Dispatch from Bonn: “We’re Still In” Movement at UN Climate Talks

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Nov 13, 2017 No Comments ›› Dominic Frongillo


Dear Friends,

I’m writing from the bustling halls of the U.N. climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany. Nearly 20,000 people from 196 nations are hurrying through crowded corridors between meetings. The halls are buzzing with dozens of languages, spoken by a rainbow of people wearing suits and brightly-colored traditional dress. Reporters with cameras and microphones swarm around top officials, onlookers held back by security officials.

Governments here are coordinating the world’s response to the greatest threat humanity has ever faced: destabilization of our planet’s climate, upon which life depends. Delegates are debating how to implement the 2015 Paris accords, which created the first global framework for slowing planetary temperature rise to below 2 degrees C, above which we risk crossing catastrophic tipping points.

For the first time, the UN talks are hosted by a small Pacific island nation, Fiji, whose survival is urgently threatened from rising seas.


The summit is held amid a crippling world series of climate disasters: four devastating hurricanes in the Americas and Caribbean, mega floods that submerged entire ci­­ties in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal; droughts and fires in California and the West.

The deadly future that scientists warned about is here. Year after year breaks records for the hottest year in history. Warm waters are fueling mega hurricanes, hot air is drying out entire regions, sending scorching heat waves that are withering crops and igniting tinderbox forests. Warm air is dumping rain in epic downpours, combining with melting glaciers to swell rivers, displacing or affecting 41+ million people in 2017 alone.

Time is short: Earth’s temperature has already warmed by a terrifying 1.5 degrees C. With the world in a state of climate emergency, people everywhere are looking for leadership.


Under President Obama, as the world’s only superpower, the United States played a key role in forging the world’s historic Paris climate accord in 2015. But a year ago, a stunned world woke up to Donald Trump as president-elect. Fulfilling promises to gut climate progress, Trump and his allies installed a climate-change denier to dismantle the EPA, ExxonMobil’s CEO as Secretary of State, and censored government scientists.

For decades, as the most powerful nation on the planet, the U.S. government has always had an enormous presence at the UN climate negotiations, with hundreds of official delegates and representatives to influence the negotiations at every level. But in June, Trump abandoned the Paris climate accords, pulling the U.S. out of the negotiations almost entirely.

Now, despite the urgently growing national security threat of climate change, the U.S. is virtually absent. The few U.S. delegates here were told to tout coal as a climate solution. The question on people’s minds: will we survive without America’s leadership?


However, something remarkable happened. In the vacuum created by the federal government’s abdication of leadership, Americans at every level of society have stepped up to lead. A coalition of cities, states, universities, companies, and associations — representing fully 50% of the U.S. population and economy – traveled to the talks in Bonn to say to the world: “We Are Still In.”

For first time, the United States’ presence here is funded not by the federal government, but by American businesses, state and local governments, and civil society – to show the world that wide majorities of Americans want bold climate action now.

The self-funded U.S. Climate Action Center is buzzing with mayors, governors, senators, and members of Congress telling the real story of how America is acting. It’s incredible: the U.S. government effectively abandoned the U.N. talks, and climate champion governors, mayors, and CEOs have now become the voice of the American people to the world.


On Saturday morning, I stood feet from the Prime Minister of Fiji and COP23 president Frank Bainimarama and the UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, who sat with California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The media swarmed, cameras rolling and clicking away.

Governor Brown and Mayor Bloomberg held a special document, “America’s Pledge,” a report detailing the actions that U.S. states, cities, universities, and businesses are taking to keep the United States on track – despite federal inaction — to meet America’s obligations in the Paris Agreement.

Handing it to the president and secretary, they said, “on behalf of the American people, we submit this report of United States’ climate action towards fulfilling its Paris obligations. Despite the Trump Administration’s inaction, the world can now still hold the U.S. accountable to our international commitments.”

It was a moving moment. Standing up in front of the room of cheering supporters and long row of media, California Governor Jerry Brown said defiantly, “We want the world to know: America is here, we’re in, and we’re not going away. Trump has isolated himself, but he will not isolate America.”

“If Washington won’t lead, then our mayors, governors, and CEOs will,” former Mayor Bloomberg said. “Donald Trump pulling out of Paris had the opposite effect that he intended. It galvanized public support for bold action on climate from all sectors of society.”

News quickly spread through the negotiations that Americans are defying their national government to boldly act on the right side of history. Elected officials and delegates from country after country have stood up in sessions to acknowledge and thank the American leaders here and at home for stepping up to lead, and many are pledging even bolder action, including a growing number of cities that are pledging to go entirely climate neutral.


As Daniel Zarrilli, the head of climate policy for the New York City mayor’s office said, “We are now under no illusions that the federal government will solve the climate crisis for us. We have to step up ourselves and solve it.”

From New York to California, from Scotland to South Africa, people are doing just that — standing up and leading in the world’s response to climate change from the bottom up. Despite the fossil fuel industry spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect climate-denier politicians and mislead the public, people everywhere are pushing back: blocking fossil fuel projects, shutting down proposed pipelines, banning fracking, putting up solar panels, shopping locally, and running for office.

And here in the heart of the United Nations climate negotiations, perhaps for the first time, there is a sense that the end of the fossil fuel era is in sight, that we can make the transition to a clean economy, and that We The People of the world, town by town, region by region, nation by nation, will be the ones to make it happen.

In solidarity,

p.s. **BREAKING** I am in the security zone outside the United States event in which Trump White House officials and industry representatives are falsely pushing “clean coal” as climate solution. Hundreds of people are gathering outside in protest, chanting: “Keep it in the Ground!” and “Shut it down!”  As I write, dozens of U.S. youth are standing up inside the room and disrupting the fossil-fueled event, unfurling banners that say “We the People” and singing “So you claim to be American, but we see right through your greed” to the tune of God Bless the USA. Police are escorting the huge line of young protesters out to roaring cheers and applause of the hundreds from around the world gathered in the halls outside.

p.p.s. Want to hear more stories like this? I’m here to tell the story of everyday people around the world working to build a better future for our communities and children in the face of climate change. If you’d like to support my work, you can chip in here:


Thank you for all you do.