As It Happens

Why U.S. leaders built their own pavilion at UN climate talks

An unofficial delegation of mayors, state legislators and environmental activists propped up an inflatable tent the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.
A giant tent set by U.S. groups opposed to U.S. President Donald Trump is set up on the sidelines of the UN climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany. (Alister Doyle/Reuters)

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Over one hundred activists, elected officials, business leaders and academics went all out to say that they're "still in" at the United Nations climate talks last week.

Despite the Trump administration's plan to leave the Paris Accord, they're sending the message that many in the country are still committed to fighting climate change.

Attending the conference as the unofficial American delegation, the U.S. Climate Alliance built their own country pavilion — a 27,000-square-foot cluster of tents outside the main conference centre. Unlike most other countries attending the conference, the official U.S. delegation doesn't have its own.

The New York Times reports that former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than $1 million to fund the alternative pavilion. Over the past week, U.S. politicians from all levels of government have gathered there, to speak about their commitment to action on climate change.

Minnesota's Democratic state representative Melissa Hortman was one of them. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off from the pavilion in Bonn, Germany.

A protester wearing a Trump mask stands with other protesters dressed as polar bears during a demonstration under the banner, 'Protect the climate - stop coal.' (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

Ms. Hortman, what are you doing in Bonn at this climate summit?

We're here to tell the whole world that much of the United States is still committed to the Paris climate agreement.

Where is the official delegation? Where is the administration and its representatives?

They don't have an official site out in the area. Most countries have what is known as a country pavilion, but the United States doesn't have an official presence in that form. The only physical presence of the United States of America is the private-sector U.S. Climate Action Centre.

What is their position? What are they selling?

There's really two parts to the U.S. Climate Alliance. The U.S. Climate Alliance which is state governments' governors who have come together from at least 14 states — I think there's another one since we arrived here, so maybe 15 states.

And then the We Are Still In Coalition, which is a very large coalition of citizens and businesses and mayors and governors and state legislators.

And that's the one you're part of?

Yes, I'm part of the We Are Still In Coalition and I'm also here as a representative of Minnesota state government letting people know that Minnesota is still committed to the Paris agreement.

But do you have any official status? Can you take part in the conferences? Can you represent your position at the table?

There are a set of observers at this conference and at every conference. There are research institutions, there are youth groups, environmental non-profits and businesses. Every one of those entities has an opportunity to share their perspective with the delegations making the actual decisions.

But only nations can participate.

And the nation of the United States is not participating?

They are here and they are participating, but as you can imagine, the rest of the countries have a little bit of the attitude that, "You say you don't want to be in the deal, but you want to help negotiate the details."

I don't think that the United States has much persuasive authority in the negotiations this year.

Children hold a banner during the climate march prior to the opening session of the COP23 UN Climate Change Conference 2017 (Wolfgang Ratty/Reuters)

This is a very large group of people, group of states, and municipalities and others — NGOs — who are part of this. But without nation status at this conference, can you really do anything?

I think it's absolutely important that we are here to keep the momentum going. I describe it like the international banking system. [It] requires that people believe in it for it to work. If people didn't believe in the banking system, there would be a run on the banks. Everybody would withdraw their money and the world financial system would collapse.

In the same way this international climate agreement rests on belief. People have to believe that it will work and so it is important that a significant part of the United States economy is here to say that it will in fact work. Many Americans believe in it and we are working toward its goals.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Melissa Hortman.


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