to compile and quantify U.S. actions by different sectors toward the goals of Paris, does meet that standard.
“And that, I think, helps us, foreign policy-wise, because it allows other countries to say, 'Oh, the U.S. is not doing nothing. The U.S. is doing 'X' and likely to do 'Y.' And not that the federal government is irrelevant, but pulling out of Paris doesn't mean the United States all of a sudden went to zero,” she said.
Inslee said he sees the governors as “confidence builders.”
“We have a good story to say why the rest of the world should not give up on Americans,” he said.
Ken Alex, Brown's senior policy adviser for planning and research, said Brown doesn't view his outreach on climate change to be partisan. He noted that California's Republican governors signed some of its strongest environmental legislation into law.
Nonfederal players also couldn't fully take up the mantle dropped by the federal government even if they wanted to, he said.
“There's a huge amount that subnationals and businesses can do, and ultimately, the trillions of dollars that need to be invested will often be from the private sector,” he said. “But the U.S. is a huge actor, and their absence is important. You can't patch over that.”
From research dollars to federal efficiency programs, he said, “we need the federal government ultimately to take responsibility.”
Meanwhile, Trump and his officials were largely absent from climate discussions that took place this week in and around U.N. headquarters. The United States wasn't represented in the secretary-general's high-level climate meeting Tuesday that drew the likes of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron. And Trump didn't mention climate change during his own first U.N. address Tuesday.
By contrast, a fellow conservative head of state, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, implied in her own address that Trump's choice to leave Paris was a threat to “rules-based” international order.
“As the global system struggles to adapt, we are confronted by states deliberately flouting — for their own gain — the rules and standards that have secured our collective prosperity and security,” she said.
Macron used his own address to again rule out renegotiating the deal.
The only Trump administration engagement on climate change came at the start of the week, when White House National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn hosted counterparts for a Monday morning breakfast to reiterate that the United States would exit Paris and to squash reports that it might be searching for a way back in.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.