Global Climate Action Summit: A Tale of Two Climates

Global Climate Action Summit: A Tale of Two Climates

The Global Climate Action Summit had many powerful moments. During the three-day event, held last week in San Francisco, former Vice President Al Gore brought the crowd hope by asserting that the U.S. is still officially in the Paris Agreement, and that the next president could easily reverse President Trump’s decision to withdraw. Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley of Barbados reminded us that the intense storms, which have been fatal to her neighboring countries, happened at a higher rate than ever recorded with only a 1-degree C rise — and that we are on the path to a 4-degree rise. Jane Goodall reminded us to protect forests, and to not let them be “the forgotten solution.” Deforestation represents one-third of greenhouse gas emissions globally, while efforts to control it receive only 3 percent of investments. Even the event organizer, California Governor Jerry Brown, popped in at the last minute to announce that his state was launching a satellite to monitor climate change. However, the greatest highlight of the plenary was the Executive Director of Oxfam, Winnie Byanyima. She broke barriers by stating that, “Climate change is a political issue, not a technical issue. It’s a question of justice and fairness.”

The summit was truly an international and inspirational event, galvanizing both sub-national governments and businesses to act in the face of our changing climate. It did a terrific job at that, bringing many results and pledges from both sectors — including the revelation that the United States is on track to complying with the Paris targets even without federal aid. Yet, the overarching message was that it can be done while creating and even increasing profit. On one hand, that may be the only way businesses will get on board and voluntarily curtail their emissions. On the other, the chants of protesters and the indigenous voices were clear: “keep fossil fuels in the ground!”

Can both narratives be achieved?

California is the most progressive state in the U.S. and is clearly making impressive strides towards implementing model environmental legislation. At the same time, it is the top state in terms of agriculture, a major source of greenhouse gas that often is not mentioned or regulated. There are also numerous permits for oil and gas that are still being delivered. The cap-and-trade system is also criticized for having more trade than cap. There seems to be too much focus on renewable energy, while little emphasis is given on regulating the supply.

As I was following the climate justice panels, this paradox may have been more apparent to me than most. One of these panels refreshingly addressed climate jobs, as “leaving no one behind” must include coal and oil workers. The failure to consider this was one of the factors that led to the current presidential administration. In another panel, Erica Mackie, the CEO of Grid Alternatives, talked about how her NGO installed solar panels solely in frontline communities, providing clean energy and jobs. Meanwhile, in a panel composed only of women of color, 16-year-old Jamie Margolin boldly pointed out that “you can’t just slap a solar panel on the issue,”; you need to dismantle the systems that generated inequality and climate change. Sheela Patel, the CEO of SPARC, which works with informal communities worldwide, added that these communities need to be brought to the table to co-create solutions. The simple inclusion of these panels in a conference like this is an enormous step towards progress. Now the question remains if someone will really listen.

Photo above: Robert Bullard, environmental justice advocate and Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, second from left, with Michael Mendez, the James and Mary Pinchot Faculty Fellow at F&ES, and Anna Carcamo, a second-year student at F&ES.