As an Administration Demurs, Coalitions Are Taking the Lead for the U.S. on Climate Change

Non-governmental coalitions stepped up in the U.S.'s relative absence at COP23 this year. Is their activism the only thing keeping climate change at bay in America?
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Troy Robertson, a teacher who fled New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina only to return a month after, was among those who attended COP23 last year. But Robertson wasn't there as a bystander or a passive observer. He went as a member of the U.S. People's Delegation, a group of community and grassroots leaders from across the United States who attended COP23 to provide an alternative voice to represent the U.S. and its climate interests. The People's Delegation was part of a number of coalitions that went to COP23 with such a goal in mind. Others included We Are Still In, the coalition of over 25 mayors committed to fighting climate change. The economies of the mayors who make up We Are Still In total $6.2 trillion.

"As a New Orleans native, I witnessed how devastating dirty energy like oil, gas, and coal is on entire communities. They obliterate entire ecosystems, erasing species and threatening the existence of countless more," Robertson says. "Tragic events like Hurricane Katrina and the BP Drilling Disaster have left my communities traumatized." He worries that, without long-term plans for climate change in place, further destruction will come to the Gulf South, disproportionately affecting black, brown, and indigenous communities.

The signing of the Paris Agreement at COP21 was met with celebration by those concerned about climate change. Attendees and delegates cheered as the leaf-shaped gavel slammed down, closing the sessions and signifying the first comprehensive agreement for the world to tackle global warming.

Since then, the tenor of world politics has shifted. Since taking office, Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. Scott Pruitt, his appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has worked to gouge numerous environmental regulations, and large metros across the country continue to bear the brunt of powerful climate events. So when the federal government bows out, it's up to local coalitions, involving non-governmental organizations, local government, and activist groups, to conduct pro-environment messaging, increase the visibility of the communities bearing the brunt of environmental injustice, and develop policy.

The eighth edition of the United Nations' Environment Emissions Gap report, released prior to COP23, found that country pledges only reduce emissions by a third of what is required to meet the 2030 climate targets. (The report also found that private sector and sub-national actors aren't accelerating their efforts at a rate to help make up this gap.) The report concluded ominously: "[S]hould the United States follow through with its stated intention to leave the Paris Agreement in 2020, the picture could become even bleaker."

"One year after the Paris Agreement entered into force, we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future," said Erik Solheim, head of the the U.N. Environment Programme, in a statement.

We Are Still In hosted 44 events during COP23, including the U.S. Climate Action Center, a a center set up for American delegates headed to Bonn, in lieu of an official governmental presence. The USCAC functioned as a meeting center, where delegates could speak with the coalition assembled by We Are Still In, a crowd that included elected officials, businesses, universities, and churches. These groups all came together in direct response to Trump's stated plan to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, and signed onto We Are Still In's declaration, which pledges to undertake a variety of initiatives to support further accelerated climate action. The cross-cutting nature of the coalition shows that, far from an outlier, concern around continuing to combat climate change is an issue that most Americans care deeply about.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement always envisioned non-state and sub-national actors playing an important role in delivering on its goals, but they have become more important than ever given the U.S. federal government's approach to climate change.

"Now that we are in the process of implementation of the Paris Agreement, we really need to show it day in and day out," says Mariana Panuncio Feldman, senior director of International climate cooperation at the World Wildlife Fund, and a spokesperson for We Are Still In.

These daily actions require distributed models of leadership encompassing state and non-state actors, to implement policies and actions that steer global and national economies and societies in the right direction. The presence of coalitions such as the People's Delegations and We Are Still at COP23 not only showed how these distributed leadership models are already functioning, but also signaled to the world that there's an appetite to do more.

Their "America's Pledge" report, announced at COP23, articulated how their coalition of cities, states, and businesses represented over half the U.S. economy, and at the launch event, Bloomberg argued that the group be given a seat at the negotiation table at COP. Earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown announced the state would hold an international global warming summit for world leaders, slated for next year. In addition, the coalition is pushing actions such as the formation of the North American Climate Leadership Dialogue, linking carbon markets with the European Union and China, and states paving the way to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

But as Kate Aronoff recently pointed out in the Intercept, in the context of a rising right-wing populism, "having some of the most visible faces of the climate fight be a handful of Davos-frequenting one percenters—almost universally housed in coastal cities—presents some obvious challenges," by which she refers to the most visible leaders of the We Are Still In Coalition, including Michael Bloomberg and Jerry Brown.

Other coalitions have stepped in and offered support without the elitist trappings. The U.S. People's Delegation offers alternatives to the "Trump Administration's fossil fuel agenda" and boasts a broader network of grassroots organizations among its ranks. Made up of representatives from SustainUS, Sunrise Movement, Indigenous Environmental Network, Global Grassroots Justice Alliance as part of It Takes Roots, U.S Human Rights Network, Climate Generation, Our Children's Trust, NextGen America, and 350.org, the People's Delegation includes indigenous communities, communities of color, youth, advocates, and policymakers, all of whom have the stated goal of showcasing what climate leadership can, and should, look like.

The People's Delegation hosted press conferences, town halls with elected U.S. officials, and meetings with other delegations throughout the talks, but also confronted both the formal U.S. delegation (disrupting a U.S. presentation about fossil fuels as solutions to climate change), as well as government leaders like Brown to deliver on climate action promises.

One area the delegation is addressing is climate finance, pushing for countries to meet their climate finance commitments and setting up clearer protocols for loss and damage as a result of climate change and its cascading effects. The Trump administration has said it will not contribute to the Green Climate Fund, which was established within the framework of the UNFCCC to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change.

"There should be an ongoing fight in Congress to try and get as much money as we can moving in the right direction," says Jamie Henn, the strategic communications director at 350.org.

One such action, Senate Bill 2056 in Massachusetts, would create a check-off option so residents of the state could choose to donate money from their tax return to the Least Developed Countries Fund, the U.N. fund focused on helping communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change address their immediate situations, and wouldn't otherwise have the resources to do so.

Another measure is opposing the REDD+ forestry program. Many of the indigenous groups that attended as part of the U.S. People's Delegation remain concerned about the various carbon-offset schemes that the program entails. They contend that these schemes allow polluting facilities, which are often located in low income and people of color communities, to continue polluting and just buy credits.

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Kandi Mossett believes she had to go to COP23 to show the rest of the world that, while Trump is in denial about the climate crisis, the People's Delegation is not. From the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, Mossett works with the Indigenous Environmental Network as the tribal campus climate challenge coordinator, engaging with more than 30 tribal colleges to instate community based environmental programs, discuss issues of socio-ecologic injustice, and connect indigenous youth with green jobs. She currently serves as IEN's native energy and climate campaign organizer, focusing at present on creating awareness about the environmentally and socially devastating effects of hydraulic fracturing on tribal lands.

COP23, and COPs more generally, are, in some sense, largely places where conversations for further action on the ground is framed, and localized national and sub-national efforts to deliver on overarching agreements such as the Paris Agreement are announced. Much of the difficult work takes place on a day-to-day scale, a grinding marathon against what can sometimes seem like insurmountable obstacles. Those obstacles are only multiplied by the Trump administration, handing the keys to create sustainable change to coalitions like We Are Still In and the People's Delegation.

Yet even between these coalitions there is friction, as perhaps there should be. The process of realizing a transition to a sustainable economy, environment, and climate justice are tall tasks, and coalitions must hold each other accountable. It's up to them to push the U.S. off the path the federal government is taking, and doing so requires pushing further and toward more ambitious goals than what we may even be considering today. 

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