At Climate Week 2017, a mix of optimism and urgency

Living on Earth
Kerry at Climate Week 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered remarks at the Climate Week 2014 opening event in New York City.

 US State Department 

When the world’s leaders gathered in New York for the annual fall meeting of the UN General Assembly, another series of meetings took place, called Climate Week NYC, where government, business and NGO leaders discussed global climate solutions. 

The mood at Climate Week this year was “a strange confluence of optimism and urgency,” says Alden Meyer, a climate diplomacy expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who came to New York City for the meetings.

On one hand, cities, states and companies are making commitments to climate action, he says. There was the launch of the EV100 Alliance, a coalition of global companies, including Unilever, Ikea, DHL and others, that have committed to replacing their fleets with electric vehicles; and governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, Jerry Brown of California and Jay Inslee from Washington state announced the US Climate Alliance, a group of 14 states and Puerto Rico that are committed to meeting their share of the Paris Agreement, despite President Donald Trump's rejection of the pact.

“In contrast, you have President Trump giving his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly, where he didn't mention the words climate change,” Meyer says. "And despite talking about security risks and instability around the world, didn't make the obvious connection between what we're doing to pump up global warming pollution and the impacts that that's already having around the world.”

Many groups and organizations “don't seem to be letting the actions of President Trump and his administration dampen their activism or their level of ambition,” he adds. “If anything, I think it's spurring them on to do even more and more quickly.”

Other countries are stepping into the vacuum created by the Trump administration, Meyer says. Canada recently convened a meeting in Montréal with China and the EU to address elements of the Paris Agreement. Europe will host another meeting in the first half of next year in Brussels and China will host a meeting in the second half of the year.

In November, the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as the Paris process, will meet and there are many significant items on the agenda, Meyer says.

First, they have to make progress on implementation rules — things like “reporting guidelines, accounting standards, financial elements, the new market mechanisms that were created in Paris to allow countries to collaborate in reducing their emissions, land use change issues, the issues of adaptation, loss and damage.”

“There is a whole series of detailed rules that they aim to adopt by the end of next year, and, of course, the original intent of Paris was that by 2020, all countries would take a harder look at the commitments they made in 2015, sharpen their pencils and see if they could do more,” he explains.

In the wake of the recent intense storms in the Caribbean and the US, the issue of loss and damage will get particular focus, he believes. The looming question is, “What do you do to help countries that are grappling with the unavoidable impacts of climate change, even if we do as much as we can to reduce emissions and limit the temperature increase?”

“Even if we succeed in holding temperature increases well below 2 degrees, as opposed to the 3 1/2 or 4 degree path they were on now, those impacts are going to continue to mount, and particularly vulnerable countries need help dealing with them, preparing for them and recovering from them,” he says.

All of this gives Meyer a “bittersweet mix of some despair along with some hope,” he says.

“It makes me sad on a deep level because we've been predicting this — not only my organization but the scientific community, globally, and many others around the world, that this is exactly what we would be experiencing if we didn't take more aggressive action,” he says. “I think it's an indication that we're running out of time.”

“But, on the optimistic side, the response of other countries — of governors, of mayors, of the business community — to this problem, the dramatic reduction in the costs and availability of clean solutions like wind and solar energy gives me hope,” he adds.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.