Are global warming summits still cool?

The New York Times
CaliforniaWritten By: Shawn Hubler © 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: Nov 02, 2021, 12:20 AM IST

An employee cleans before the arrival of leaders for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 1, 2021. Photograph:(Reuters)

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Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone to three climate summits, two of them after he had termed out.

Few states support climate action as enthusiastically as California. But the Golden State isn’t sending a governor to the U.N. climate change summit this year. Gov. Gavin Newsom is not going, and neither are his predecessors in the office. That’s both unusual and a little telling.

Jerry Brown, who is chair of the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, was the toast of the town at the 2015 Paris climate conference and again in 2017 in Bonn, Germany, when Donald Trump, the president at the time, was a no-show. Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone to three climate summits, two of them after he had termed out. In 2009, The Guardian reported that he arrived at the Copenhagen summit “with 10 men in black with wires sprouting from their ears, a phalanx of cameramen and a perma-tan.”

Newsom — a father of four young children — skipped Madrid in 2019, stayed home with the rest of the world in 2020 when that summit was cancelled and announced Friday that this year, because of “family obligations,” he would be a virtual participant only. Earlier, he had said that he and his wife would attend the 12-day gathering to promote California’s progress in phasing out gasoline-powered vehicles and other climate policies.

So has California cooled on global warming summits?

The state is still sending nearly two dozen lawmakers and environmental officials to Glasgow, Scotland, for the talks, known as the 26th session of the Conference of Parties, or COP26. The California delegation will be led by the lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, who served during the Obama administration as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

But for many environmental experts in the state, COP has become an annual reminder that the summit is geared toward nations, not “subnational” governments like California’s — and that conventions alone won’t fix global warming.

“I’ve got to be honest, I’ve been working on climate policy my entire adult life and I don’t think people should waste much time on these international meetings,” said Danny Cullenward, a Stanford-trained energy economist and lawyer who directs policy at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that evaluates climate programs. “They’re a forum, and important things can and will happen there, but those things are brought to the forum by the countries and other actors who participate. They’re not crafted and distributed from the meeting out to the rest of the world.”

Cullenward said the summit had become emblematic of the failure of governments — including California’s — to deliver near-term progress.

California’s tough standards on clean electricity and auto emissions have been major success stories in curbing greenhouse gas pollution, and the state has committed to a 40% reduction in emissions by the end of this decade. An aggressive executive order by Newsom bans new gas-powered car and truck sales starting in 2035, and recent regulatory actions aim to ban new permits for fracking and new oil and gas drilling near schools, homes and health facilities over the next few years.

But the state’s working goal for full carbon neutrality is not statutorily binding and not set to happen until 2045, long past the point of political accountability for most current officeholders. Environmentalists and legislators have complained that the state climate regulator has focused on that long-term date in its planning process, potentially to the detriment of near-term actions. Meanwhile, the planet is warming, and California is being slammed by climate-driven wildfires, floods, megadroughts and blistering heat waves.

“People love to pledge targets,” Cullenward said. “The problem is, we focus too much on the pledging and not enough on the getting it done.”

Brown and Schwarzenegger are impatient, too.

Last week, at a conference organized by state air quality regulators, Schwarzenegger said that the COP summit’s emphasis on the long view had distracted from the immediate need to stop polluting.

“What does a promise and a pledge mean in the end?” he said. “Nothing. It’s just over and over, year after year, they make these pledges and they come out to declare victory, but then nothing is getting done.”

Schwarzenegger will participate this week in a virtual chat on climate and the economy with a co-founder of LinkedIn, one of the summit’s corporate attendees, according to a spokesman, and may appear at a climate-related event at the Schwarzenegger Institute at the University of Southern California.

In an interview, Brown said he was staying home because the state’s delegation was already “robust” and because he had stopped travelling out of state during the coronavirus pandemic. California, he said, will play an important role in Glasgow because nations need state and local governments to help them reach their targets.

However, he agreed on the need for action.

“This is a moment to bite the bullet, not gum the marshmallow,” Brown said. “This is an existential threat.”