Meeting for annual climate talks, America’s political leaders are forcefully reiterating their commitments to the landmark Paris climate accord, despite President Donald Trump’s dismissal of the pact as a threat to the nation’s economy and sovereignty.
Govs. Jerry Brown of California, Jay Inslee of Washington and Kate Brown of Oregon – top officials of the West Coast’s “Blue Wall” – promised in Bonn to fill the widening gap left by the federal government’s retreat from the international stage. They were joined by mayors and members of Congress, business leaders and philanthropists in their calls for resolve.
Yet as the world grapples with the challenge of converting their ambitious pledges two years ago in Paris into actionable plans to decrease greenhouse gasses, a more vexing question hangs over the conference: Can climate change be solved by politics, or is the existential threat too polarizing, distant and amorphous to tackle?
“There is a lot of talk, but as I say it’s better than the opposite, which is no talk,” Brown said over the weekend at his hotel in Bonn. “It’s a torturous process because nobody’s in charge. It’s independent states and nations that have to coalesce behind policies that radically transform their economies. It’s almost unthinkable the magnitude of the challenge. And, yet, here we are.”
Recent polling found the number of Americans who are “very” or “somewhat” worried about global warming reached 61 percent, according to Yale University. But studies show Americans don’t consider it a top-of-mind threat. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that although 68 percent want the U.S. to take “aggressive action” to confront climate change, few view it as a priority compared with the economy and security.
Brown, attending climate events in Europe, says that when talking with scientists even he feels on the edge of despair. He said while there is nothing happening that gives him grounds for optimism, he remains excited about doing something to avert disaster, offering that there’s “real horror in store” if leaders don’t act.
“But it’s so large, and people don’t like to think in catastrophic terms, that most people would prefer to minimize, or trivialize, or talk about something else,” Brown conceded. “Monday Night Football, for millions of people, is a lot bigger than climate change.”
Partisanship contributes to the stalemate in the United States. Republicans are far more skeptical of the research and findings of climate scientists, the Pew Research Center determined. Inslee, who has tussled with GOP lawmakers as he tries to enact stricter environmental policies, said he has been waiting for voices to emerge within the Republican Party with the spirit of former president and conservationalist Theodore Roosevelt.
“You still have pockets of climate denial by people who realize that if they recognize the reality of climate change we will recognize that government has to do something about it,” Inslee said. “They are so ideologically opposed to government activity on anything it leaves them to blind themselves to a state of willful ignorance and climate denial.”
The intransigence over climate change underscores a political system in the U.S. that increasingly skews away from the majority and gives more leverage to vocal activists and large fossil fuel companies and their allies to “deny science and capture the Republican Party,” said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Over the last 10 years, oil and gas companies, including Exxon, Koch Industries, Chevron and Shell, spent more than $1.4 billion on federal lobbying, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The total does not include spending by supportive trade associations and like-minded think tanks.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist and Trump critic who has campaigned against the oil industry, believes Republicans in Congress and the federal government are willfully neglecting the science behind climate change.
“It’s infuriating to know that people knew and they chose not to act because they were getting paid off by a bunch of oil and gas executives though their campaign contributions,” he said. “The public, including Republican voters, know this and want it to change, but they don’t realize how urgent it is.”
Trump said he would withdraw from the Paris agreement, arguing it punishes U.S. interests: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said. Other countries are becoming more willing than the U.S. to act on climate change.
In China, there is more talk about transitioning to an ecological civilization, described as the synthesis of economic, political, educational and other societal reforms incorporating sustainability, said Mathis Wackernagel, chief executive of the Global Footprint Network, which focuses on altering how the world manages natural resources.
“The world is changing fast, whether we like it or not,” he said. “We can either get with it, recognize the trends and use them as opportunities, or stay blind and get hit by them as growing risks.”
Scientists and dignitaries describe it as a failure to communicate their own eloquent data. Virgilio Viana, superintendent-general of the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, wrestles with how to help without adding to the political paralysis.
“Society is not listening,” said Viana, Brazil’s former secretary of state for the environment and sustainable development. “It has to be done differently. Maybe religious leaders can have a role ... But maybe we should spend some time designing a strategy because currently, clearly, it’s a failure.”
While there are meetings about keeping rising temperatures below 2 degrees centigrade, and as world leaders talk about carbon dioxide parts per million, “there aren’t enough speeches about people who are dying today because of pollution,” said former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He said what may happen decades from now does not resonate with the public: “Climate change does not move the needle.”
“I can do the best action movie in the world, but if I don’t know how to communicate to the people to get them into the theater, the movie is going to die at the box office and it’s going to go into the toilet,” he said.
Schwarzenegger suggested putting warning labels on gas pumps and other fossil fuels similar to those on tobacco products. He also recently launched a digital handbook of environmental laws that catalogs bills from across the country, allowing states to modify the language for their own use.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, speaking in Bonn, called for a Marshall Plan for the U.S. that concentrates on areas of the country left behind and people who feel like the green economy is not a part of their future. He mentioned building wind turbines in West Virginia and solar panels in Eastern Ohio.
Americans and global citizens must be shown a road map for ways to deal with the problem without causing disruptions to the economy, Ornstein said, pointing to California’s sixth-in-the-world economy as evidence of a successful example.
The state uses a combination of laws and regulations to police polluters with a climate-fighting arsenal that includes a carbon market, low carbon fuel standard, clean cars and short-lived climate pollutants to help meet greenhouse gas reduction and other targets.
“It’s an investment that has major payoffs,” Ornstein said.
As the state and its coalition of supportive governments advance, Brown has sought to minimize Trump’s impact. He thinks the president’s remarks about climate change being a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese are so absurd that it gives a “bad name” to those who still deny the scientific evidence.
“By a paradoxical fashion he is kind of putting on the accelerator for more climate change and climate action ... But I think only in small doses,” Brown clarified. “It’s like a naturopathy. You need a little bit of the poison to cure, but too much will destroy you.”
He still doesn’t think any country is doing enough. And Brown, who is often critical of complex bureaucracies, continues to believe the world’s governance structures are inadequate to meeting the challenge.
“But,” he said, “bureaucracy is better than war. So if we all get bogged down on these abstruse processes, that’s better than exchanging bullets.”
“It is a problem of winning the minds and hearts of people, because people don’t respond to complexity,” he continued. “That is a big problem with climate change. It’s not jobs. It’s not crime. It’s not terrorism. It’s not something concrete. It’s very abstract. It’s very technical.”