The US is a lone voice at the Bonn climate summit — but corporate America is loud and proud
Washington — On the fringes of the ongoing global climate summit in Bonn, US leaders will once again demonstrate their commitment to the issue, with a packed agenda of film screenings, panel discussions and cocktail parties where they will highlight the country’s carbon dioxide cuts.
Unlike past years, however, the leaders are from corporate America — not the White House.
US President Donald Trump sent a bare-bones negotiating team to the two-week long climate gathering that began Monday in Germany, after pledging to withdraw from the Paris climate accord earlier in 2016. Instead of holding an array of events highlighting naturally clean energy, it scheduled a lone panel discussion on how fossil fuels fit into a low-carbon future.
But the official US presence is buttressed by an army of company executives, governors, mayors and activists who will deliver a different message. Coca-Cola, Mars and HP are planning to tout US progress in cutting emissions. A Citigroup vice-president is set to elaborate on how finance can help the world reach the Paris goals. A Berkshire Hathaway executive is scheduled to discuss how markets can drive carbon reductions.
"We’re all playing a role in moving this forward," said Nate Hurst, HP’s chief sustainability officer. "Our customers, some of which are right here alongside us on these panels, and the investment community are expecting this."
The next two weeks may reveal whether the unofficial delegation will be enough to convince leaders in Beijing, New Delhi and Brussels to continue to fight climate change — or if the scepticism in Washington spurs them to back off as well.
Business leaders from Coca-Cola, Citigroup, HP, Mars and Microsoft are set to join those from Ingersoll-Rand, Target Corporation, Johnson Controls and other companies to emphasise their climate commitments.
"When the US government is engaged in a serious way and puts some of its political capital behind this, it makes a difference," said Lisa Jacobson, president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, which represents dozens of renewable power, natural gas and other companies. "Without that, there is a possibility of backsliding and postponing the needed action."
Many of the events are being held at a "US Climate Action Centre" — a city-block-sized pavilion next to the formal negotiation site. Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Hewlett Foundation and NextGen America, founded by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, are the top funders of the pavilion. Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
The US government has said it will continue participating in climate negotiations until the country’s expected withdrawal from the Paris agreement in 2020. But there’s no sign of the enthusiasm that previous administrations brought to the issue, much less the kind of personal involvement that former president Barack Obama brought in the run-up to the 2015 Paris agreement.
The Trump administration is taking a different approach.
At the sprawling summit site, the US government is sponsoring a panel discussion on "the clean and efficient use of fossil fuels and nuclear power", as it works to persuade other countries they can meet their climate objectives without abandoning coal and natural gas. Expected participants include representatives from Tellurian, a liquefied natural gas company, and coal-producer Peabody Energy.
Only official government representatives have a formal role in the summit’s planned negotiations over how to validate countries’ carbon-cutting claims and take stock of progress in a few years.
"The bad news is obvious, which is this administration is a bunch of climate deniers, and we will look pathetic," said Carol Browner, who was Obama’s top climate adviser.
Under secretary of state for political affairs Tom Shannon is leading the US delegation, which includes members of the state department’s climate office. State department spokesman Yoon Nam declined to provide more specifics about the size and members of the US delegation, but it’s likely to be far smaller than the contingent of 93 US government participants who were registered for last year’s summit in Marrakech, Morocco.
While the US government presence will be decidedly low-key, the unofficial representatives of the US hope to make a splash. Representatives of the "We Are Still In" coalition representing nine states, 1,780 businesses and investors, 252 cities and counties and 339 colleges will use more than a dozen events at the US pavilion to showcase their action.
Business leaders from Coca-Cola, Citigroup, HP, Mars and Microsoft are set to join those from Ingersoll-Rand, Target Corporation, Johnson Controls and other companies to emphasise their climate commitments. The US chamber of commerce is hosting an event on the role businesses play facilitating dialogue on climate. The Business Council for Sustainable Energy plans to describe how clean-energy technology can be deployed globally to help satisfy carbon-cutting goals.
For companies, it’s good PR to make climate commitments and be present in Bonn. It’s also a matter of managing risks that they recognise as real, even as the science of climate change is still debated in Washington.
"Real things are happening in the real world, and that’s where our supply chains operate, that’s where our factories operate and that’s where our customers live," said Kevin Rabinovitch, global sustainability director with Mars. "It’s critically important to us to tackle some of these issues, to manage risks to our supply chain and to capture some of the opportunities that exist in this space."
Local political leaders are also trying to emphasize their role.
"The world needs to know that Donald Trump cannot stop us," said Washington state governor Jay Inslee. The rest of the world needs to realise "they’ve got good partners here and their efforts will not be in vain".
Trump is rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations seen as helping satisfy the US Paris agreement pledge to pare greenhouse gas emissions to between 26% and 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. But he doesn’t have the authority to stop state-level policies, such as Washington state’s cap on carbon pollution or its initiatives supporting clean energy research and development, Inslee said.
Federal policy and regulations are important to ensure action by all states — even those with political leaders who are sceptical of climate science and eager to support coal.
Even as it rescinds regulations, Trump’s team has a positive story to tell. US emissions are declining, driven by state mandates for renewable electricity, cities and companies committing to 100% green power, and utilities switching from coal to cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas. The US is already halfway to the 26% goal Obama set out.
"The bad news is obvious, which is this administration is a bunch of climate deniers, and we will look pathetic," said Carol Browner, who was Obama’s top climate adviser. "The good news is a lot of the countries that are providing leadership on this issue know that all of these things are going on, and they see that there is another America."