U.S. Governors at U.N. Assembly: ‘You Have Allies’ on Climate Change

Source: By LISA FRIEDMAN and BRAD PLUMER, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Gov. Jerry Brown of California at a conference on electric vehicles in Beijing in June. He is one of several United States governors pledging to work with world leaders on climate change, whatever the federal government decides to do. Thomas Peter/Reuters

UNITED NATIONS — Jerry Brown, the governor of California, huddled on Sunday night with European, Brazilian and small-island leaders — gathered here for the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, which formally begins on Tuesday — and pledged to work with them on climate change. On Monday he met with António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, to discuss the future of the Paris agreement.

In another era, meetings like these might have been the exclusive domain of the State Department. But with the Trump administration vowing to leave the Paris agreement on climate change — affirmed on Monday by Gary D. Cohn, the chief White House economic adviser, at a meeting with allied ministers — Democratic state governors are taking an increasingly conspicuous role on the international stage, forming something of an informal negotiating team.

It is the first time that governors have taken such a prominent role on climate change at the annual General Assembly. Analysts said it would be the first real test of whether governors can persuade world leaders that efforts by American states might be able to take the place, at least in part, of federal government action.

The goal, the governors say, is to assure other countries that they, along with and hundreds of cities and businesses, remain committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and meeting the goals of the Paris accord.

“You have allies in the United States. You shouldn’t put your foot on the brake or even tap it just because we have a climate denier in the White House. You’re not alone,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said he would tell world leaders this week.

He rejected the idea that the governors represent a shadow diplomatic corps. “I don’t think it’s a shadow,” he said. “We’re in the sunlight. We’re shining the bright light of success.”

The General Assembly brings together leaders and senior officials from nearly 200 countries for a week of speeches and high-level talks. Climate change — though not the central issue of the meeting — will have a high profile, in part because of confusion over whether the United States can be persuaded to remain in the Paris agreement. The White House has asserted that it will stay in the pact if “suitable terms” are met. It has not laid out what those terms might be.

Mr. Cohn’s breakfast meeting on Monday with a handful of ministers to discuss climate change was the only event the White House has scheduled on the topic.

“That’s why we have governors here. Because we don’t have someone from Washington D.C.,” Governor Brown said. “The states are picking up the baton.”

Governor Brown, along with Governor Inslee and Gov. David Y. Ige of Hawaii, is also participating in Climate Week, a series of high-level panels on climate change. The Trump administration did not send a representative to the meetings, which are not affiliated with the United Nations.

Governor Inslee will also meet with Frank Bainimarama, the prime minister of Fiji, which holds the presidency of United Nations climate change negotiations this year.

Another governor, Roy Cooper of North Carolina, was expected to announce this week that his state would join California, 13 other states and Puerto Rico in the United States Climate Alliance, a group of states and territories that has pledged to uphold the Paris agreement.

Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina. He was expected to announce on Monday that his state would join California and others in the United States Climate Alliance. Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

The addition of North Carolina to the group would be notable because it is among the highest-emitting states. Without big producers of greenhouse gasses, experts say, states will struggle to make significant gains in reaching global climate goals.

As part of the Paris accord, the Obama administration vowed that United States greenhouse gas emissions would fall at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Each governor in the alliance is promoting individual policies aimed at meeting that goal.

Oregon and New York, for instance, plan to shutter their last coal plants by 2020. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has ordered new carbon regulations for local power plants. California’s legislature has authorized one of the most sweeping climate programs in the world, aimed at decarbonizing every corner of the state’s economy, from transportation to agriculture.

“We certainly believe if the federal government won’t lead in this area, we want the world to understand there are states across the country that are committed,” said Governor Ige, whose state enacted the first 100-percent-renewable energy standard.

Despite the push by the climate alliance, though, those states make up just one-third of the nation’s population, and the United States as a whole is still expected to fall short of Mr. Obama’s pledge. The big question, then, is whether the alliance can persuade other states to join its climate efforts.

“Unless their leadership is met with followership, the impact will be pretty limited,” said David G. Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego. “The idea has always been that if these states can demonstrate the technologies needed to cut emissions, that will help shift the politics in other states. But we have yet to see that play out.”

Perhaps the governors’ biggest challenge will be the deep partisan divide over climate change in the country.

Nicolas Loris, a research fellow in energy and environmental policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research groups, said he believed the governors were speaking for a minority of Americans. He said that more than half of American states opposed Mr. Obama’s signature effort to cut emissions, known as the Clean Power Plan.

“It’s one thing if these governors are communicating their respective state climate plans, as ill-advised as they may be,” Mr. Loris said. “No matter how expensive or ineffective these climate policies may be, it’s their right. They can deliver that message to anyone they please. But they shouldn’t pretend their actions are the will of the federal government or the entire country.”

For now the climate alliance is focused on the economic argument that it is possible to cut emissions without harming the economy. According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, every state in the alliance has managed to cut emissions since 2000 even while expanding their overall economic output. The coalition states say they have created 1.3 million clean energy jobs while cutting emissions.

“We have blown up the argument that acting on climate change is bad for your economy,” Governor Inslee said.