From Trump to Bolsonaro, Climate Skeptics Stir Green Activism

(Bloomberg) -- It’s not just a Trump phenomena anymore.

From the U.S. to Brazil and Australia, grassroots environmental activism is growing in places where leaders are skeptical about climate change. The effort to circumvent governments reluctant to act against greenhouse gas pollution has drawn in a group of mayors, local officials and even companies.

Their work is on display this week in Madrid at the COP25 climate talks organized by the United Nations. While celebrities including Harrison Ford and the student activist Greta Thunberg are the most visible proponents of the trend, it’s also drawn in hundreds of local officials eager to do more to protect the planet.

“This is one of the COPs where I have seen the most leadership being displayed from sub-nationals including states, cities, business and investors,” said Helen Mounford, vice president of climate and economics at the World Resources Institute and a veteran of such events. “That’s quite a strong juxtaposition to what we’re seeing from countries.”

Their work contrasts with remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has called the science showing a warming trend in the Earth’s atmosphere a “hoax.” Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and has expressed similar doubts, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been accused of not doing enough for the environment. And the response in all those places has been to spur a green movement pressing for action.

American activists stir

While the U.S. delegation at the Madrid meeting kept a low profile, a coalition of companies and pressure groups formed the “We are still in” coalition. It sponsored a pavilion and more than a dozen events to draw attention to work below the national level to combat fossil fuel emissions. Democratic presidential contender Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg LP and this news organization, helped fund that program and is president of the board of the C40, a group of mayors vocal on the issue.

“Mayors are taking on the challenge head on,” said Agathe Cavicchioli, head of city diplomacy at C40.

In Brazil, concerns for the Amazon

Bolsonaro’s response to fires in the Amazon rainforest --in recent months he denied they existed and then blamed them on the media and even on actor Leonardo DiCaprio -- has galvanized a response by Brazilian states. A delegation of governors from the country’s five Amazon states traveled to the conference and held meetings with counterparts in Colombia, Peru, the U.S., Mexico and Indonesia.

From Trump to Bolsonaro, Climate Skeptics Stir Green Activism

“We are here to affirm the commitment of Brazilian states with the agenda to preserve climate balance, the environment and the Paris Agreement,” said Helder Barbalho, Para state governor. “This is not about confrontation. The federal government is represented by the environment minister and the states are here defending their agenda.”

While some of these exchanges happen at a myriad of formal events and panels organized on the sidelines of the formal talks, most contacts are spontaneous and informal. The German pavilion serves free coffee all day, and the U.K. hosts drinks almost every night. Both have become popular networking spots for delegates seeking action.

Green movement in Australia

“There’s no shortage of ways to connect, and everyone is here,” said Richie Merzian, director of the climate and energy program at the Australia Institute. “COP is great because it’s like the trade conference for climate change, you can meet everyone you’re interested in if you know the right spots.”

Back in Australia, Merzian plans to meet with local officials in capital Canberra to brief them about the meetings he had. Those include talks with Samoan officials to find ways for local governments in Australia to fund mitigation programs in Pacific island nations.

From Trump to Bolsonaro, Climate Skeptics Stir Green Activism

The back-to-back networking meetings can be disorienting because they happen in airport-size hangars with little natural light and no clocks on the wall, said California’s Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jared Blumenfeld. “It’s overwhelming at an emotional level, it could be three in the morning and you just wouldn’t know.”

Blumenfeld, a member of the U.S. group of local government officials, civil society groups and companies attending the meeting under the slogan “We are still in,” has met with representatives from Norway, Quebec, New Zealand, Scotland, Mexico and Canada. The group has set up a U.S. Climate Action Center at the conference in which it organized panels and debates.

“We have stuff to learn and stuff to share, that’s the benefit of this,” Blumenfeld said. “The California dream is you can develop and reduce greenhouse gases at the same time, that helps people realize this is not a conflict.”

The secretary will take home ideas from Rwanda Environment Minister Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya on collecting and storing rainwater, and from European Union officials on recycling and the circular economy.

“Everyone has a part of the solution,” he said. “The United Nations process is opaque and confusing to the average citizen, but the spirit of how we all collaborate to become part of the solution is still alive.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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