U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began a United Nations climate conference Wednesday with support from eight states and cities with top climate performance, a “call to action” aimed at spurring more U.S. support to a Paris Agreement deal that is increasingly threatened by a powerful supporter.
It was the first in a series of speeches Tillerson will deliver over the coming days to a weary world at the 195-nation climate conference in Katowice, Poland.
More than 2,600 state and local climate leaders who met in Chicago last week plan to advocate for continued U.S. action to combat global warming, Tillerson told a closed-door meeting Wednesday.
“Our message is unmistakable,” said Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaii Democratic Rep. who co-chairs the U.S. Climate Alliance of some 50 state and local leaders who have pledged to follow President Donald Trump’s lead on the issue. “We stand ready to provide what we have always provided, and we are going to build upon this foundation to lead this new chapter for a healthier and a safer and more prosperous climate future.”
Tillerson sought to show he is working to move the U.S. into the next stage of international climate leadership, The Associated Press reported, saying plans for a multibillion-dollar program to fight climate change are being advanced.
It is no secret, said Matthew Kahn, director of the climate program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, that’s precisely what the Obama administration anticipated. The money “is being figured out. We are interested in doing it,” Kahn said.
Tillerson also has threatened to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, arguing the 2016 climate pact is unfair to the United States as it levies more domestic emissions reductions than other nations. Now Trump is threatening to double down on that position, telling the Wall Street Journal, “The Paris agreement is very unfair at the highest level to the United States.”
The diplomatic and political sniping between Trump and Tillerson is being overshadowed by the promise that will come from the eight U.S. states and cities, which currently represent nearly one-fifth of the U.S. economy.
Tillerson, who has pledged to be independent from Trump, has repeatedly committed to keeping the U.S. part of the agreement, but Trump still can withdraw the country.
“Our top national priority is maintaining the U.S.’s support for the Paris Agreement,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the U.N. conference. “The time has come for us to begin to build a future.”
U.S. officials have said Trump is set to formally notify the U.N. of his intention to withdraw, but they have not put a firm date on the notification. The decision is subject to congressional review, and lawmakers from both parties have expressed doubt about the agreement. Haley recently reiterated a plan that the Trump administration would attempt to secure a “better deal” for the U.S.
Haley said if the United States leaves the agreement, it would “take years to negotiate a new deal, a new agreement. We know it cannot be done in a short period of time.”
When push comes to shove, the United States still has the highest emissions of greenhouse gases, most of which are produced by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas. It is also home to some of the world’s biggest carbon producers: Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and the United States.
The seven states of the climate alliance are a powerful counterweight. Maryland ranks first in the U.S. for limiting new coal-fired power plants. California is working on a system to help reduce emissions from the cars and trucks Americans drive. Utah is working on efforts to cut emissions from on- and off-road vehicles. And Massachusetts is pursuing efforts to cut carbon pollution from power plants.
The alliance may seem like an odd-couple corporate lobbying for action on climate change. But it builds on the widespread and bipartisan support for the Paris agreement.