Even though Carla Frisch worked for 10 years at the Department of Energy, she had never been to a UN climate change conference. “I mostly worked on domestic issues,” she said. But in Poland this month at the Conference of Parties (COP), Frisch got the opportunity to weigh in with some advice for foreign representatives. During an unusual meeting set up by U.S. state and local leaders, a French energy official asked Frisch and her colleagues for guidance on how to deal with the U.S. delegation.
Frisch, who stayed at the Energy Department until last August, had some advice based on how she discussed clean energy with her new colleagues in the Trump administration. She told the French official to emphasize how the transition to wind, solar and other advanced technologies would help the U.S. stay competitive. “Traditionally, the U.S. has been in the lead on technology, but now there’s a question of who is going to be producing innovations in the future,” Frisch said.
As the only country in the world planning to exit the Paris Agreement, the United States attracted a good deal of attention at this year’s COP in Katowice, Poland. The United States held a side event promoting fossil fuels, and it joined with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia in declining to endorse a startling UN report declaring countries have around a decade to radically cut emissions to prevent catastrophic warming.
But not all Americans were blocking progress in Poland. Many U.S. states, cities, corporations and universities are taking aggressive action on climate change, and they showed up in force at COP. Frisch and around a dozen other U.S. leaders in business, culture and government took part in three bilateral meetings with foreign diplomats to discuss efforts to cut carbon pollution.
The meetings between members of We Are Still In and America’s Pledge, two groups of subnational leaders united in their support of the Paris Agreement, and representatives of other countries were highly unusual. They mark a significant change to climate diplomacy. With the Trump administration working hard to slow efforts to address climate change, foreign governments are more willing to deal with U.S. subnational actors. The meetings reflect both a failure of U.S. leadership and an acknowledgment of the role that cities and states can play in addressing the carbon crisis.
It was clear that the participants — which included officials from French and German energy ministries and the Maldives’ ambassador to the UN — were aware of the strange nature of the moment. “They’re national governments, so their first inclination is to engage a national government,” said Pat Hamilton, the director of global change initiatives at the Science Museum of Minnesota. “Obviously, that’s very difficult in this present global climate with the U.S.”
One of the purposes of the meetings — Frisch’s key job, in fact — was to show other countries the hard math behind carbon-cutting pledges made by U.S. cities, states, businesses, cultural centers, universities and other groups. A report released earlier this year by California Gov. Jerry Brown and UN Special Envoy for Climate Action Michael Bloomberg found that current commitments by U.S. subnational actors would get the United States two-thirds of the way to its 2025 Paris targets.
“I was actually surprised about what’s possible,” said Frisch, now an analyst at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which co-authored the report. “We can get a significant way towards the U.S. commitment just from actions [of] cities, states and businesses. I was excited to give other countries that message — that we’ve done the math and we think it’s significant.”
It wasn’t just hard numbers on display at the meetings. Hamilton said that cultural centers like museums and science centers can play a role in shifting public opinion on clean energy. For example, his Minneapolis science center gives tours of its clean energy infrastructure to local leaders. “Centers can say things that governments, corporations and businesses cannot or do not,” Hamilton said.
For Lisa Manley, who works in sustainability at Mars Inc., the meetings provided the opportunity to show foreign governments that corporate pledges to cut emissions aren’t just greenwashing. “Clearly there’s no substitute for government leadership, but the focus on growing the role business can play, as well the fact that we were able to have these bilateral meetings in the first place, is a great step in a positive direction,” Manley said. “[Foreign governments] need to hear from companies about our recognition of the reality of climate change and our ambition to align ourselves with the Paris Accord. We can be great partners to help advance action in DC.”
Germany and France have both set ambitious targets for cutting emissions. And yet, meeting attendees said the French and German officials were interested in learning from U.S. leaders about how they might spur cities, universities and businesses in their own countries to do more on climate change. “Germany, like a lot of other countries, [is] looking at the U.S. and seeing subnational movement and thinking — wait a minute, that’s something we can do, too,” Frisch said.
But it was the meeting with the ambassador from the Maldives that stuck with the Americans the most. Low-lying island states like the Maldives have the most to lose from climate change, and they are already coping with severe storms and rising seas. These countries tend to voice the most urgency in international climate negotiations. The ambassador from the Maldives offered a prime example. “I sensed a quiet apprehension on his part that the world is not paying sufficient attention, and that [small island nations] will be the first casualties, but by no means the last ones,” Hamilton said.
Manley agreed. “[Island countries] have been tremendous warriors in these climate talks over the past few years,” she said. “They need to hear that their messages are resonating.”
Ultimately, the meetings helped the Americans — and the foreign diplomats — to make progress on climate change despite President Trump and to plan for a future without him. “My message to them was, ‘Feel free to reach out to U.S. subnationals, because we are continuing to make commitments and implement them,’” Hamilton said. “There are a lot of experiments and innovations going on in the states that, once we get a friendlier national government again, can be implemented countrywide.”