Top Democrats Stage Anti-Trump Revolt at Bonn Climate Summit

By David Siders, Emily Holden and Sara Stefanini

BONN, Germany — A handful of Democratic governors and scores of other lawmakers and mayors are mounting an insurgency at the United Nations climate conference here, orchestrating a highly choreographed campaign to persuade world leaders that President Donald Trump doesn’t speak for the United States on climate change.

Several Democratic U.S. senators began meeting last week with officials from other countries, seeking to minimize Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Meanwhile, the governors of California, Virginia, Oregon and Washington — along with mayors from throughout the nation — were expected to touch off a blitz of public appearances at the conference as the meeting enters its final week.

“We are Still In”

“We are still in!” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland told cheering activists Saturday at a pavilion set up just outside the official meeting zone, a de facto headquarters for the opposition. “I want to make it clear: The federal government is not just the president of the United States.”

The Democrats’ diplomacy — part lobbying, part public relations — comes amid widespread international concern about Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris accord. War-torn Syria announced last week that it would join the agreement, leaving the United States — if it goes through with its withdrawal — as the only country in the world outside of the pact.

On Saturday, Democratic politicians, climate activists and like-minded business interests sought to present the United States as a country divorced from its president. Speakers repeated the slogan, “We are still in,” a message splayed across an electronic ticker and on buttons at the unofficial U.S. pavilion. The pavilion’s estimated $235,000 cost was being covered by a coalition including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer.

Steyer, who is spending millions of dollars on a national television ad campaign calling for Trump’s impeachment, was expected to outline his case for Trump’s ouster in a speech here Sunday.

Senators Meeting with Countries’ Representatives

While pavilion organizers plied guests with big-name speakers and free beer and wine, a subtler campaign was unfolding inside the conference halls. Starting late last week, a small delegation of U.S. senators, including Cardin, Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — began meeting with officials from other countries in an effort to assuage nerves about Trump. Schatz said he and other lawmakers met with delegations from India and Japan and were planning to meet with representatives of the European Union, Mexico, Indonesia and Canada.

The senators argued Trump could not quickly undo eight years of Obama-era climate policies or significantly affect state-level efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think that there’s an understanding of the American system of government, which is sometimes cumbersome and slow, and frustratingly so, but in this instance it works in favor of climate action,” said Schatz. “Whatever the president’s rhetoric, he can’t prevent us from moving forward on clean energy.”

Following a meeting with Mexican officials, Markey said Saturday, “Obviously, I think it’s important for them to understand that there are 30 states that have renewable electricity standards, that the fuel economy standards are still the federal law, that the appliance efficiency standards are still federal law.”

Democrats trying to thwart attacks on climate action have on their side bureaucracy, the courts and a narrowly divided Congress that often gets stuck in legislative stalemates. Although Republicans control Congress and the White House, they need 60 votes to proceed to most legislation.

Reduction Commitments from States and Localities

The Trump administration is moving to undo President Barack Obama’s climate standards — including carbon limits for the roughly one-third of emissions that come from the power sector. Those regulatory rollbacks could take years and will have to stand up to legal review, but in the meantime, the federal government will not move forward to curb greenhouse gases.

Markey promised that Democrats will fight to maintain fuel economy standards and will block any effort to cut back wind and solar tax credits. He told a crowd on Saturday that Trump has “assembled a Cabinet of Big Oil all-stars” but that, “On our side, we have 100 years of science and nearly 100 percent of the scientists in the planet. And inside the United States, we have city after city, state after state, standing up to take action.”

Diplomats are paying close attention to American representatives pledging to keep fighting climate change, said Jens Mattias Clausen, a Copenhagen-based climate change adviser for Greenpeace who is attending the talks.

The most important thing those representatives can do is “show the rest of the world that even if the Trump administration refuses to face reality here and continues with this very isolationist style that the rest of the U.S. is actually ready to step up and help with the commitments that they have,” Clausen said. In terms of specific numbers they can offer, “the more concrete it gets … the better,” he added.

California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Bloomberg are leading a group called America’s Pledge, which aims to release more specific reduction commitments from states and localities next year. On Saturday, they released a report asserting the combined economic power of every state and city that has committed to the Paris agreement would outmatch every country except for China and the U.S.

Yet even their own report acknowledged, as previous studies have, that non-federal efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not sufficient to meet the United States’ commitments under the Paris agreement given Trump’s stated policies. And local and state climate efforts are fraught with their own, internal disagreements about how aggressively subnational governments should pursue climate policies on their own. On Saturday, Brown had a speech interrupted for an extended period by activists protesting California’s cap-and-trade program and its permissiveness on hydraulic fracturing.

“You have a positive message insofar as what individual states and individuals are doing” about climate change, Mairead McGuinness, a member of the European Parliament, told Brown at a forum last week.

However, she said, “Sometimes when we make a step forward, there are forces that ask us to step back by half.”

McGuinness added, “One of the comments we hear from EU citizens is that, why should we act when others are not?”

Despite Trump, “the World is Moving On”

For all of the Democrats’ efforts, Trump looms large over the conference, and the power of the White House is not lost on the international community. Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, is publicly promoting coal production. He has said he is withdrawing from the Paris agreement because it puts the United States at a “big economic disadvantage.”

Last week’s elections in the United States provided a rare, positive talking point for Democrats trying to combat Trump’s message in Bonn. The Democrats’ sweep in the off-year contests, they said, presaged a return to Democratic power in Washington and re-engagement in climate talks abroad.

“Tuesday’s election marked that Trump is alone and isolated,” said Garrett Blad, executive director of SustainUS, a youth advocacy group. “It’s going to be our job back home — 2018 is going to be a huge year with the elections — to make sure that states … are moving forward with the most aggressive action that we can.”

When Bloomberg mentioned Saturday that the official U.S. delegation to the conference under Trump was preparing to host a controversial panel on Monday on the use of fossil fuels, the crowd booed.

“The Trump administration did send a delegation here to Bonn, and it might be the first climate conference where — this is not a joke, folks — coal is being promoted as an example of sustainability,” Bloomberg said.

He added, “It will also likely be the last. The world is moving on, and so is the United States.”

Former Vice President Al Gore, a major draw for climate activists at the conference, told POLITICO in an interview Saturday that commitments made by states, cities and businesses all “adds up to a very impressive reduction in U.S. emissions.”

He added, “I mean, [Trump] can prohibit EPA employees from talking to the public, and he can remove the word ‘climate’ from all the government websites. But he can’t stop the technological and business revolution that’s gaining speed around the world and especially in the U.S.”Φ

David Siders is a senior reporter for POLITICO and co-author of the California Playbook. Emily Holden reports on energy and climate change at POLITICO. Sara Stefanini contributed to this report; she is a Senior Policy Reporter at POLITICO, based in Brussels. This article first appeared on November 12 at Politico.

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