Columns, Opinions

Steinman ’19: Americans in (and out of) Paris

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Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, December 7, 2017

Last month, I was lucky enough to attend the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, commonly known as COP23, in Bonn, Germany. While there, I saw world leaders, environmental activists and even a delegation from Brown (which included Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology J. Timmons Roberts’ Climate and Development Lab) participate in meaningful work advancing solutions to the most pressing problems of climate change. Unfortunately, I also saw firsthand a trend that I fear is becoming all too common: the tendency among American liberals to define all of their actions in relation to President Trump, even at the expense of real progress.

Of course, Trump’s presence was always going to be felt at COP23. This June, Trump announced that the United States would exit the Paris Agreement, to the dismay of all level-headed people, including a majority of people in all 50 states. But, since the withdrawal process will take up the remainder of Trump’s term in office, a delegation was shipped out to Bonn last month to, in the words of a State Department press release, “ensure a level playing field that benefits and protects U.S. interests.” In line with this “America First” rhetoric, the delegation hosted just one public side event at the conference. Its title? “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg aptly likened this event to “promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.” About two-thirds of the event’s attendees, including myself and students from the Climate and Development Lab, interrupted the panel discussion with a song set to the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A.” and then staged a demonstration outside with many climate justice and indigenous groups. The Trump administration’s foray into the climate world seemed designed expressly to provoke (and even troll), and it was met with a resounding chorus of rejection that significantly increased media coverage of the event. The success of this direct action underscores the importance of activism that is inclusive, urgent and impossible to ignore.

Across town, housed in a temporary tent structure that most resembled a tennis court bubble, the U.S. Climate Action Center was staging its own form of rejection — but their effort fell flat. The center was there to represent not the official U.S. delegation, but the “over 2,500 cities, states and tribes, businesses, academic institutions and faith groups” that have joined a nationwide network called “We Are Still In” — that is, still in the Paris Agreement. Across seven days of programming, the U.S. Climate Action Center was determined to drive home one message in addition to their “We Are Still In” motto: “We Are Not Trump.” In other words, its climate policy for “The Resistance,” headlined by political heavyweights like Bloomberg, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Not being Trump is certainly a good start, but inside the literal bubble of the U.S. Climate Action Center, climate change felt less like an existential threat than a playing field on which elites could score political points. Those on the front lines of climate change — for example, indigenous peoples, subsistence farmers and citizens of small island nations — were lost on a stage of senators and governors jostling to make the best crack at Trump. The irony was brought into sharp focus when Gov. Brown, interrupted mid-speech by a group of indigenous activists protesting his affinity for fracking, proceeded to make a Trump-style threat to “put (them) in the ground” while still trying to flash his climate credentials. Putting the moral repugnancy of his remark aside, Brown’s defense of California fracking is fundamentally at odds with the Paris Agreement; the oil and gas fields we have already developed are more than enough to push us past the 1.5 degree threshold, even if we never build a new one. The entire incident was reflective of the self-congratulatory, myopic nature of that contradictory political strategy.

On climate, as with so many other things, Trump has lowered standards so spectacularly that politicians can become heroes by putting in little more than greenwashing. We need to remember that supporting Paris is a low bar. Former ExxonMobil CEO and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson does. Literally every other nation in the world does. Moreover, when Trump is framed as the sole villain, it’s all too easy to ignore our own culpability: We are the world’s second-largest emitter and largest historical emitter (by a long shot) for reasons that have nothing to do with him. If we’re going to do anything about them, we need to look beyond solutions that sink to Trump’s level.

These are trying times for American democracy, but they are endlessly more trying for those already bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change that the Browns and Bloombergs of the world will never have to face. We need to expect more from our Resistance. One day, (I pray) Trump will be gone, but climate change will still be here, and it still won’t be politically expedient to make the kind of changes we’ll need. The politicization of climate change in American politics may well devastate entire societies and nations — if it hasn’t already — not just because of Republican denialism and obstructionism, but also because it has become another way for Democrats to score political points. If I learned one thing at Bonn, it is that real climate action rests on a foundation made up of people, not politics.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.