BONN, Germany – The nations of the world are here to discuss the next steps to implement the Paris Agreement, the global pact hammered out two years ago to confront climate change. All the nations, that is, except the United States. This is the first high-level United Nations climate summit – referred to as the Conference of Parties, or COP – to be held since President Donald Trump announced on June 1 that he would pull the United States out of the accord. Two other nations – Nicaragua and Syria – that had previously not signed on to the agreement have since done so, leaving the United States alone in the world, the sole country that refuses to act on climate change. But when it comes to setting policy on climate change, as with healthcare, taxes, and, hopefully, even war, Trump doesn’t hold the same dictatorial powers as authoritarian world leaders whom he admires. There is a force more powerful: people joined together in a mass movement. This multifaceted movement of Americans who do care about climate change are here in Bonn in force, letting the world know, as their slogan reads, “#We Are Still In.”
An official U.S. delegation is present here in Bonn. To Trump’s dismay, even though the Paris Agreement is a voluntary document and not a binding treaty, it still takes four years to fully withdraw. At past COPs, the U.S. special envoy for climate change would give frequent press briefings. And while many around the world were critical of the U.S. role in the climate talks during the Barack Obama years, at least they acknowledged the existence of human-caused climate change, and were committed to some form of solution. What a difference a year makes. The Trump administration’s official delegation scheduled just one formal public session during the entire two-week summit. We went to cover the event for the “Democracy Now!” news hour. It was all you would expect from a Trump administration climate change event.
Hundreds of people were waiting in line for access. A separate line formed for journalists. As we filmed the scene, a U.S. Embassy consultant put his hand over the lens of our camera. Things were not looking good. Upon entry, we were corralled in the back of the room, while select invitees filled reserved seats in the front row. Before the official delegation entered, two Democratic U.S. governors strode in, unannounced, and addressed the press, decrying the spectacle of climate change denial that was about to take place.
“This is a sideshow,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced. “The world is not going to listen to someone who says that climate change is a hoax.” He was joined by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who, together with scores of other elected officials – mayors, governors, senators and others – attended this summit to organize and demonstrate the bottom-up resistance to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The two governors left, and the official delegation filed in.
Led by Francis Brooke, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and George David Banks, special assistant to the president for international energy and environment, the panel included representatives from the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries. As they delivered predictable homilies on the necessity of their destructive energy sectors, three-quarters of the room rose in unison, turned their backs and began singing Lee Greenwood’s popular, patriotic “God Bless the U.S.A./Proud to Be an American,” but with satirical, anti-fossil-fuel lyrics:
“So you claim to be an American
But we see right through your greed.
It’s killing all across the world
For that coal money.
And we proudly stand up until you
Keep it in the ground…”
Outside, hundreds who were denied entry to the small room chanted loudly in solidarity.
After the protesters walked out and the panelists gave their spiels, we managed to pose a simple question to each of them: “Yes or no, do you support Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement?” The nuclear power advocate said she disagreed with Trump, as did the natural gas entrepreneur, a former Obama administration staffer. The coal executive, from the notorious multinational Peabody Energy, refused to answer. The oil and gas lobbyist said yes, he supported withdrawal, while Brooks and Banks stated that they work for the president, so of course they support his decision.
The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is a catastrophe, to be sure. But it has inspired a whirlwind of bottom-up climate activism, with thousands of U.S. businesses, universities, faith groups, elected officials, student groups and prominent individuals committing to combat climate change. For all of Trump’s bluster and all of his tweets, this may well be the most important consequence of his climate change denial.