It is not an easy time to work on climate change. After a few years of incremental progress under President Obama, advocates are now watching President Trump take a hatchet to U.S. climate policy — gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, scrapping the Clean Power Plan and, most notably, announcing plans to pull out of the Paris Agreement. The last 10 months have been one gut punch after another.
And yet, when asked how it feels to work on climate in the age of Trump, advocates are surprisingly sanguine. Even as the federal government rolls back key climate protections, environmentalists appear emboldened by progress of U.S. cities, states, businesses and the rest of the world.
“It has been difficult, obviously,” said Ryan Martel, policy director at Ceres, in an interview at the 2017 UN Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany. But, he added, “while it has been challenging to see where the federal government has gone in the past year, it has also been inspiring to see that the rest of the world hasn’t missed a beat.”
To be clear, advocates know what they are up against. The president has said climate change is a hoax, while the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is eating steak dinners with coal executives and appointing industry darlings to advisory boards, including one researcher who thinks the air in the United States is “too clean.” While nations are making progress on clean energy, every major industrialized country is falling short of its commitments under the Paris Agreement.
Even if countries were on track to hit their Paris targets, they would still be a long way from keeping global warming to under 2 degrees C, the stated goal of the accord. The math of climate is almost comically grim. To keep temperatures from breaching 2 degrees, emissions need to peak in 2020 and fall nearly 5 percent each year, a rate of decline only previously achieved in periods of severe economic upheaval.
It’s also worth nothing that advocates are inclined to project hope when talking to reporters, whether on or off the record. There is a congenital optimism in the climate movement. This is partly because advocates have read the research showing the public is more motivated by hope than fear, and it’s partly because that’s just what it takes to get out of bed in the morning.
Having said all that, advocates seem genuinely motivated by the victories happening in cities and states. Seeing little path forward at the federal level, they are turning their attention to smaller battles, pushing local leaders and businesses to tackle the carbon crisis. The wins are starting to add up. A coalition of more than 2,500 cities, states, companies and universities are working to fulfill the U.S. pledge under the Paris Agreement. Politicians, advocates and business leaders recently showed up en masse to the UN climate talks in Bonn to make the case that much of United States is still committed to Paris.
“We’re not a country where the federal government runs everything. We’re a country that rebels in many ways against the notion of government playing a leading role in public life,” said Paul Bodnar, managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, in an interview in Bonn. “Our system is pretty unique. It just requires rewiring how the international community understands what’s happening in the United States.”
Bodnar, who previously served as a senior climate advisor in the Obama White House, said that there is temptation “to think that Trump has pulled some kill switch which means that the U.S. has gone totally dark. What we’re showing here is that it’s quite the opposite.” He added, “If you add up the economic weight of the states and cities and businesses that have clearly said they are still committed to climate action and the Paris accord, they would be larger than 195 out of 197 parties to the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change].” Only China and the United States sport more economic heft.
“While the U.S. does not have the policies in place to meet our long-term targets — the long-term targets that science tells us we need to hit — there are incredibly important pieces all across the government,” Martel said. “And there is still a lot of work that companies and investors and other members of the private sector can do to be advocates and to preserve those critical policies that are already there.” Like Martel, many climate advocates find comfort in the continued efforts of other countries.
“Working under this new administration can feel very daunting, but coming to an event like [the UN Climate Conference] where you have like-minded people from all around the world pulling together towards a common goal is actually very inspiring, and it reminds you that the context is much larger than just working in the United States,” said Emelin Gasparrini, communications associate at the World Wildlife Fund, in an interview in Bonn. “What has been giving me optimism is watching other countries step into the leadership role that Washington has stepped out of.”
Jennifer Andreassen, communications director for global climate at the Environmental Defense Fund recalled the international reaction to Trump’s election at last year’s UN Climate Conference in Marrakesh, Morocco.
“There was a real sense of defiance that the U.S. wasn’t going to hold back the rest of the world,” she said in an interview in Bonn. “This year it’s been even stronger in terms of the defiance and the pushback to Trump. In that way, it’s been encouraging.” She added, “He hasn’t done as much as he’s wanted to do, and that’s been thanks a lot to the great work that the environmental community has been doing.”
Bodnar recalled the progress made under the Obama administration, and he compared those wins to the slow, halting, ungainly advances being made today. “This is a different sense of satisfaction. When you’re the one who’s actually doing the things — as opposed to clapping when the president does a press conference and feeling good about him doing that — that’s a visceral kind of feeling.”
Even as Bodnar spoke, the U.S. Climate Action Center, home of the U.S. shadow delegation at Bonn, buzzed with activity. Representatives from Walmart, Microsoft and other companies mingled with mayors, governors and policy wonks. Volunteers handed out red, white and blue M&Ms produced by Mars Inc. that read “WE ARE STILL IN” — a nod to the company’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.
“To be able to be part of that in some small way is very exciting,” Bodnar said. “It more than makes up for my gloom at what’s happening in Washington.”