The changing way America is thinking about climate

Photo by Erich Schlegel

This month, I attended the global climate change conference, called COP23 (“Conference of the Parties”) in Bonn, Germany. It was expected to be a relatively routine conference. The 2015 Paris COP was “The Big One.” Paris was where the world switched gears, asking nations to commit to actions they would take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of keeping global temperature increases to 2°C or below.

The Paris Agreement was seen as historically successful because it allowed countries to define their contributions instead of prescribing them, a strategy that just wasn’t working. The 2017 Bonn COP23 conference was about creating mechanisms to measure and monitor the more customized commitments made at Paris in 2015.

With President Donald Trump announcing that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, people feared the discussion would be dominated by his action and obscure the path forward. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the 2017 gathering became more than just a maintenance conference. And, in many instances, the action was happening outside of the formal negotiations. The Bonn Zone, the area where those other than the actual negotiators meet, is where a lot happened this year. This area accommodated climate action events, exhibits, media activities and delegation pavilions. It included events like the presentations of scientific papers and panel discussions that erupted into rallies.

There was also the U.S. Climate Action Center, established by the We Are Still In coalition — made up of more than 2,500 university presidents, mayors, governors and business leaders to date and steadily growing. Over 100 coalition members made their movement a physical statement by erecting a makeshift tent pavilion right outside of the COP negotiation buildings. The point of the pavilion and at least some of the activity in the Bonn Zone was to send a strong signal that all sectors have a role to play in climate and that every effort matters.

It was a complicated conference with a lot of simultaneous events, panels, meetings and rallies. But some pretty clear themes emerged:

1. Every effort matters. There was a lot of pride around the concept that we shouldn’t rely solely on national governments to solve these problems. Cities, states and regions are prepared to lead. Additionally, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations are making their own commitments. They talked about the market conditions that are leading to clean energy and the need for better functioning transportation systems. There was a strong sense that these folks are solving problems, like cleaning up polluted air and water and improving quality of life that real people can understand.

· America’s Pledge was created and so far a total of 20 American states, 110 U.S. cities, and over 1,400 businesses and universities have adopted quantified emissions reduction targets. They talk about this effort as fighting climate change, growing the economy and protecting public health.

· State and city leaders representing 36 percent of the U.S. population have affirmed they will fulfill their commitment.

· NGO’s like The Nature Conservancy were there, showcasing the potential of nature-based solutions for mitigation and adaptation.

2. Focus on solutions. We must think broadly, particularly in Texas in light of Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath. There’s a lot of focus on clean energy, transportation systems and a price on carbon. But there’s also a lot of attention to the role that nature can play around coastal risk and resilience strategies.

3. Texas can lead. Our state can set the pace by keeping our communities healthy, sustainably sourcing water and energy for our rapidly growing population, and implementing strategies to ensure we can withstand more frequent and severe storms, drought and heat in the years ahead. We’re already making progress. The Texas Renewable Portfolio Standard (the amount of energy we use from renewable sources like wind and solar in contrast to traditional sources like fossil fuels) is among the most effective in the nation, and 15 years ahead of schedule.

By week’s end, the biggest conference takeaway for me was that we must be inclusive, constructive and solutions-oriented. Complicated problems are best solved when people listen to one another, value difference, and, through civil discourse, reach for dynamic solutions.

Disclosure: The Nature Conservancy has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Laura Huffman

Texas director, The Nature Conservancy