Corporate execs, career politicians, and environmental activists converged in San Francisco for the Climate Action Summit.
The Global Climate Action Summit held in San Francisco September 12 through 14 felt both urgent (as Hurricane Florence began to soak the Carolinas and Typhoon Mangkhut battered the Philippines), and hopeful. More than 500 commitments were made to speed up the transition to carbon neutrality and to remediate the growing impacts of climate change.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson promised to make coffee a sustainable product. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff vowed to create an alliance of twenty-one tech companies “to reach a climate turning point by 2020.” Dozens of cities committed to all-electric bus and municipal fleets within a decade.
Autodesk and Unilever pledged to buy only from renewable energy companies that uphold workers rights and wage guarantees. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called for a just transition to renewables, along with representatives from climate-vulnerable small island nations and developing economies in Africa and elsewhere. And 400 investors managing a total of $32 trillion (with a “t”) in assets promised to “accelerate” financial flows into climate action.
Still, when former Obama Administration official Brian Deese of BlackRock bragged that his company, the world’s largest asset manager, was investing $5 billion in renewable energy, someone in the cavernous meeting hall called out to “stop investing in fossil fuels” (in which BlackRock has several billion invested).
California Governor Jerry Brown organized the summit, together with New York billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. They began coordinating efforts even before President Donald Trump tried to walk away from the Paris Climate Agreement (the United States can’t legally withdraw till 2021). Brown just signed a law that will see California (like Hawaii) produce 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
“We want to be the California of the east coast,” said Phil Murphy, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, talking about planned offshore wind farms at the summit. “We have to shatter the myth that climate action and the economy are in conflict. Climate action means jobs, better health outcomes, and a better way of life.”
The action started the weekend before the Summit with a march for climate, jobs, and justice led by Native Americans and involving tens of thousands of motivated citizens from labor, faith groups, “grandmothers for future generations,” and others. There were also some 300 side events during the week, including a green film festival, seminars on fashion and climate, a “Soil Not Oil” side conference, and “Coal + Ice,” a 50,000-square-foot photo-video exhibition.
The first day of the summit included hundreds of street protesters who, unhappy with Jerry Brown’s refusal to ban all oil drilling and fracking in the state, carried signs with slogans like “End Climate Capitalism.”
“Only in America do environmentalists protest an environmental conference,” said Bloomberg at the summit’s first crowded press conference with Brown. Climate activist and author Bill McKibben was less flippant when he wrote that while Brown should be honored as a “first generation” leader in the global climate battle, no new fossil fuel extraction of any kind can be allowed if we want to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. During the Brown years, he noted, about twenty thousand state drilling permits have been issued.
The summit, with its focus on a “sub-national” response to climate change, was thick with mayors (New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Buenos Aires, Oslo, Quito, Cape Town, etc.), governors, and national, corporate, and environmental leaders, but notably thin in representation from the Fortune 1000. Perhaps busy adding up the benefits of their recent corporate and high-income tax cuts, they were unwilling to alienate the Climate-Denier in Chief, even if market trends are shifting. Last year, $300 billion was invested in alternative energy, surpassing fossil fuel for the first time according to John Kerry..
The former Secretary of State, who signed the United Nations Paris Accord with his granddaughter in his lap, admitted, “We’re still nowhere near where we need to be. We should not build one more coal-fired power plant in the world.”
Actor Harrison Ford and primatologist Jane Goodall emphasized the “forgotten solution”: the need to protect and restore tropical forests, wetlands, and other natural habitats that act as carbon sinks along with the rights of their indigenous populations. Many indigenous people were also at the summit to speak on their own behalf.
Oxfam Executive Director Winnie Byanyima drew applause when she pointed out that climate change is a political problem, not a technical one, and “a problem created by rich people that hits poor people the hardest, which is why we need people power to solve it.”
Ironically, it was billionaire Tom Steyer who claimed that to solve the climate problem, “we have to break the corporate hold on our democracy. About two-thirds of Americans want government to do more about climate change but Republican legislators don’t care—so we need to win elections.” He’s now working to mobilize more young voters through his “Next Gen America” movement.
Former Vice President and climate advocate Al Gore came onstage like a rock star, bellowing to thousands of admirers about how “We’re using the sky as an open sewer. Every day on the news is like a nature hike through the book of revelation. We have to connect cause and effect.” He railed at the current President’s climate-denial.
“How far down that rabbit hole are people going to follow?” Gore wondered. “We have to wake up. We are alive in this moment. We have to take action.”
During the standing ovation that followed, I couldn’t help but think that if this Al Gore were the one who’d campaigned in 2000, his majority vote would have been so much greater that the election could not have been stolen from him, and things might be different today.
It’s hard to say how history will judge the “Better Late than Never” approach presented by the Global Climate Action Summit. We don’t know if we’ve already passed a biochemical tipping point—like the methane leaking from melting tundra or the carbon released from wildfires—that will put an end to the human construct called history.
But the summit did offer a chance for the powers that be to come together with the less powerful to address a common existential threat. As Gore put it, “The question is will we change in time? The poor, the powerless, and discriminated against suffer first, but we’re all in the line of fire.”
By David Helvarg, published at The Progressive, 17 September 2018