Seattle shines at COP21 — despite mayor’s absence

From left to right, California Governor Jerry Brown, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson spoke on behalf of the Pacific Coast Coalition. (Photo by Greg Scruggs.)
From left to right, California Gov. Jerry Brown, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, British Columbia Environment Minister Mary Polak, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson spoke on behalf of the Pacific Coast Coalition. (Photo by Greg Scruggs.)

Diplomats from all over the world are in the feverish final hours of the U.N. Climate Conference in Paris as they attempt to reach a global agreement that will halt the worst effects of climate change.

As countries bickered, thousands of cities, states, provinces and regions — known as “subnationals” in U.N. parlance — have spent COP21 arguing that they have already committed to climate action. The 2,255 cities and 150 states, provinces, and regions have made public commitments, from reducing emissions to embracing renewables to enforcing energy efficient building standards to issuing green bonds.

The level of dedication prompted a laugh line on Monday from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at an event hosted by the Pacific Coast Coalition.

“We rebel against the term subnational – we think we’re supernationals,” Inslee said.

One city’s mayor was notably absent — Mayor Ed Murray was not among the more than 1,000 mayors attending the conference, which began last week.

However, Seattle did make eight public commitments at the talks. Most significantly, the city intends to be carbon neutral by 2050, a goal that Jessica Finn Coven, director of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, calls “one of the most ambitious greenhouse gas targets in the world.”

In the realm of international climate diplomacy, Seattle has been at the forefront.

It is a founding member of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a network of likeminded cities with ambitious aims to go net zero. Heading into COP21, Seattle was one of only 45 cities already compliant with the Compact of Mayors, an agreement by almost 400 cities representing nearly 350 million people to inventory, plan, measure, and report emissions reductions.

And on Sunday, Seattle signed on to the Under 2 MOU, a commitment of cities, states, provinces, and regions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 80 to 95 percent or limit carbon dioxide per capita to two metric tons by 2050. Seattle is also a member in good standing of two other longstanding international city networks, C40 Climate Leadership Group and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

All of this amounts to a justifiable sense of pride.

“We certainly consider ourselves an international leader on this issue,” Finn Coven told The Seattle Globalist.

essica Finn Coven, Director of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment represented the city at COP21. (Photo by Greg Scruggs)
Jessica Finn Coven, director of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment represented the city at COP21. (Photo by Greg Scruggs)

At the marquis local government event on Dec. 4, a summit at Paris City Hall organized by Michael Bloomberg, UN Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, it was Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales who represented the Pacific Northwest.

Why did Murray not join the wave of mayors? Pressure at home, he told the Globalist.

“There is intense media criticism every time I travel,” Murray said, on his way back from the West Coast Mayors Summit in Portland — a destination close enough to home, presumably, to avoid journalistic ire.

Murray did travel to Europe for another key moment for cities and climate change this year — a July meeting of world mayors at the Vatican convened by Pope Francis, again joined by the mayors of Vancouver and Portland.

But following that excursion, along with trips this year to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the mayor decided he couldn’t risk the political pushback another trip abroad would incur. It’s an unfortunate calculation given that Seattle has long been recognized for the benefits it reaps from sending delegations abroad.

Nevertheless, local advocates don’t think Seattle suffered from not having the mayor in its delegation, which also included City Councilmember Mike O’Brien and King County Councilmember Larry Philips.

Also from the area, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Bullitt Foundation also sent representatives and Bill Gates announced a major clean energy initiative on day one of the conference.

Separately, activists from Seattle also made their presence known at demonstrations outside the event.

“It would have been great to have [Murray] but I don’t think it’s a critical measure of Seattle’s climate leadership,” said KC Golden, policy director for Seattle-based Climate Solutions.

For Murray, meanwhile, more important is what happens post-COP21.

“We have to take our actions to the next level,” he said. “Whatever they agree on in Paris, we have to go beyond it.”

Additional Globalist coverage

Seattle activists wave salmon lanterns in Paris for climate talks

Could Canada carbon emissions agreement have room for Washington?

Climate and consumption come to a head in Indonesia forest fires

Nations most at risk urge warming cap stricter than COP21 goal

Why gender and climate justice are inextricable

Women of Color Speak Out aim to change the climate of Climate Justice

Editor’s note: The original version of this story misidentified British Columbia Environment Minister Mary Polak. This story has now been corrected.