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Climate Desk Associate Producer
Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
California is no stranger to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. It has the second-highest carbon footprint of any US state (after Texas). But as diplomats from nearly every country on Earth hash through the final details of an international climate change agreement in Paris this week, they're seeing a very different side of the Golden State.
Gov. Jerry Brown, his predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, and a host of other Californian political and business leaders are in the French capital this week to tout their state's success as a carbon-slashing powerhouse. They argue that countries around the world should look to California for guidance on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nurture the clean energy industry—while creating jobs and growing the economy.
"California can be a template of what is successful," said California State Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), in a press briefing Monday with Steyer and a dozen clean energy entrepreneurs. "We can export our policies."
"California can be a template of what is successful. We can export our policies."
Indeed, the state does have a lot to be proud of. It ranks way down at No. 45 for per-capita carbon emissions. And it was among the first states to set a greenhouse gas reduction target, way back in 2006. That law, signed by Schwarzenegger, called on the state to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. In January this year, Brown re-upped with a new set of climate goals that are the most aggressive in the nation. California broke ground on carbon trading markets. And thanks in part to a policy that requires the state's power companies to get a third of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020, the state routinely ranks No. 1 on clean energy investment and has the most solar power of any state.
And as de Leon pointed out several times, all those green policies don't seem to have dragged down the state's economy: Total GDP is rising while emissions per unit of GDP are dropping. Climate-savvy lawmakers did suffer a setback this fall, when pressure from the oil lobby led the legislature to give up on an attempt to cut gasoline consumption in half by 2030.
"The opposition to progressive energy policy…always come out as, 'You can have healthy jobs or a healthy environment, but you can't have both.' But in California, we can walk the walk and talk the talk."
But that hasn't stopped Brown and his peers from becoming leading voices here at the beginning of the second week of "COP21," as the massive climate summit in Paris is known. On Tuesday evening, de Leon led a coalition of US mayors at an event calling for President Barack Obama to bypass Congress and push to get half the country's power from renewables by 2030. The day before, Brown took the stage at Earth to Paris, an event organized by the UN Foundation at an ornate building in the city center packed with hundreds of scientists, policy wonks, and political leaders who needed a break from the core negotiations. (Secretary of State John Kerry followed shortly afterward.)
"This is an art and a science," Brown said, of his state's climate campaign. "You have to push business further than they want to go, but within their capacity to reach it."
That message was echoed by Tom Steyer, whose political group NextGen Climate plans to spend huge sums of cash to make climate a central theme of the 2016 presidential election.
"The opposition to progressive energy policy around the world always come out as, 'You can have healthy jobs or a healthy environment, but you can't have both,'" Steyer said. "But in California, we can walk the walk and talk the talk."
He also said the next president, if it's one of the Democratic candidates who aims to continue Obama's climate legacy (all the Republicans running are committed to overturning it), will need to rally much more support from the American people in order to overcome an obstinate Congress. You can hear more of Steyer's remarks in the video above.
It remains to be seen whether any of this will make an impression on the real negotiators, huddled in a converted airport in the city's northern suburbs. Over the next few days, they'll be poring over hundreds of fine-grain decisions on everything from how often countries will need to revise their climate commitments, to how much wealthy countries like the United States should have to pay to help vulnerable, poorer nations adapt to climate impacts.
We're on the ground in Paris all week—stay tuned for updates.
Jane Goodall spoke with reporters at a briefing in Paris on Monday. She was joined by "Mr. H," a stuffed chimp that she has traveled with for 30 years.
At the major climate summit in Paris on Monday, renowned conservationist Jane Goodall called for Republicans in Congress to back down from opposing an international agreement on climate change.
"Success [at the Paris climate summit] would be a binding agreement to limit carbon," she said in a briefing with reporters. But "a binding agreement isn't much use unless it leads to actions and implementation. So there has to be a commitment to go back to your nation and follow through."
Republicans in Congress need to "just sit down and forget about politics," Jane Goodall said.
Asked whether that will happen in the United States, Goodall said, "It depends on who the next president is, doesn't it?" All the leading Republican presidential candidates—most recently (and colorfully) Chris Christie—have said they would walk back President Barack Obama's climate agenda. Most of them reject mainstream climate science, as well. The Democratic candidates have all taken the opposite position, wanting to push action on climate change beyond what Obama has been able to achieve.
This week, diplomats from nearly every nation on Earth are huddled in Paris to finalize a sweeping global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Prior to the summit, Obama offered a commitment from the United States to reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions by one-third by 2025. That commitment is backed by regulations based on existing US law—the Clean Air Act—but the commitment itself is unlikely to be legally binding internationally. Last week in Paris, Obama said other parts of the agreement should be binding, including a requirement that countries periodically revisit and possibly strengthen their carbon reduction targets.
But at the same time—back in Washington, DC—Republicans in Congress have taken steps to sabotage the Paris negotiations, passing legislation to block key parts of Obama's climate agenda. (Those resolutions will almost certainly remain symbolic, as they face a guaranteed veto from the president.)
Obama's statements notwithstanding, the US delegation in Paris could present obstacles to achieving a strong agreement as the talks move into their second and final week. One of the biggest issues on the table is international finance (i.e. how wealthy, high-polluting countries such the United States should help pay for climate change adaptation and clean energy in vulnerable developing countries). As Ben Adler reported last week for Climate Desk partner Grist:
Presumably the Obama administration would like to offer more climate finance, but it cannot without congressional authorization. Asking Republicans for foreign aid to solve a problem they claim doesn't even exist would be like asking them to pay for gay weddings. Instead, the Obama administration has to fight with Congress just to make sure the GOP doesn't strip what little climate finance the US has pledged, around $500 million per year until 2020, from the budget.
To Goodall, who spent more than 50 years studying chimps in Tanzania, these lawmakers are letting short-term politics obscure the bigger picture. They need to "just sit down and forget about politics," she said. "Think about your children and revisit your belief."
On Tuesday, more than 100 heads of state departed from Paris, after kicking off two weeks of international negotiations intended to limit climate change. But even though the biggest names have left the building (actually a converted regional airport), the real action is just getting started. If history is any guide, diplomats will be holed up in a room negotiating minute textual details until—or well past—the last possible minute next Friday.
Still, the last few days have seen a barrage of developments that aren't necessarily tied to the core negotiating text. It started on Sunday with a joint commitment from dozens of nations and private corporations to vastly increase their spending on clean energy research and development. Here are a few more key developments, in no particular order:
1. New milestone for fossil fuel divestment: Some of the most prominent activist groups at the summit are focusing their attention on divestment—that is, getting high-profile individuals and institutions to pull their money out of fossil fuel companies. In September, that campaign reached a high-water mark, when a study commissioned by a coalition of environmental groups found that hundreds of institutions and thousands of individuals with assets totaling $2.6 trillion had pledged to divest from fossil fuels. Bear in mind, the actual amount of money being pulled out of fossil fuel companies is substantially smaller than that. But it's nevertheless a pretty impressive number because of the growing movement it represents.
On Wednesday, the same coalition updated that figure: It now tops $3.4 trillion. Again, it's unclear how much of this is actually being divested. (It's not always easy for a complex institution such as a university to know how much money, if any, it actually has invested in a given industry). But it's striking that the total jumped nearly $1 trillion in just a couple of months.
The African Development Bank promised to pour $12 billion into increasing access to electricity.
2. Big boost to clean energy in Africa: Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the world's lowest rates of access to electricity; nearly two-thirds of people there live without power. That makes it hard to grow a business, hard for kids to study, and hard to store fresh food and medical supplies. As we've reported before, it also represents a huge opportunity for renewable energy. Small-scale wind and solar projects, while not up to the task of fully supplying the continent's electricity needs, can often be deployed more rapidly than big fossil-fuel-fired power plants.
On Tuesday, the African Development Bank announced that it would pour $12 billion into energy projects over the next five years and seek to attract up to $50 billion in parallel private-sector funding. The project has two goals: to vastly expand basic energy access, and to do so cleanly, by boosting the continent's renewable energy capacity tenfold. This is just the latest sign that the clean energy industry is likely to be one of the biggest winners from the Paris climate talks.
3. China is playing ball: President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping set the joint climate action ball rolling more than a year ago, when they announced a sweeping plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions and pool resources on clean energy. Since then, China and the United States—the world's No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, respectively—have stayed close on their climate agendas. That trend appears to be continuing in Paris, a rare point of diplomatic accord in an otherwise testy relationship. China has said it could agree to reevaluating its climate goals every five years, a protocol that the United States, the European Union, and other leading emitters are pushing strongly to include in the final agreement. On Wednesday, Chinese officials back in Beijing also announced deep new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
India has also rolled out a new $30 million plan to invest in clean energy, although that country remains opposed to the five-year review standard. Russia, meanwhile, doesn't appear interested in doing much at all. Tensions between the United States, China, India, Russia, Canada, Brazil, and other heavyweights—not to mention small island nations and other highly vulnerable players—are likely to become more apparent as the talks progress into finer minutiae.
4. Who's going to pay for all this? One of the most contentious issues in Paris is climate finance, a term that refers broadly to cash ponied up by wealthy, high-polluting nations such as the United States to help poorer countries adapt to climate change impacts and reduce their carbon emissions. In 2009, at the last major climate summit, developed countries agreed to raise $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020. That goal is about halfway met, according to the World Resources Institute. On Tuesday, Obama announced an additional $30 million from the United States for climate adaptation in the most vulnerable countries, on top of a $3 billion promise the United States made to the UN Green Climate Fund last year.
But it's unclear how the Paris agreement will ensure that this fundraising continues. Delegates will have to hash out what sorts of commitments can or should be legally binding, how to count the money, how to spend it, and other important considerations. Jake Schmidt, an international programs director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said many developing countries are pushing to include language in the agreement that would require the total level of finance to be gradually ramped up over time.
One of the biggest questions in Paris is how commitments for climate finance and greenhouse gas reduction can be strengthened over time.
"I don't think anyone is envisioning there will be a new [specific] number, but rather asking that $100 billion is a floor to the finance that will be mobilized over time," he said.
The same is true of countries' various greenhouse gas reduction targets, he said: A big question at the talks is how these commitments can be enforced and strengthened past the next decade or two.
"We're leaving Paris with a sense that it could be 10 or 15 years before we return to these targets," he said. "If we don't have another moment to reevaluate these, then we have a problem."
5. Cities are playing a big role: National governments aren't the only players in Paris. Cities and states are also offering their own commitments. One of the most prominent voices at the summit so far has been that of California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who is pushing a group of 60 states and cities around the world to sign on to a sub-national climate agreement. Meanwhile, on Tuesday a group of 21 mayors committed to dedicating 10 percent of their municipal budgets to climate "resilience," which includes steps like making infrastructure more weatherproof and restricting energy consumption by buildings. They include the mayors of Paris, New Orleans, Oakland, Rio de Janeiro, and other global cities.
Corporate sponsorship logos at the entrance to the Paris climate summit.
You might not expect fossil fuel companies to pay for a conference designed to shrink their industry. But in Paris, that's precisely what's happening.
This week and next, roughly 40,000 diplomats, activists, policy experts, and journalists are gathering in the French capital for a round of high-stakes negotiations aimed at slowing climate change. They're packed into a regional airport that, as described by our Climate Desk partners at the New Republic, has been converted to resemble a cross between the United Nations headquarters building, Disney World's Epcot Center, and a natural history museum.
For two weeks, all these people need to be fed, housed, transported, entertained, and equipped with space to work. Unsurprisingly, it's an expensive undertaking—budgeted by the French government at nearly $200 million, according to EurActiv France. About one-fifth of that tab is being picked up by private corporations.
"Those corporations are able to say they're part of the solution just because they write a check," Jesse Bragg said.
Big international conferences frequently have corporate sponsors, but given the basic aim of the Paris talks—to dramatically reduce man-made greenhouse gas emissions—some of the event's sponsors are drawing criticism for their close ties to the fossil fuel industry. In other words, some of the companies paying to keep the lights on and the coffee flowing at the vital climate summit may have a vested interest in limiting the scope of the international agreement.
The event (known as COP21, short for 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) has more than 50 corporate sponsors. They include the likes of Google, 3M, Puma, and IKEA. In exchange for providing the conference organizers an undisclosed sum of money, corporate sponsors get their logo splashed across high-profile surfaces—from billboards to banners to handouts—and priority access to spaces to hold branded events. Corporate participants can also get direct access to top-tier diplomats. At last year's COP in Peru, for example, a lobbying group representing a handful of fossil fuel companies—including Shell and Chevron—hosted more than a dozen events, including one featuring UN climate chief Christiana Figueres.
According to a new report from the advocacy group Corporate Accountability International, several of the Paris COP's corporate sponsors have direct ties to the fossil fuel industry, and, the group argues, a conflict of interest when it comes to the purported goals of the summit.
"It's greenwashing," CAI spokesperson Jesse Bragg said. "Those corporations are able to say they're part of the solution just because they write a check."
In particular, CAI's report calls out three COP21 sponsors: Engie, a European electric utility company that is the continent's largest importer of natural gas; EDF, a French electric utility that operates several major coal-fired power plants; and BNP Paribas, a multinational bank with billions of dollars invested in coal mines and coal-fired power plants. All three have massive greenhouse gas footprints, according to the report. CAI also points out that the utility companies have participated in lobbying organizations that promote the use of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, another activist group has taken aim at corporate greenwashing with a slate of billboard ads across Paris mocking energy and transportation companies that purport to be progressive, while continuing to pollute:
Beyond greenwashing, Bragg said it's unlikely that these companies will be able to have a direct impact on the policy outcome of this COP, given how many of the nuts and bolts were worked out by diplomats in advance. But he cautioned that the creeping influence of corporations over the last two decades of climate negotiations has made diplomats overly sensitive to business-friendly solutions.
"We need to make sure these policies are created with the environment as the primary concern," he said. "With corporations involved, you move further and further from that target."
Spokespeople for EDF and Engie dismissed Bragg's assertions. EDF said that its electricity portfolio contains more renewable energy than any other European utility and that it plows hundreds of millions of euros each year into clean energy R&D. Axelle Lima, a spokesperson for Engie, pointed out that the company has recently committed to stop any new investments in coal and has publicly campaigned for a price on carbon emissions.
"We have to think of solutions with governments to replace coal with another kind of energy," an energy company spokesperson said.
"We have to think of solutions with governments to replace coal with another kind of energy," Lima said. "And together we want to find a climate solution."
Lima said it was "natural" for Engie to be a partner at the COP, given its role in the energy sector that is being reformed. She declined to specify how much money Engie had donated. BNP Paribas did not return a request for comment.
Erik Conway, a science historian who co-authored a recent book on the fossil fuel industry's climate science subterfuge with Naomi Oreskes, said that corporate infiltration of climate summits is less important than the lobbying that goes on behind the scenes back home.
"Of course [corporate sponsorship] is a conflict of interest, just as it is a conflict of interest to have fossil fuel producing nations participating in the COP," he said. But "I don't think the presence of fossil-fuel producing corporations at COP meetings has had much to do with their failure to achieve meaningful agreements. It's their economic sway with individual governments that's the actual problem."
To that end, Bragg thinks the UN's climate organization could take a cue from the World Health Organization's efforts to block tobacco lobbyists from influencing regulation of that industry. The WHO, in its international agreement on tobacco control, adopted specific protocols that require signatory countries to insulate their public health laws from tobacco industry "interference." The climate agreement currently being hammered out in Paris could include similar language, Bragg suggested.
"The first step is the [official] recognition, in text, of this conflict of interest," he said. "Then we figure out how we can mitigate that."
A video posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on
On Monday, in Paris, President Barack Obama pressed world leaders to adopt an aggressive international agreement to curb climate change. To do so, he said, would be an "act of defiance" against the terrorists who killed 130 people in French capital on Nov. 13.
Donald Trump, a leading presidential contender who seems to relish getting scientific information as wrong as possible, is not happy about this. It's a "ridiculous situation," he said in the new Instagram post above, that Obama is "worried about global warming" while "the world is in turmoil and falling apart in so many ways, especially with ISIS."
It remains unclear how those things are contradictory. Also, Obama hasn't exactly been ignoring ISIS while in Paris, as Trump seems to suggest: He has repeatedly framed his presence at the climate talks as integral to the international campaign against terrorism.