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USA Global Climate Action Summit 2018
Image: picture-alliance/AP/dpa/E. Risberg

Climate action, made in the USA

Nadia Pontes San Francisco
September 14, 2018

In California, the Global Climate Action Summit is trying to convince the world that the US can still play a leading role in the fight against climate change. Local leaders say they won't be deterred by Trump's actions.


As more than a million residents along the East Coast of the United States fled Hurricane Florence, thousands gathered in San Francisco, on the West Coast, to address one of the main causes fueling the trend of increasingly severe hurricanes: climate change.

Hosted by California Governor Jerry Brown, the Global Action Climate Summit brought together various sectors of society with the goal of increasing emission reductions pledged under the Paris Agreement — as commitment to the accord appears to waver.

"Climate change is real, and it's up to us to do something about it," said Brown on Thursday, the first full day of the San Francisco summit.

Read more: Climate finance poses hurdle ahead of COP24 

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks as Michael Bloomberg, left, listens during a news conference at the Global Action Climate Summit Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in San Francisco
California Governor Jerry Brown is the de facto climate leader for the United StatesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Risberg

California declared war on US President Donald Trump after he withdrew the US from the Paris accord and began to roll back environmental regulations.

"I think he'll be remembered, on the path he's on now — liar, criminal, fool," said Brown of Trump's attempt to push for more coal power and weaken pollution standards.

In the face of Trump's denial of climate change, the summit in San Francisco had a clear purpose: to showcase how different levels of government, civil society and the private sector have managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more: Politicians think globally, act locally to fight global warming

"President Trump said he is out of the Paris Agreement; we are saying, we are in," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told DW.

"We represent the American people, businesses and universities. All live in local communities and are feeling the impacts of global climate change, through fires and floods and droughts. We don't have the luxury of creating a problem and not solving it," he added.

A fire truck drives along Highway 299 as the Carr fire continues to burn near Whiskeytown, California on July 28, 2018
Devastating wildfires are among the symptoms of climate change in CaliforniaImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Edelson

Green rebellion

The Paris Agreement, decided in 2015 and ratified by 180 countries, is the key international effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

Since the US became the only country to abandon the pact, as decided by Trump in June 2017, the impacts of climate change are becoming more visible throughout American territory.

"The evidence is all around us," former Vice President Al Gore said at a meeting of mayors. "Last month, we passed the all-time record fire here in California," he pointed out.

As numerous studies have established, global warming is increasing the risk of wildfire.

Read more: Climate change sets the world on fire

Los Angeles is one of several California cities that have suffered from the drought and fires.

"We have lost firefighters who have died combating climate change. We see communities that are experiencing the health impacts," said Garcetti.

Together with 27 of the world's largest cities, Los Angeles announced that its greenhouse gas emissions peaked last year. San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. are also in that group.

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and a United Nations special envoy for climate action, pointed out that US emissions in 2017 fell to the lowest level in 25 years "without any help from Washington."

"The US is already halfway to the commitment that we made back in Paris," he continued. "Cities are helping to make this possible, and will ensure that we get the rest no matter what happens in Washington."

Read more: Forget Trump, it's all about local climate action

Just days ahead of the summit, Brown signed a bill that calls for 100 percent of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydropower by 2045.

Protesters call for climate justice in San Francisco, California
The Global Climate Action Summit followed a global day of protest for climate action in San FranciscoImage: DW/N. Pontes

Forests and climate change

The summit in San Francisco also paid special attention to indigenous peoples. Francisca Oliveira Costa with the Organization of Indigenous Teachers of Acre in Brazil told the plenary from the stage: "Forests are important to regulate the climate. And we are the people who preserve them."

A report co-authored by the Rights and Resources Initiative and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, showed that investing in indigenous peoples is a highly efficient means of protecting forests.

Another case study calculated that indigenous peoples manage nearly 300,000 million metric tons of carbon in their trees and soil — equivalent to 33 times the global energy emissions in 2017.

"Over the last 20 years, solid research has shown that indigenous peoples are not part of the problem — as government used to think 20 years ago — but rather, part of the solution," said David Kaimowitz, an agricultural economist and director of sustainable development for the Ford Foundation.

Read moreGreenhouse emissions decline in cities from Berlin to New York

During the summit, nine foundations announced they will commit at least $459 million (€393 million) to forests, indigenous rights, and lands to combat climate change through 2022.

In California, the Yurok became the first indigenous group to join a cap-and-trade program. By managing their forests for carbon storage, they generate credits to sell to companies that must reduce emissions as part of the state's effort to fight climate change.

"This can help us to generate revenue according to our cultural principles, and recognizes the decision-making authorities of our land management," Yurok Self Governance Director Javier Kinney told DW.

Yurok Indigenous People in Klamath, California
The Yurok indigenous people depend on forests to surviveImage: DW/N. Pontes

Beyond San Francisco

According to Lou Leonard of the World Wide Fund for Nature, states and cities are shining the light on a hopeful path — despite Trump. "When the president stepped out from the Paris Agreement, 1,200 leaders said, 'we are still in.' Now, there are more than 3,600 leaders from cities, universities, and states," he told DW.

Read more: Cities, businesses aim to fill Trump climate void

Former UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres believes that after San Francisco, national governments will have the confidence to come back to the negotiating table in 2020 and increase their levels of ambition.

"When somebody says that the United States has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, this is a false statement. It is the national government that has withdrawn; it is not the United States economy. The real economy continued to decarbonize," she said.

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