Climate change activists defy Trump’s inaction with their own summit

Leaders of US states, cities and businesses will convene in San Francisco to fight environment crisis, and rebuke Trump’s stance

Protesters march in New York on 6 September, just ahead of a climate action summit in San Francisco this week.
Protesters march in New York on 6 September, just ahead of a climate action summit in San Francisco this week. Photograph: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Senior figures representing US states, cities and businesses rebelling against Donald Trump’s denial of climate change are swarming San Francisco this week to proclaim their own efforts to meet US commitments to cut greenhouse gases.

The two-day Global Climate Action Summit beginning Thursday will also feature diplomats and mayors from around the world. As well, chief executives of Fortune 500 companies and celebrities ranging from actor Harrison Ford to primatologist Jane Goodall all plan to be there.

Local governments and corporations will announce new goals to boost renewable energy and run more sustainably. America’s Pledge – a group led by California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – will unveil how close the US could come to the climate pollution reductions the Obama administration promised the world in Paris in 2015. Trump pulled out of that accord shortly after he became president in 2017.

International climate policy negotiators and environmental advocates will be watching for measurable commitments and for climate-friendly political leaders, especially Brown, to do more than they have in the past, said Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International.

In a little over a year, the US has seen an uptick in devastating hurricanes, record-breaking wildfires and summer heat waves that are likely to become the new normal.

“The goal posts have changed. What used to be seen as leadership and was good enough then is just not adequate now,” Morgan said. “What was seen as radical should be common sense. The bar has been lifted.”

The world is not on track to prevent catastrophic warming, to keep temperatures from increasing more than 2C (3.6F), Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the United Nations framework convention on climate change, said earlier this month.

The US vowed to cut its own greenhouse gas levels by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 – but is not on a trajectory to fulfill that promise. At best, the country could make it to 23%, according to an analysis by the economic data firm Rhodium Group. At worst, it might curb emissions only 11%.

Those numbers are based on current policies, depending on how much carbon dioxide forests can absorb and on energy prices and the state of the economy. The Trump administration’s rollbacks, including of plans to limit pollution from coal plants and cars, are equal to forfeiting about 1% of reductions, said John Larsen, a director at Rhodium. The reversals could have a bigger stalling effect over time.

Most US progress is happening in electricity, which makes up less than one-third of the country’s climate pollution. And that progress could halt in 2030 if nuclear plants shut down and are replaced with natural gas power, according to Rhodium.

With the White House absent on climate change, activists say the work of states and cities becomes more critical than ever.

“We’re starting to reach a point where there’s widespread realization that the non-federal actors can take us a good part of the way,” said Andrew Light, a climate negotiator under Obama who is now with the World Resources Institute. But, “they can only take us so far unless they’re able to scale up action.”

Light said the summit could offer an opportunity for international experts and investors to offer help to US climate advocates.

Amir Jina, a post-doctoral scholar at the Climate Impact Lab collaborative group and professor at the University of Chicago, said the last year and a half in the US has been a harbinger for the future of climate change. Hurricanes are likely to become more intense, rapid sea-level rise will exacerbate dangerous storm surge, some regions will see record rainfall, and others will struggle with drought. The world can pay far less now to limit those effects or far more later to adapt to them, Jina said.

As temperatures rise, impacts will become more severe, and they will be uneven across the US, Jina and his colleagues’ research shows.

Climate change on its current path will be a drag on the economy, slowing gross domestic product 4% or 5% annually, Jina said. If the world limited warming to 2C , as the Paris agreement intends, that number would be closer to 0.5% or 1.5%.

“It might seem like a small amount, this is 4% of your income, but because we see this unequal impact, it’s important to think of not what the overall effect is but who is being affected,” Jina said.

In some parts of the US, climate change could decrease GDP 20% to 25% below where it would be without the effects of climate change, Jina warned.

California, on the front lines of climate change with wildfires, mudslides and a warming, rising ocean, has been a leader in the US environmental movement, but activists are pressuring Brown to do more, such as phase out oil and gas drilling.

“The progress that we’ve made in California on renewables is exciting and it’s also nowhere close to enough,” said Miya Yoshitani, executive director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

At the same time, even if the Paris agreement is successful, many countries will suffer.

The Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles, for example, which is reliant on tourism, is already facing drought, changes in fisheries, dying coral reefs and eroding beaches.

“It’s possible island states become economically unviable before they are covered by the ocean,” Ronald Jumeau, ambassador to the UN for the Seychelles, said.