Environment

Can America Live up to Washington’s Paris Promises Without It?

‘America’s Pledge’ is inspiring because it comes at a time when negotiations are not moving fast enough to keep up with climate science and citizens are realising that they’re on their own.

US officials during a discussion at the Climate Action Centre in Bonn, Germany. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

US officials during a discussion at the Climate Action Centre in Bonn, Germany. Credit: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Aruna Chandrasekhar is a researcher and photojournalist working on issues of development, land alienation, indigenous rights and corporate accountability in India for the last six years. She tweets at @aruna_sekhar.

Bonn: On a cold and rainy Saturday morning, a long queue snaked outside the US Climate Action Centre at the ongoing climate talks in Bonn, Germany, to witness ‘America’s Pledge‘ to the Paris Agreement – with or without Washington. The centre, an igloo-shaped inflatable dome, is located neither in the Bonn Zone, where all the other country pavilions are, nor in the Bula zone, where the negotiations take place. This physical positioning is idiomatic of America’s place in the climate talks. Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement remains on the cards, even as it still has a seat at the negotiations, leaving it up to American citizens, cities and corporations to pledge their own allegiance to Paris.

“Pittsburgh is still committed to Paris,” said Pittsburgh mayor Bob Peduto to a huge round of applause from the crowd, hitting back at Trump for using his city’s electorate as a justification for pulling out of the Paris Agreement. “I watched my city die, go through a depression. We exported people like we exported steel. Although federal governments can create regulations and rules, the implementation happens at the local level. Pittsburgh can show the model that if we can do it, you certainly can.” Peduto is part of a group of 367 mayors that have joined America’s Pledge, an act that the Nicaraguan delegation said had been inspiring enough for them to abandon their skepticism and join the Paris Agreement.

“We are going to meet and exceed our commitments,” said Al Gore, former US premier and renowned climate activist, while media magnate Michael Bloomberg pointed out that the 2,300 signatories to the pledge represent “a bigger economy than any nation outside the US and China”.

Anti-Trump and ‘people’s power’ sentiments aside, precisely how the US will meet its commitments to Paris is the question on top of everyone’s minds. On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced that he would cease implementation of the US national pledge, cribbing that ”the bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair, at the highest level, to the United States”. However, a civil society assessment of the national pledge shows that it promises only a fifth of its “fair share” to keep global warming under 1.5º C. A UN Emissions Gap report states that current national pledges will also only cover a third of all that’s needed to keep temperature rise below 2º C.

Accountability is another big issue. “How are pledges by non-state actors sufficient?” asked Thiagarajan Jayaraman, climate policy expert and professor at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences in Mumbai. “The America’s Pledge on Climate may be a worthwhile initiative, but is it not ducking the real question that the US government is not answerable now for the commitment it promised in the Paris Agreement?”

Not only has the US let itself off the hook for what it does on climate action, its negotiators are still in the room, blocking progress on other fronts. “We thought after US hurricanes, its government would be far more empathetic to what is happening in developing countries, but we were wrong,” said Harjeet Singh, climate change lead at Action Aid. “The US is being as active and obstructive as it used to be, blocking progress on several items, while pulling others down.” African campaigners have been petitioning negotiators to eject the US delegation from the talks, stating that it had no right to ‘rock the boat’ on progress from within.

So far, the US has lead interventions against putting pre-2020 climate actions on the table and blocking any reference to public finance for victims of extreme weather events from developing countries. Bloomberg’s $50-million anti-coal fund is welcome, but whether private finance can fill the staggering gap for adaptation and the cost of its historical emissions also remains to be explored.

It was also clear that not everyone is “still in” when it comes to America’s Pledge. Indigenous activists and other protesters were shown the way out of the Climate Action Centre after they lead protests against Californian governor Jerry Brown for what they called “false solutions to climate change”. In shockingly bad form, Brown responded to their slogans by saying, “I agree with you, let’s keep you in the ground so we can continue the show.”

Brown’s reputation back home in California – the third largest oil-producing state – is not doing much to inspire confidence in his leadership either. A new report by the Center for Biological Diversity shows that California regulators issued more than 3,300 drilling permits for oil and gas wells in 2015 alone. “Real climate leaders don’t frack,” said Eva Malis, a 21-year-old environmentalist from California.

In another alarming move, the Trump government is bringing the coal industry to the party, with coal major Peabody Electric Corporation set to speak at a high-level event at the UN on Monday (November 13).

Skepticism around its leadership and enforceability aside, ‘America’s Pledge’ remains inspiring. It comes at a time when high-level negotiations are not moving fast enough to keep up with climate science’s alarming findings, and citizens realising that, bluster aside, they’re on their own. It underscores the need for more localised climate actions and developing resilience. It is more than just a little unfortunate that, despite their best intentions, the American government continues to block the progress of developing countries that are also, for better or worse, still in.