Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
Global Climate Action Summit 2018
Blog 1: Taking Aim: Global Summit On Target?
Alison Holmes, our regular columnist, is on the ground in San Francisco in the heart of the GCAS
San Francisco is perhaps uniquely suited to host the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS). The event, taking place this week (exact dates depend on which 'strand' of activity one is following), has an urgent message while still maintaining its distinct California vibe. More than 4,000 delegates from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe are arriving for the 'official' summit on the 13th and 14th (though the 12th was a heavy day of closed pre-negotiations in a General Assembly). Meanwhile, 'affiliates' are creating, hosting, informing, briefing and generally spreading the word about climate change all week to summit attendees and the community at large. There are no official numbers on these groups, but given the vast number of events they are providing, they are doubtless here in the thousands as well.
The organizers were clearly aiming to generate the type of enthusiasm that begets momentum – while those who are here to 'do the business' all look to be all about the business. Yet, stepping back to observe the scene, it is clear that the face of the environmental movement has shifted. The traditional cadres of protesters and sign carriers seem to be on the decline while suited NGO, government, science types are now the majority. Indeed, the fact that the dress code of the summit is 'business attire' (who could have imagined such an instruction not so very long ago??) is surely a sign that 'environmentalism' writ large has made it to the mainstream of the mainstream.
However, neither side has been free of the logistical challenges of such a massive event or the amusing anomalies such pressure brings to the fore. For example, there was the small, intense, anti-fracking/clean water group carrying large bright signs along a side street off Market – but they might have been well-advised to suggest to the lead sign/marcher that chain smoking while protesting was a little incongruous. On the official side, the first day for credential collection involved a two- hour queue snaking in circles in the Moscone Center foyer. Similarly, the bridge between the two groups seems a little wobbly as it is not unheard of to discover, after traipsing the streets, that an affiliate event on the official GCAS website does not exist.
Yet all of these issues are small beer for such a massive effort and on the eve of the official Summit, the organizers should be rightly pleased with the mood and tenor. California has teed up key announcements of its own – including the signing by Governor Brown of Senate Bill 100 (sponsored by Senate Kevin de León) – that will require CA to get 100% of its energy needs from clean sources by 2045. A huge move by any standard, but provides the perfect context to events as diverse as an all-day California-Germany bilateral conference on energy and a vibrant celebration of Latino Leadership on climate change. The bilateral conference offered well-informed officials, eloquent on their areas of expertise speaking to an audience full of equally well-informed attendees asking questions that sounded more like a science teach-in than a public conference, while Kevin de León addressed a cheering room, full to the doorways, on the disproportionate impact of climate change on Latinos while celebrating the community's leadership on the issue (and he didn't mention his own current fight against Dianne Feinstein even once). The Latino community is not the only group celebrating as the whole week is, on a crucial level, about acknowledging the work already done while the goal is obviously to also address the work ahead. The city is truly poised to take aim.
Exceptionalism gets a progressive spin
ex-cep-tion-al. adj. "unusual, not typical". At an evening affiliate event of the Global Action Summit (GCAS) Kevin de León declared California to be "exceptional". In the context of the event, he was conveying his sense of pride in California as a leader on the issue of climate change, a hard-earned and rightly celebrated position. Yet, it did jump out as an interesting word choice given the brevity of his comments and the fact he is in the midst of a heated election campaign. In the moment and space of GCAS, it may have been entirely apt, but the niggling question of whether he intended to invoke the political, even ideological history of the term, remained. Despite the assertions of some, the idea of exceptionalism is not uniquely American as many countries have made claims to uniqueness or a superior position. However, the idea is particularly American in the revolutionary sense with claims that the United States was somehow a "first new nation" based with specific and "better" values of liberty and individual freedom as well as the related, but arguably potentially more dangerous idea that the United States has a mission to spread these ideas to the rest of the world. Thus, to hear the word falling from the lips of a Democratic Latino Senate candidate here in California was, on some level, almost unsettling. Of course, in a discussion of any broad political idea or concept, context matters, intention matters, and the frame set out for the future matters, but one was left wondering if it is wise or even sustainable to suggest it is possible to have some kind of two-tiered, federal/state, double exceptionality and how strange it is to hear diametrically opposed policies growing from the same 'exceptional' root.
Render unto Caesar
If there is a 'big message' of the Global Action Summit (GCAS) it is that we can't wait for those 'at the top' to act, but we must do something now – wherever we may be. The role of non-governmental actors be they civil, local, tribal, or state has never been more welcomed, heralded and championed as it has already been this week at every event, from every platform, and every speaker. This is reflected in the fact that well over 3,000 cities, states, businesses, and all kinds of organizations have committed themselves to address climate change since President Trump announced he would pull out of the Paris Accords. So this event is a call to action like no other with each speaker offering an inspiring story, and an issue, case study, or plan they want to explain and promote – and a shocking number have formed their own organization to take on each task.
Such confidence, such chutzpah, and some might even say such millennial cheek. However, there are at least two dangers. The first is that a cacophony of voices and instruments does not necessarily create music. As precious as each individual voice and story may be there must surely come a moment of reckoning, a balancing of priorities, and an allocation of resources. The downside of each person 'stepping up' to create their own niche program to address the major issues of the day is the lack of overarching plan, reconciliation of disparate interest or clear way forward but only a crowd, hub-bubbing along. The second is the danger of smug. Many of the most well-intentioned activists of climate change still too often frame their discourse in the language of 'what's best' – but it seems that a) what they actually know best about is their own narrow concern and b) they expect everyone else to follow them. So – who knows best about what? Is it ever really possible to step outside our own worldview without sounding at least a tiny bit patronizing? For all the talk of many voices rising in common cause, do we not also need to talk about how we agree to coordinate and align our issues and causes?
Subsidiarity is a fancy political word that basically just means that each level of governance needs to understand and respect the linkages and connections to other levels and levers of power. For the United States, this may be particularly challenging in a moment in which the national government is backing away from or actively driving out any acknowledgment of the issues presented by climate change, but the fact remains that even the best intentions and innovative projects are but dots in the wider picture. At some point, they will need to connect. The arts, generally well represented here at the GCAS, make this point eloquently through two specific expressions. The first, was a group of dancers on stilts with the tag line that trees are "a solution a billion years in the making" the other is the "long view" polar bear. The trees moved and danced outside the Forests, Food and Land Day event the while the polar bear, made of repurposed car hoods, stands guard on Henry Bridges Plaza.
The common message is simply that the 'long view' is actually right here in front of us and stewardship of that future must be a daily constant. Perhaps the only missing element is a recognition that the necessary flip side of the 'many voices' is a fundamental commitment to compromise.
Dr. Alison Holmes is Asst. Professor of International Studies & Politics at Humboldt State University, CA, formerly taught at Oxford and Yale Universtities, and ran BritishAmerican Business on London.