The Global Climate Action Summit a missed opportunity?

Last week’s 2018 Global Climate Action Summit provided an opportunity for corporate executives and politicians from around the world to gather in San Francisco and announce, to considerable fanfare, their new carbon mitigation targets.  Initiated by Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) immediately following Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, the summit was also intended to bring together climate activists, NGOs, renewable energy developers, and to a lesser extent—at least by my count—academics, to collaborate, network, share experiences and perhaps most importantly encourage one another.

In addition to the rollout of new mitigation targets, a slew of announcements were made about increases in the number of zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) and ZEV infrastructure (way to go, Norway!), new carbon pricing regimes, recent transitions to renewables, sustainable business practices, the critical role of maintaining if not increasing economic growth and generating profits—I mean, wow there sure was a lot about profiting off of climate mitigation and green business practices, a less astute delegate may have missed the point of the summit altogether!

Marginalized Communities

And finally, a host of calls were made to not only improve the lives of but incorporate more indigenous and marginalized peoples—or at least their interests—into climate decisions.  To the summit organizers’ credit, the makeup of nearly every program and panel event I attended was mostly if not entirely made up of females and people of color.  This is not only refreshing, but appropriate, as at one point during a panel discussion on “Power building toward participatory justice,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, remarked that “wherever there are marginalized or impoverished people, it is always women who are leading.”

Business Sustainability & Science-based Targets

I was able to attend the summit as an official delegate—colorful, tech-loaded badge and all—after having been invited to participate in the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute’s affiliate event “Developing climate-business strategies: Partnering with universities for science-based impact” by my friend, colleague and former PhD advisor, Dr. Joe Arvai.  Dr. Arvai is the director of the Erb Institute; however, he once not too long ago was the director of our own Environmental Science and Policy Program here at MSU and a faculty member in my current department of Community Sustainability—I should admit here that I did graduate from U of M, sorry Spartan fans; if you want to hurl insults at me in person, stop by my office and we can talk about wind energy!

Erb’s event brought together corporate sustainability officers and Institute staff and students to discuss ways of better collaborating, improving and expanding the role of science-based targets—a hot topic in business sustainability these days, and incorporating behavioral decision research insights into business best practices.  Dr. Arvai invited me both because my research involves building decision-support tools for groups desiring to pursue climate and sustainability goals and because he wanted a greater regional presence at the Summit—Go Blue, but also Go Green!  The affiliate event took place on Tuesday in an old garage, rented via, which if you didn’t know—most of us at the meeting didn’t know either—is basically just AirBnB for business meetings—pretty cool.  It was a lively and provocative discussion.

Zero Emission Vehicles

Most of GCAS2018 took place at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco as well as at hotels, meeting spaces, libraries, and restaurants across the city.  I attended two other affiliate events, one at the Marriott Union Square and one at the W Hotel, both of which were open to the public—some events like the Erb’s were reserved for credentialed invitees only.  The first, “Raising our climate mitigation ambitions: Toward all zero-emission vehicles,” was hosted by the ZEV Alliance, a collaboration of governments aggressively pursuing reductions in the number of internal combustion engines on the road, in the air and in the sea.  There I learned from Nick Bridge, the UK Special Representative for Climate Change that by 2021 the UK will be sailing an autonomous electric cargo ship, which it should be known is a critical leap forward.  Shipping is responsible for 3% of global CO2 emissions—that is number expected to rise, and due to the weight and distances travelled is especially difficult to wean off fossil fuels.

Carbon Pricing

The other event was hosted by Yale University and attended by John Kerry—a man who is far more charismatic in real life than on television by the way.  Both the former Secretary of State’s focus and that of the panel invitees was to encourage universities across the US to adopt carbon pricing.  Researchers from Yale, Swarthmore, Smith and Arizona State all described their universities’ carbon pricing models, most of which had begun as voluntary, departmental and revenue-neutral systems intended to internalize emissions into facility construction and management calculations.  Those interested in learning more can investigate the beta version of Second Nature’s Carbon Pricing Toolkit.

One especially convincing rationale for adopting such prices—even if just virtual prices—was put forth by Dr. Casey Pickett, Director of Carbon Charge at Yale.  He urged that because students would soon be managing businesses and making decisions that would have to account for a real carbon price, they’d better get that experience as students.  What’s more, if universities and faculty are really encouraging aggressive action on climate, then they must lead the charge in their own departments and from their own pocketbooks.

Politicizing & Profiting off of Climate Change

While these events informed and inspired, it must be said that the event on the whole was problematically political.  In what was perhaps my favorite moment of the summit Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International argued that “Climate change is a political problem, not a technical one.”  She couldn’t be more right.  Still, the summit was a who’s who of the progressive movement, attended by Michael Bloomberg, Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Brown, the fore-mentioned Secretary of State, Harrison Ford, and even coveted Trump-impersonator himself, Alec Baldwin.  Speakers did not shy away from railing against the current administration, and never failed to get rousing applause when they did so.  Had a conservative been able to get credentials—and it’s very possible one did, though I didn’t see one—they would have found themselves participating in one individual on my twitter feed had deftly identified as a “Cult Summit.”

There are also serious concerns with hosting such an event in one of the most expensive cities in the country.  Protesters were able to both stall Governor Brown’s entrance and then disrupt Mr. Bloomberg’s remarks by chanting, “The Earth is not for sale, the sky is not for sale, our water is not for sale!”  After the protestors were removed—without incident, Bloomberg responded, “Only in America can you have environmentalists protest an environmental conference.”  I think he missed their point.

As with most conferences and summits I leave feeling motivated to take action, to encourage adoption of carbon pricing both at MSU and in my home department (students, shoot me an email if you want in on that action!), to replace my aging Honda Civic with a Chevy Volt, to replace and increase the insulation in my attic.

However, I also leave feeling like the summit was yet another missed opportunity.  It was principally an echo chamber, a very ritzy echo chamber, filled with like-minded folks rah rah’ing like-minded folks to take action.  Yet these are not the folks who need convincing.  Nowhere were there discussions with folks who were less gung-ho about climate action, nowhere were there meaningful discussions with conservatives or rural folks from the Midwest—who are installing wind and solar at the greatest rates.  And only once did I hear it remarked, by the President of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, about the need to compensate, or at least acknowledge, those who will sacrifice if we aggressively mitigate emissions.

And so I expect that we will continue on pace, far, far slower than necessary.

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