An Insider’s Journal from the Paris Climate Talks
What’s it like to help protect the world from climate chaos? Here’s my daily peek behind the scenes at #COP21.
Friday, December 11: Feeling Hopeful About Our Capacity for Change
While hosting a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Paris climate talks last week, I was moved, almost to tears, by the fervent pleading of Mina Setra on behalf of indigenous peoples in Indonesia living on the desperate front lines of climate change.
In moderating a clean energy discussion in the opulent wonder of the Petit Palais, I was as inspired by the can-do message and the lively give-and-take between clean-tech investor Tom Steyer and California Governor Jerry Brown as I was by the palace and its Renaissance splendor.
And I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so hopeful about our capacity to drive the change we need as when I simply strolled through the public spaces at the conference center where the talks convened in Le Bourget, a suburb just north of Paris. I marveled at the diversity and intensity of the climate activist community that showed up from every corner of the world, their message amplified by performance artists speaking up for the preservation of everything from Andean glaciers to Tibetan yaks, while reporters filed dispatches, citizen journalists blogged, and cell phone videos went viral.
The climate talks have become a kind of global town hall bringing citizen groups face-to-face with government policy makers and international media as perhaps no other forum in history. Neither peace talks, trade negotiations, arms control conferences, nor the annual Group of Eight summit allows private citizens this kind of access to elected officials or their government delegates and the press. It isn’t quite global democracy, but it sure has the flavor of government by a whole lot of people.
The proximity afforded by this unbridled horde of humanity from nations large and small puts everyone on more or less the same playing field, if only for a relative moment in time. It lends the microphone to interests that too often go unheard, widening the conversation and enriching public discourse. It enables grassroots voices to have real impact on the public officials they most need to reach. And it provides a global venue for holding leaders to account for the positions they take on behalf of a watching world, whether in their own country or any other.
This is what building civil society is all about at the global level. We’re here to advance action on climate change, but the process goes well beyond that. It’s a living, breathing showcase of what it means for people in positions of authority to be confronted by the people they serve.
For many who come here, this valuable combination of access and visibility is rare, if not unique. With nearly 200 nations represented, after all, some participants have been more free to speak their mind in Paris these past two weeks than they’ll likely be when they return home. They’ll go back changed, though, having experienced for themselves what it’s like to be seen and heard, having tested firsthand this radical idea we call government by consent of the governed.
Climate negotiators, of course, don’t hammer out policy details in public. What happens when they’re sequestered in private chambers, though, doesn’t stay in those rooms. There are simply too many delegates with too many interested parties waiting just beyond the doors for anything to remain secret for long.
And, while the talks themselves are the heart of the process, delegates and climate diplomats have interacted with the public in endless panel discussions, speeches, and programs at the conference facility in sideline events, like the United Nations–sponsored Earth to Paris proceedings at the Petit Palais. You can run, but you can’t hide, from people who stage an impromptu demonstration against hydraulic fracturing in the same room where delegates discuss the fine points of global carbon budgeting.
There’s something more that happened in Paris this week, something that speaks to the kind of civil societies we seek to build everywhere. Some 40,000 delegates, activists, climate experts, and journalists descended on this city from around the world for these talks. Every one was painfully aware of the terrorist rampage that left 130 dead here a month ago.
There was an anguished pride the people of France seemed to take in rising from the depths of national tragedy to host the world in the City of Light. You could see it in the eyes of passersby along the bridges crossing over the Seine, feel it in the exchange of a simple holiday purchase in the outdoor arcade along the Champs Elysees, hear it in the silence of taxi drivers rolling past the stadium where suicide bombers struck.
That kind of resilience in the face of horror and loss is also what civil society is about, the enduring ideals embodied in the great motto of France: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Far more than mere words or symbols, these are guiding principles we all aspire to as citizens of the world, whether in times of triumph or turmoil, the kinds of times this great city has seen before and over which it has, through it all, prevailed.
Thursday, December 10: On the Brink of History
In the vast conference center where world climate talks are nearing completion, four people frantically pumped away at a station where they charged their cell phones using pedal power. Nearby, two young Chinese women passed out documentaries of panda bear survival on tiny flash drives. And throughout the vast hall the air was electric with anticipation.
After years of preparation, promises by more than 180 countries to do their part, and nearly two weeks of intensive negotiations, we’ve come to the brink of an historic agreement on global action to fight climate change.
Furious late-night wrangling over final details and remaining differences left negotiators confident late today that, barring any last-minute surprises, an agreement would be inked by Saturday.
Even before the talks began, critics prejudged them a failure, either because they won’t put an immediate end to climate change or because (so they said) there’s no real problem to fix — or, inexplicably, both.
So let’s be clear. If we could end climate change with a piece of paper, we would’ve done it a long time ago. This crisis has been in the making since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution nearly three centuries ago. We won’t fix it overnight. The expectation was progress, not perfection. And Paris is on the verge of delivering, big-time.
For the first time in history, the nations of the world are pulling together around a comprehensive action plan to steadily cut the dangerous carbon pollution that’s driving climate change. We’re standing up with some of the most vulnerable of the world’s people, low-income communities struggling on the ragged front lines of climate chaos. We’re putting up real money to help indigenous people protect their homes, livelihoods, and families. And we’re setting the stage for further gains by making plans to get back together five years from now to up our climate action game.
Perhaps most important of all, this agreement makes clear that the world is beginning the long transition away from the fossil fuels that are driving climate change and to cleaner, smarter energy options. Not only that, but there’s intense global competition emerging to determine which countries will best position themselves to succeed in the biggest economic play of our lifetime: the global clean energy transition.
For Americans, this transition holds out the promise of opportunity for jobs, prosperity, and generations of economic growth, all of which is being spurred by President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
I spoke about the plan, and Obama’s climate leadership more generally, in a session on the sidelines of the climate talks today. The forum focused on what the Paris talks mean for China, the United States, and India — the world’s largest, second-largest, and fourth-largest emitters of carbon pollution. The climate talks recognize that, for countries as different as these three, there’s no single approach that works best for fighting climate change.
In the United States, for instance, we’re just now getting around, for the first time, to setting limits on how much carbon pollution can be kicked out from the power plants that account for 40 percent of our carbon footprint.
Under the Clean Power Plan, we’ll cut that pollution 32 percent by 2030 — relative to 2005 levels — by investing in efficiency so we do more with less waste in our businesses, cars, and homes; getting more power from the wind and sun; and tuning up our electricity generation and distribution systems for optimal efficiency. We’re already working to double the gas mileage in new cars, to an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, which will cut the carbon pollution per driven mile in half. And we’re cutting carbon pollution from our heavy trucks as well.
The result is going to be cleaner air, better health, and hundreds of millions of tons of carbon pollution that won’t be going into our atmosphere every year. This puts us on track to meet the promise Obama made under the Clean Power Plan.
China, the world’s largest carbon polluter, is burning more coal than the rest of the world combined. Not a day went by in Paris that we didn’t read news reports about the horrible toll coal use is imposing on China’s air quality and the health of its people. In some Chinese cities, air quality was so poor this week that residents were advised to stay indoors.
With the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing economy, China is certain to see its carbon emissions grow in the coming years. As part of the Paris accord, though, China has pledged that those emissions will peak by 2030 — earlier if possible — and it has an aggressive plan in place to accomplish that.
China is the world’s largest investor in wind and solar power, pumping some $90 billion into those two power sources last year alone. By 2030, the government vows, China will be getting 20 percent of its power from the wind, sun, and other renewable sources. To help speed the transition, China is putting a cap-and-trade system in place by 2017 that will put a price on carbon and promote the use of cleaner options. The country is also developing distribution systems that put renewable power first on the grid.
India’s challenge is to try to slow the growth of its carbon footprint in the face of rising population and rapid economic expansion. The country’s Paris pledge is to cut energy intensity (the amount of energy used per unit of economic output) between 33 and 35 percent by 2030. That means India’s carbon footprint will triple over the period, while its economy will grow sixfold. The result: many billions of tons less carbon pollution than we’d otherwise see.
India’s already hard at work to accomplish its goal, with plans for a sixfold increase in renewable energy by 2022, mandatory building efficiency codes by 2017, and vehicle emissions standards within three years.
As we lean forward toward a final climate accord this weekend, it’s important to remember the difference between perfection and progress. When perfection is not an option, we’ll take progress every time.
Wednesday, December 9: Keeping Congress From Blocking Progress
President Obama joined 140 other world leaders last week at world climate talks aimed at shifting the global economy away from the dirty fossil fuels that are driving climate change and toward the cleaner, smarter energy options that can power our future while protecting our kids.
What’s needed is nothing less than a total “transformation of the global economy,” Secretary of State John Kerry added Wednesday, telling climate negotiators here in Paris that the race is on to structure the global markets that will finance $50 trillion in public and private energy investment over the next two decades.
The United States, France, and 18 other countries have joined Bill Gates and 27 other billionaire investors to pledge a massive ramp-up in clean energy research and development. And the coming decade will see a total of at least $325 billion in clean energy investment from Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and the Bank of America alone.
This isn’t a trend: it’s a revolution. It’s the global economic play of our lifetime.
So why are Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate trying to take us in the opposite direction?
That’s what’s at stake with the senate poised to vote on whether to lift the longstanding ban on crude oil exports. That would be a mistake.
We don’t need yet another government giveaway to Big Oil at the American people’s expense. And we certainly don’t need U.S. policy to promote fossil fuels just as the world is moving in the other direction.
American taxpayers already dole out some $4 billion a year in subsidies to the oil industry, while crude oil production puts our families, communities, and environment at risk of well blowouts, water contamination, exploding oil trains, and a long list of other hazards and harm.
Lifting the crude oil export ban — a measure tacked onto a broader spending package — would drive the industry to expose Americans the ever-widening peril of producing crude oil to be shipped to our competitors abroad.
That doesn’t make sense, but it didn’t stop the GOP-controlled House from voting earlier this fall to lift the ban, drawing a White House veto threat. If the Senate follows the lead of the House, President Obama should stand strong and not let Republicans get away with stepping on the gas on fossil fuel production when the real opportunity is with clean energy.
Republican President Gerald Ford put the crude oil exports ban in place in 1975, after the Arab oil embargo threw much of the country into a near state of panic over the security of national energy supplies.
At the time, the United States was importing 36 percent of its oil and 60 percent of our imports were coming from countries in the volatile Middle East and other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Today, net imports account for 25 percent of our oil, and we get more from neighboring Canada than from OPEC nations.
The crude oil export ban, though, doesn’t mean we don’t ship petroleum abroad. The United States, in fact, is one of the largest petroleum exporters in the world. Rather than crude oil, though, we ship out diesel fuel and other refined products at the rate of 4.6 million barrels a day — equal to 24 percent of U.S. consumption.
Now, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are pushing to send even more U.S. oil overseas. Americans get the harm, our competitors get the fuel, our children pay the price forever worsening climate change, and Big Oil walks away with the profits.
Some energy policy.
Let’s get serious.
Instead of promoting the fossil fuels of the past, and all the damage and danger they bring, Congress should be putting in place the policies that advance U.S. clean energy technology and position American workers for success in the global economic play of our lifetime.
That means investing in efficiency so we do more with less waste. It means building, in our own country, the best all-electric and hybrid cars anywhere. It means powering them with more electricity from the wind and sun. And it means rising to a leadership role in the transformation of the global economy.
That’s what’s best for our country. It’s what the world has rallied around in Paris. Let’s not throw progress in reverse in Washington.
Tuesday, December 8: Building Resiliency
When a deadly heat wave hit India last May, it killed more than 2,300 people. In the city of Ahmedabad, though, lives were saved by a pioneering plan to provide early warnings to residents and help them prepare for the withering heat.
In developing Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan, city leaders, municipal health experts and others partnered with NRDC, which has long recognized the grave risks that extreme heat can pose, especially to low-income people, the elderly and those who work outside in the heat.
Tuesday at the Paris climate talks, NRDC released its new City Resiliency Toolkit. It lays out the key lessons and successful strategies from the Ahmedabad experience so that other cities, in India and across the developing world, can create their own heat action plans to help cope with searing heat.
Much like the toolkit, the climate talks must produce real help for people living in developing countries. These are the people living on the front lines of climate change and the most vulnerable to its peril. They need help dealing with the dangers and consequences of heat waves, floods, drought, desertification, sea level rise and other hazards of climate chaos. They also need help to participate fully in the clean energy revolution necessary to fight it.
“Renewable energy and energy efficiency are amazingly important to us,” Ajay Mathur, director general of India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency, said Tuesday during an NRDC forum on opportunities to fight climate change and promote sustainable development in the world’s second-most populous nation. “What will it take for all of us to work together to achieve the kinds of goals that we have set our for ourselves?”
One thing that’s essential is this: Any final climate change agreement to come out of Paris must include a global green finance mechanism that provides at least $100 billion a year in public and private investment by 2020. That’s money that communities across the developing world can use to cope with the worst impacts of climate change — by, for example, putting in place heat action plans like the one in Ahmedabad, or similar plans to cope with droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events. It can be used to address the loss of arable farmland to widening deserts, or to help low-lying coastal populations confront the consequences of rising sea level. And it can help developing nations invest in the kind of energy efficiency programs spearheaded by visionary leaders like Ajay Mathur.
The scope of India’s challenge is enormous, and so is the opportunity.
How about changing 770 million incandescent light bulbs to LED versions that use a fraction of the power? That project is under way, the price of the more efficient bulbs has plunged 75 percent in the past 19 months as use has scaled up, and the country is determined to finish the job within three years.
In the salt-producing Indian state of Gujarat, NRDC is helping to provide solar-powered water pumps that cut power costs for low-income families in a country where, by some measures, electricity costs are the world’s highest as a percentage of per-capita income. “One woman told us that, because of the money she saved from these solar pumps, she could now afford to send her children to school,” former NRDC president Frances Beinecke said at Tuesday’s forum, held on the sidelines of the climate talks. “These kinds of very real impacts on the ground have the ability to save lives and improve lives.”
That’s exactly what climate action is all about. We’re working to prevent the impacts that we can, prepare for the consequences already baked into the system, and pivot from the dirty fossil fuels that are driving climate change to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future. What will it take to get there? A world committed to progress and willing to change.
Over little more than a century, average land and sea temperatures worldwide have risen by about 1 degree Centigrade, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, science tells us we need to prevent warming of any more than 2 degrees Centigrade, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Even that limited warming, though, could doom some island nations, like the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, where land rises just six feet or so above sea level.
On Tuesday, U.S. climate negotiators joined their counterparts from Canada, China, the European Union, and elsewhere to say they want any agreement to enshrine aspirations to hold warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels.
Now what’s important in the days ahead is that we agree to get back together every five years, beginning by 2020, to revisit the progress we’re making and ratchet up our commitments to build on those gains.
That’s the answer to Ajay Mathur’s question.
Monday, December 7: Lessons from California
The Paris climate talks entered their second week today amid an emerging spirit of competition over which nations, or groups of nations, will come out the biggest winners in the clean energy revolution that’s transforming the global economy.
Which countries, in other words, will put together the right mix of public policies, private investment, and technological innovation to thrive in the coming low-carbon world?
On Monday, several hundred climate delegates attended a kind of tutorial I moderated — a discussion on the subject by California Governor Jerry Brown and Tom Steyer, the clean-tech Silicon Valley investor and climate action advocate. Few people have had a bigger impact than Brown and Steyer on California’s success at stoking economic growth with the same clean energy revolution we need to fight the dangers of climate change. The magic, they said, is to set the table so that private industry, public policy makers, visionaries, and voters all play their respective roles, and do so in an effective way.
“You need to get the right ideas, you need to be able to present them, and you have to build a coalition — you have to build consensus,” said Brown. “This is an art and a science.”
Certainly California has a talented and innovative workforce. Policy makers, though, have played it smart, giving residents effective tools and incentives that help make the best of that potential. And forty years of forward-leaning policies on clean air, energy efficiency, renewable power, carbon reduction targets, and other sustainability goals have paid off.
Today California has some of the most aggressive policies in the world to cut carbon pollution. It had economic growth last year of 2.8 percent, significantly above the 2.2 percent national growth rate. If it were a country, California would have the eighth-largest economy in the world, slightly larger than that of Italy. The Golden State routinely attracts more clean-tech investment than the rest of North America combined. And California creates nearly twice as much economic output, per unit of energy consumed, as the national average.
That translates into big dollar savings for businesses and consumers, by the way — a kind of smart-policy bonus that flows directly back into the California economy. It’s contributed as well to a virtuous cycle as technological advances make clean-tech investments more attractive.
“Technology drives down costs,” said Steyer, “and it improves performance relentlessly.”
Across more and more of the country, wind turbines and solar panels have become more cost-effective than fossil fuel options, driving investment all the more. “Who,” asked Steyer,” is dumb enough to pay more to be dirty?”
California’s clean-tech revolution began, as progress often does, with a recognition of the opportunity that lies within challenge.
By 1969, when an offshore oil blowout dumped some four million gallons of crude into the waters off Santa Barbara, nearby Los Angeles had become the smog capital of the world. Alarm bells went off in the public conscience. “Everybody got that that was bad,” said Brown. That was the silver lining: Californians recognized the threat the fossil fuel industry posed to our air, waters, health, and lands.
In the years that followed, California used provisions from the Clean Air Act to help put in place some of the nation’s most stringent standards for reducing tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks. “That started California on the trail of reducing greenhouse gases from vehicular emissions,” said Brown. It also set the state on course to develop the strongest corps of clean air workers of any state in the country.
“Most important is the imagination and the political will,” said Brown. “Next you’ve got to be able to execute.”
For the United States and the world, the challenge moving forward from Paris is to convert the momentum building here into the political will needed to enact the kind of policies that can help spur clean energy advances elsewhere — in states across our own country and in nations around the world.
“Paris is really important, but it’s part of a chain,” said Steyer. “We have the momentum, and, after Paris, we have to make sure that the momentum continues.”
Sunday, December 6: Robert Redford and the Power of Story
Mundiya Kepanga is a great chief of the Huli people who dwell in the dense rainforests of Papau New-Guinea. He journeyed to the Paris climate talks wearing the colorful feathered headdress and long nose quill that connote status among the indigenous people he serves.
“I live in the forest,” Mundiya explained this afternoon as we sat on stage together at the global headquarters of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, here in Paris. “When the world was created the forest was created and the trees were born, and my ancestors have always lived there.”
Now, though, those forests are being destroyed by renegade poachers of tropical hardwoods and reckless loggers who plunder the lands of the Huli and ravage this precious resource. The destruction may be unfolding far from Paris, but it’s as near, he warned, as our next breath of air.
“My forest is not mine (alone), it is yours as well,” Mundiya said through an interpreter. “If we vanish, we vanish together.”
Midway through two weeks of global climate talks in Paris, Mundiya reminded us why this work is so urgent and of the stakes we all share in getting this right. We might not look the same, dress alike or speak the same language, but we’re all linked in a global community by the natural systems we depend on to survive.
“I do not know how to read or to write. … It is with my eyes I am going to testify, and with my heart I am going to testify.” — Mundiya Kepanga
Ultimately, fighting climate change is a fight about people. All over the world, people whose lands, homes and very lives are imperiled are standing up to the frontline dangers of this widening scourge. If we’re going to craft meaningful solutions to the climate crisis, we must listen to the voices and hear the stories of people already living at disaster’s doorstep.
To do that, I was joined on stage at UNESCO before an audience of nearly 1,200 people by one of the most iconic storytellers and environmental champions of our time, the actor and director Robert Redford, and three people who bear witness to the ways climate chaos is already imposing rising costs and mounting risks on their families, communities and lives.
To Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, climate change isn’t some abstract notion, it’s a daily threat to all she knows and loves in her native Marshall Islands, rapidly being swallowed up by the sea.
To Mina Setra, a global climate accord is meaningless unless it protect indigenous peoples against rapacious industrial assaults like those underway in parts of her native Indonesia.
And to Mundiya, preserving the rainforest isn’t only about preserving our climate, it’s about saving the only home his people have ever known.
“When we speak about climate, we speak about humanity,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, when introducing our co-sponsored event. “Today we need the knowledge of indigenous peoples like never before. This is the story we need to tell today.”
It’s a story we don’t hear enough. All too often, the people bearing the greatest burden from climate change are those who struggle to be heard.
“We’ve been trying to tell our own stories, we’ve been building our own media and we’ve been trying to protect our resources,” Mina said through tears, explaining that the rivers and rain forests she played in as a child have been destroyed. “All these things,” she said, “we want the world to know.”
The fact is, we won’t solve the climate crisis unless we listen to people like Mina and protect the rights of the indigenous peoples she represents.
“They have great stories to tell us, because they are the closest to the land,” Redford said. “It’s time to go back and listen to what these cultures have to tell us. Who is going to know more about what the threat is than the people who are threatened?”
Few people anywhere speak more eloquently of those threats than Jetnil-Kijiner, who uses her generous gift of poetry to bring attention to the threat that rising seas could soon swamp her native Marshall Islands, where most of the land lies less than six feet above sea level.
“That’s what poetry and art and storytelling has the capacity to do,” she said. “It brings back the humanity. It puts a face to the issues.”
To avert the worst impacts of climate change, negotiators in Paris are searching for ways to hold global warming to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels. Even that, though, is about 25 percent too hot to save the Marshall Islands.
“At 2 degrees my islands, the Marshall Islands, are already underwater,” Kathy said. She moved the crowd by reciting a poem she wrote last summer, when her year-old daughter had a slight fever.
“What a difference a few degrees can make,” she began. Far from Paris, far beyond the lifeless statistics, cold posturing, excuses for inaction and unconscionable delay, “There are people, there are faces,” she reminded us. “There is a baby walking wobbly on a reef not underwater.”
If you want to see more from this amazing event, including a full recitation of Jetnil-Kijiner’s poem and Redford’s observations on the power of storytelling, see the extensive coverage from NRDC’s editorial team.
Photos: Julien Hekimian/Getty
Saturday, December 5: Halfway to History
Midway into the Paris climate talks, we’ve set the table for an historic agreement that can turn the tide against the central environmental challenge of our time, shape a cleaner and safer future, and put us on the path to a low-carbon global economy.
Not bad for starters.
Countries that together account for more than 90 percent of the carbon pollution that’s driving climate change have pledged to do their part. We’ve agreed, nearly 200 countries, to begin moving away from the dirty fossil fuels of the past to the cleaner, smarter options that can power our future without threatening our kids. And hundreds of mayors, governors, and other local leaders are here in Paris to prove that we can get this done, because they’re already moving forward in their cities and communities around the world.
Over the next few days, there will be hard work to consolidate these gains in an agreement that’s verifiable, strong, and has transparency and accountability baked in up front.
We need to make sure developing countries have the resources and tools they need to tap the clean energy they need to grow.
And we need to commit to getting back together by 2020 to build on the progress we make here in Paris, and ratchet up our gains in the decades to come.
“We are trying to say to the people that in their hands lies the solution,” Peru’s Minister of Environment, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal Otalora, said Saturday, after laying flowers at the base of an ice sculpture symbolizing the rapid melting of Andean glaciers — the essential source of water for countries across the region — as a consequence of climate change.
The minister is right. The solutions are in our hands, across the Andes, and around the world. That’s what the Paris talks are all about.
As I told reporters here to cover the negotiations, this is the first time in history that we’ve tabled serious and systematic climate action commitments from nearly all of the world’s emitters. That’s truly revolutionary.
Joining me at the press conference today was Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a Boston-based non-profit organization that helps to mobilize investors, companies, and public interest groups to move us toward sustainable business practices and advance our clean energy future.
As we told the press, the climate clock is ticking. The achievements of the first week of the Paris climate talks left us with feelings of momentum and expectation. Some issues still need to be resolved, naturally, but everyone is clear on what we need to focus on.
“What we do here in Paris can and will make a difference,” Lubber said. “I’m optimistic what we do here will have great success.”
Friday, December 4: Real Places, Real People, Real Leaders for Change
Few buildings anywhere speak to the promise of human achievement with greater eloquence than the grand Hotel de Ville, the city hall of Paris. I was reminded of that on Friday as I sat in the palatial seat of Parisian governance alongside some 400 mayors, governors, and local officials who are leading an epic climate revolution worldwide.
In many ways, these are the heroes of the global fight against climate change. By improving the way they manage their communities and cities, they’re slashing the carbon footprint in their own backyards.
For these visionary leaders, climate action is no mere catchphrase; it’s a daily part of their political life. The cities of the world, after all, account for about 70 percent of the carbon pollution that’s driving climate change. That’s why real action to cut that pollution begins in our great urban centers — and why city leaders are already making a huge difference in our future.
“Cities shelter more than half the inhabitants of the planet,” said the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. “They are fantastic sources of solutions and possibilities.”
Hidalgo, along with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, cohosted Friday’s Climate Summit for Local Leaders, convened in concert with the global climate talks in Paris. “This is the embodiment of the true diplomacy of cities,” she said. “Our cities must not condemn people. They must help them to live better, and this is what we’re going to prove.”
For me, fresh off my overnight flight from the United States, these local leaders offered the perfect introduction to the climate talks, where representatives from nearly 200 countries are gathered to take real action to fight the central environmental challenge of our time.
It’s vital work. Climate change is a global problem. Fighting it will require global effort.
It’s inspiring to see, though, how much progress is already being made by leaders at the city, state, and local levels, where the ability to act isn’t constrained by the kind of partisanship that can grind national politics to gridlock.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti is working to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. His call to cut water use 20 percent in two years was answered by voluntary conservation efforts that reduced water consumption by 17 percent in a single year. “People,” Garcetti said, “are immensely powerful.”
In Vancouver, British Columbia, Mayor Gregor Robertson is striving to power his city on 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 — “at the latest,” he said. At the heart of the effort: a Greenest City Action Plan that 35,000 Vancouver citizens helped to write. “I’m hopeful,” Robertson added, “that our collective voice is stronger and stronger than ever.”
And Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau, is working to slash his country’s reliance on diesel fuel to help strike a blow against the rising seas, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification that threaten his tiny Pacific island. “Smokestacks have no place,” he said, “in paradise.”
These and other leaders representing some 340 million people in 360 cities worldwide have pledged real action to fight climate change and create more sustainable communities.
Local leaders have broad influence over the future of energy use in public housing and municipal buildings, traffic management and urban transit, water use, garbage disposal, education, government purchasing decisions, and other areas that directly impact the lives of their people. Many are already experiencing the harsh consequences of climate change.
“If we don’t do anything differently, the city of New Orleans is unlikely to exist a hundred years from now,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, noting that rising sea level and catastrophic wetlands loss along the coast of Louisiana are combining to make the Crescent City more vulnerable to hurricanes and storms. “We are the ones that have to make things happen,” Landrieu said. “Time is running out.”
That urgency was echoed by NRDC Trustee Leonardo DiCaprio, who admonished the local leaders to step up their game and lead the world in the shift away from the dirty fossil fuels that are driving climate change to the cleaner, smarter options that can power our future and protect our children. “Climate change is the most fundamental and existential threat” we face, he said. “It has the potential to make our planet unlivable.”
As energizing as it was to hear from local leaders, sometimes there’s no substitute for hearing from seasoned climate champions who’ve been urging real action for decades.
I talked briefly about the long game with former vice president Al Gore. And the actor, director, and NRDC Trustee Robert Redford told me he found hope in the vision of the local leaders, much as I take inspiration from him. “Mayors, being closer to the ground, closer to the people, they’re really the force that should be worked with,” Redford said.
National leaders, take note: The time for change is now.
· NRDC announced at today’s event that our two-year-old City Energy Project, a joint effort with the Institute for Market Transformation, will expand from a $10 million effort to a $20 million initiative in the coming years, thanks to generous funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Kresge Foundation, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The City Energy Project’s goal is to tackle the biggest source of urban climate pollution: our buildings and the energy they use. Already, we’ve helped 10 pioneering cities get on track to cut nearly $1 billion in energy costs by the year 2030 — all while eliminating the carbon pollution equivalent to the emissions of more than 1 million cars every year. Read more about it from the director of the City Energy Project, Melissa Wright.
· For a different kind of COP21 journal, I hope you’ll check out the illustrations of NRDC’s talented digital communications specialist, Perrin Ireland. She’s already been recommended as one of the top tweeters to follow from the talks, and her Tumblr posts provide a unique perspective on what’s happening here and why it matters.
· NRDC’s international policy experts have been working long hours inside what’s known as the blue zone, where the U.N. negotiations are taking place. We convened a press conference with one of India’s top negotiators, Susheel Kumar, who explained India’s commitment to carbon reduction — including a goal of producing 40 percent of the country’s energy from renewable power — and a newly announced International Solar Alliance. NRDC’s India director, Anjali Jaiswal, hails that solar effort here.
· If you haven’t already, I urge you to sign NRDC’s petition demanding climate action from world leaders — which will also sign you up for our Climate Action Updates from Paris and keep you in the know about the most important developments here. As Redford announced on the White House’s new “Act on Climate” Medium channel today, already more than a quarter million NRDC supporters have added their voices.
Check back tomorrow for my next entry, and follow me on Instagram, where I’ll share additional behind-the-scenes notes and images from Paris.