Opinion content—editorials, columns and guest commentaries—is created independent of news reporting and is exclusive to subscribers. Government representatives from around the world have descended on Glasgow, Scotland, to convince constituents and diplomats of their climate commitments. Over two weeks, we’ll hear pleas from delegations to increase ambitious emissions targets, spend more money and expedite action
Opinion content—editorials, columns and guest commentaries—is created independent of news reporting and is exclusive to subscribers.
Government representatives from around the world have descended on Glasgow, Scotland, to convince constituents and diplomats of their climate commitments. Over two weeks, we’ll hear pleas from delegations to increase ambitious emissions targets, spend more money and expedite action — in short, to get serious about saving the planet.
It is into this political scrum of climate negotiators that Gov. J.B. Pritzker will insert himself to celebrate the best that Illinois has to offer on climate action. He will not be alone. The Biden administration is reportedly sending 13 Cabinet-level officials, with President Joe Biden making an appearance.
So be it. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its product, the Paris climate agreement, involve federal-level representatives. But while federal officials will huddle and struggle over the linguistic nuances of the Paris accord rule book, mayors and governors are busy finding solutions to the climate challenge. That is why it is important that Pritzker show what practical, not partisan, climate action looks like.
Local and regional officials, from around the globe, have traditionally been the leaders on innovative climate policies and programs. The history of renewable energy, energy efficiency and climate mitigation and adaptation programs is a history of local action, often in partnership with the federal government. State and local officials have experimented their way through the thickets of climate challenges exemplifying Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ view of states serving as “laboratories of democracy.” Pritzker and hundreds of other state, provincial and local leaders need to continue to bring the reality of climate action into the corridors of rhetoric that constitute the UNFCCC’s Conference of Parties.
As a former lead climate negotiator for the U.S. and past manager of U.S. State Department-funded climate programs, I’ve seen the value of state and local climate action, not only in actual results, but in informing multilateral action at the UNFCCC. In the multilateral negotiations and programs that led to the Paris climate accord in 2015, the U.S. negotiating team would routinely look to local examples of climate action for inspiration for creative international programs and partnerships.
It’s no secret that the national “commitments” reflected in the Paris agreement have gone largely unfulfilled. A quick accounting of the legislative blows the White House has suffered to its grand scheme, many from within the president’s own party, tells us what we need to know about the relevance and necessity of local leaders asserting legislative prerogatives and practical approaches to climate change.
State and local leaders like Pritzker need to inject a sense of practical action into the stagnant air of the climate negotiations and the failures that surround countries’ Paris pledges. What we should hope for from Pritzker and his fellow governors, mayors and provincial leaders’ showings is a recognition from federal officials that when it comes to climate governance, we are truly “all in this together.” No single authority can solve this crisis in isolation.
What we should hope Pritzker and his cohort can bring to the Paris agreement is the inspiration for initiatives that will correct the multiple areas where national regulations and policies inhibit or directly contradict positive action from below; replication of successful climate policies and programs, wherever they originate; and the understanding that for the most part we have the technologies necessary for the task, but lack the appropriate policies, regulations and institutional framework sufficient to mobilize funds and distribute those technologies.
Climate change, like all complex problems, requires us to think beyond simplistic dualisms: public versus private, national versus local, and left versus right. Solutions to our maladies demand the kind of thinking that results in multilayered governance, championed by state and local leaders who are more concerned with generating watts of energy, not words, and dedicated not to quibbling over paragraphs but to putting projects on the ground.
The Glasgow gathering won’t solve our climate mess, but it can be a forum where governors, mayors and provincial leaders sit down with heads of government and industry from around the world to design solutions that can work for everyone.
Illinois may very well be the spark Glasgow so desperately needs.
Griffin Thompson recently retired from the U.S. State Department, where he was a lead climate negotiator for the U.S. at the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. Thompson now teaches at Loyola University Chicago and lectures at the University of Chicago.