For three days San Francisco became a climate change hub, filled with conferences and workshops. Still the Global Climate Summit turned out to be focused on the cities of the Global North.
The world came to San Francisco last week to seek inspiration in local action to fight climate change ahead of the next round of COP talks in December. But the world as represented in the City by the Bay was not necessarily the world as it looks outside the Moscone Center, where some 4,500 delegates spent two days listening to rousing speeches from the likes of actor Harrison Ford, anthropologist Jane Goodall, and former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore.
In short, a summit billed as a “global” event on local-level climate action felt tilted toward the North and especially toward the current polarized U.S. political environment.
“We’re not seeing Southern cities represented here,” said Sheela Patel, founding director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, a Mumbai-based advocacy group for pavement dwellers. “The constituencies who face vulnerability are absent.”
The two-day Global Climate Action Summit, preceded by several days of mayoral gatherings, conservation conferences, and workshops scattered across town turned San Francisco into a climate change hub, but one reflecting the city and its home state, California, more than the global vision to which it aspired.
California Governor Jerry Brown, who convened the summit with the blessing of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, wielded the event chiefly as a political tool. On Monday, September 10, he signed a law committing California to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. Then, in a surprise move, he issued an executive order pledging that California’s economy, the fifth-largest in the world, would be carbon neutral by 2045. Experts greeted the announcement with raised eyebrows and skepticism, but nevertheless acknowledged its boldness.
Such undeniably ambitious climate goals stand in stark contrast to the retrenchment from U.S. President Donald Trump, a climate change denier who pulled the world’s second-largest polluter out of the Paris Agreement and rescinded his predecessor’s clean energy plan, which served as the backbone of the U.S. nationally determined contribution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Scoring political points against Trump was thus a prime objective for summit speakers, most of whom hailed from cities and states ruled by members of the left-leaning Democratic party. With legislative elections coming in November, the summit became a rallying cry for the Democratic cause, with even UN Special Envoy for Climate Action Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who governed as a political independent, publicly declaring his support for the Democratic effort to retake the lower house of the legislature. (Last week, media also reported that Bloomberg plans to run for president in 2020.)
When not focused on the U.S. political system, the points of reference at the Global Climate Action Summit were generally Eurocentric. For example, the climate alliance C40 heralded that 27 of its member cities have “peaked” their carbon emissions and seen declines over the last five years – but every single city hailed from a developed country.
There were notable exceptions, like outgoing Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille talking up an innovative plan to develop climate-friendly housing along a tract of land leftover from the apartheid era. The World Resources Institute also launched a new Cities4Forests initiative that will encourage cities to preserve and expand their urban tree economy, lessen encroachment on forests along the urban periphery, and examine their supply chains to reduce their impact on distant natural lands. Nearly half of the declaration’s signatories are Global South cities.
Still, the summit content left other Global South leaders wanting, especially with the incessant talk of solutions like electric vehicles, which may help developed world cities but not necessarily in the cities downstream where the old internal-combustion cars might end up.
“You’re going to recycle those cars – [they’re] going to be used in another country, another city and the environment will still be polluted,” Accra Mayor Mohammed Adjei Sowah told Urbanet. “It’s a local action but you need to look at the global dashboard so we can address it collectively.”
Much of the summit talk that affected the Global South consisted of money and resources from the North trying to ensure that it does not fuel deforestation in the Amazon or Southeast Asia for soy, beef, and palm oil. Announcements from major corporations like WalMart and Unilever saw developing countries as the subject of policies, not political actors that could chart their own course on climate change.
Developing economy leaders did flex their muscle, however, like Indian industrialist Anand Mahindra, who chaired the business caucus of the summit and challenged CEOs worldwide to step up their climate ambition – prompting the likes of Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, San Francisco’s largest private employer, to announce ambitious climate goals for his company.
That show of capital from a rising economy like India did harden Patel, who believes that political will exists to upgrade the country’s informal settlements and provide them with electricity in lieu of pirated connections, which could lead to large-scale adoption of clean energy if Indian utility companies invest in renewables. But the risk that a green agenda could stomp on human rights by leading to forced evictions leaves her leery.
“Reduce carbon dioxide? Not at the cost of social justice,” she told Urbanet.
Indigenous leaders, hailing both from North America and across South America and Southeast Asia, had a similar message. They were among the protesters who disrupted the summit opening on Thursday – a reminder that the stakes in these climate talks are highests for people living the most distantly from major urban centers.
In one important respect, developing world delegates had a leg up on their U.S. counterparts – they don’t have a hostile government to contend with on the issue.
“Both at the local and the national level we are on the same page to fight climate change,” Adjei Sowah, a C40 vice-chair, said. “Rainfall patterns have changed and rising sea levels are impacting negatively on our economies and lifestyles. We are living and feeling the adverse impacts of climate change.”