November 17 marked the end of the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 23), a two-week series of negotiations that took place in Bonn, Germany.
This year, the purpose of the conference was to discuss the technical side of implementing and monitoring the pledge commitments made in the Paris Agreement – a global treaty signed two years ago at COP 21.
However, after the U.S. made an announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in June, this otherwise technical conference took a turn towards the political side in wake of the controversial decision.
Many U.S. politicians and businesses expressed dissatisfaction with the U.S.'s withdrawal from the agreement, and countered the decision by creating their own "We Are Still In" delegation instead. The secondary delegation, led by billionaire and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Jerry Brown, consists of cities, states, and various companies who all oppose Trump's policies on climate change. In a recent announcement, Microsoft also indicated its support for the We Are Still In coalition and declared they would lead the business and industry portion of the group.
The group aims to show that Trump does not represent the entire U.S. on climate, and that members of civil society are still committed to keeping the United States' Paris Pledge, with or without support from the federal government.
In a statement at COP 23, Jerry Brown explicitly outlined his position, "First of all, it's to say to the rest of the world that America is in — we're in the Paris Accord. We have to keep the temperature below a 2-degree centigrade increase, and we're going to do that not with the federal government, because the federal government is on holiday with respect to climate change."
Throughout the conference, the group carried out actions entirely independent of the U.S.'s official delegation. They funded their own pavilion, led their own press conferences, and even met with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to discuss entering a clean-energy alliance with 14 states and Puerto Rico – all of whom have pledged to meet their share of the U.S.'s Paris commitments.
Bloomberg, who serves as a UN special envoy on climate change, also led his own initiatives to support the Paris Agreement. One major point of discussion for COP 23 was the need to begin phasing out coal by 2030, reaching total termination by 2050. The efforts of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, led by the UK and Canada, were matched by Bloomberg, who personally pledged $50 million to expand his anti-coal campaign to Europe and beyond. His previous work in the U.S. has successfully shut down half of the U.S.'s coal plants in the past six years.
"Coal is the single biggest polluter… If you could just replace coal with any other fuel, you would make an enormous difference in the outlook for climate change," Bloomberg stated.
Despite hesitations entering the conference, many leaders expressed that the U.S. leaving the accord did not hinder the negotiations. Washington Governor Jay Inslee stated, "Not one single country has expressed one single word of doubt or lack of confidence in the Paris agreement just because Donald Trump is still a climate denier."
This confidence is largely due to the commitment of civil society and individual states, who are giving hope to other world leaders that the U.S. is not entirely abandoning climate action. Miguel Arias Canete, European commissioner for climate action and energy also expressed his satisfaction with state efforts.
"America is still in. Our perception is, fortunately, there is real action on the ground, and we're very pleased."
The coalition's actions have resulted in a few major milestones in climate change action. Shannon Gibson, an assistant professor of teaching in the USC International Relations department who attended the second-week of the conference, discusses one result from their efforts.
"They [the UN] have now included an agenda item for the next COP to begin talking about how sub-state actors can begin entering the negotiations," Gibson said. "It's kind of revolutionary."