Author: Petra Hurtado
From December 4 to 6, 2017, the North American Climate Summit took place in Chicago, initiated and organized by the City of Chicago in partnership with the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy and C40. We wrote about the Summit’s first day, the Call to Action event that was open to the public and the Opening Ceremony of the Summit, in the article The North American Climate Summit – Tackling Climate Change At The Local Level.
Yesterday, mayors from over 50 U.S. cities and other parts of the world gathered with urban sustainability experts behind closed doors to discuss the status quo of climate action in North America and to sign the Chicago Charter, a commitment among North American cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In June 2017, President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement. However, with the Chicago Charter, these cities committed to continue their climate action, agreeing to greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals that are as ambitious as those in the Paris Agreement.
The highlight of the Summit was, without question, the speech by former U.S. president Barack Obama, who supported climate action throughout the eight years of his presidency and beyond. In his speech, he emphasized the importance of continuing to advance the climate agenda, explaining why he, as a president, positioned the USA to be a global leader in this issue, praising the vital actions of U.S. sub-national actors and governments for continuing this mission. He said, “2015 was the warmest year on record until 2016 became the warmest year on record. […] Our climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. And that’s why I made climate change a priority when I was president. Not because I had nothing else to do. It was a very practical understanding based on the science that if we do not get this issue right then just about every other issue was going to be adversely affected.” He mentioned the effects of climate change on national security due to new surges of migrants from arising conflicts and people being unable to feed themselves. Another key issue addressed was the impact on the economic development and the losses that result from rising temperatures. However, he reaffirmed that this is an issue we can do something about.
Obama recognized that, in the current political situation in the U.S., cities and states are the new leaders of America’s climate action. He also emphasized the important role mayors play in this issue today in general, not just because of the denial of climate change by the U.S. federal government, but rather because of the understanding of mayors of the impact of climate change on their territory and constituency. Mayors are less about politics than state or national governments may be and are therefore getting things done. They see what is happening locally, and are able to address those issues directly and more timely.
This point was reinforced by Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vancouver, Canada during a morning panel discussion when he declared “ultimately, climate action takes place at the local level”. Mayor Valerie Plante of Montreal, Canada added that mayors are the ones who see the direct impact of climate change and are therefore poised to act. Nevertheless, Mayor Robertson affirmed that “cities can’t do it on their own”. They do need support from the national governments. David O’Sullivan, Ambassador of the European Union to the United States, confirmed this and explained how the European Union is trying to tackle climate change at all levels of government. Climate action on all levels is needed depending on what the scale of the project or the action is; e.g. programs with EU-wide reach versus local, regional or national activities.
Independent from the level of government, everyone on the panel agreed that it is the government’s job to regulate and create ways to do the right things. Julia Stasch from the MacArthur Foundation raised the question about the impact of the current political situation in the U.S., given that so far, the U.S. federal government had been an essential ingredient to lead the way on climate action globally. Ambassador O’Sullivan agreed that the U.S. leadership is important for global climate action, but he also mentioned that there is obviously still a strong commitment across the country and even though it is a pity that the U.S. administration took the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the current momentum at the local U.S. government level gives him hope that the country will continue on its path in the right direction.
Christiana Figueres, Vice Chair, Global Covenant of Mayors, was speaking from my heart when she highlighted the most frustrating thing about dealing with climate change and climate action is that we are talking to ourselves as if we were in a bubble. Obviously, everyone in the room at the Climate Summit agreed with climate action and the commitment to the Paris Agreement and the Chicago Charter. However, we need to get the message out to those people who don’t agree nor understand it. Even though many good things have been achieved to date, we are still not on track to reach the goals. One of the main problems is that no one really understands what we are talking about when we are discussing GHG emissions reduction and similar things. We have to advertise the benefits of climate action on health, transportation, and the many other issues that affect everyone’s everyday lives. (This was also addressed in my article How To Sell Climate Action To People Who Don’t Believe In Climate Change on March 17, 2017).
It doesn’t matter if someone believes in climate change or not; even though it is surprising, as Ambassador O’Sullivan pointed out, that the U.S. can still have a discussion on whether climate change is real or not; we have to act in some way. As Mayor Tom Barrett from Milwaukee put it: “The closer you can bring it to home”, the more effects it will have in the community.
Ultimately, the citizens in our cities want a better quality of life. Climate change mitigation and adaption support this public goal through measures such as building parks for better flood control and providing public transportation for pollution and emissions mitigation. Cities such as San Francisco show that it is possible to do it while even the economy is growing. Mayor Ed Lee explained that today San Francisco’s greenhouse gas emissions are below the goals in the Kyoto Protocol from the 1990s and at the same time, the city’s economy has grown by more than 70% since then.
Among most valuable outcomes of events such as the Climate Summit, are the knowledge sharing and opportunity to learn from best practices and failures from cities’ every day experiences. Another such learning opportunity from cities across the world will be provided at the Global Climate Summit in San Francisco in September 2018.