Heavy hitters on climate change converge on San Francisco, with Gov. Jerry Brown as host

If Jerry Brown could write the script in which he exits the political stage while still in the spotlight, he could do no better than what’s teed-up for him now: presiding over the Global Climate Action Summit with a few hundred of his closest fellow leaders in the fight against global warming.

The San Francisco event is a hybrid of any number of high-level international meetings in which political figures discuss what can be done to address climate change, sign declarations, adjourn and meet again later, somewhere else.

This summit, which Brown is co-hosting with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a bevy of international officials, aims to advance that staid model by including a broad group of “non-state actors”—mayors, governors and leaders representing regions rather than entire countries.

Brown’s extensive networking will come into play, as will two organizations he helped found. One is the Under2 Coalition, a group of more than 200 governments vowing to prevent global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius.

A second grew out of his partnership with Bloomberg: America’s Pledge, a mix of states, cities and businesses that vow to adhere to the emission reductions set out in the Paris climate accord.

Perhaps most intriguing is the inclusion of business in the proceedings. Large industries are sometimes shunned as the root of the climate-change problem and not seen as entities offering solutions.

Brown’s idea is to invite companies to the table, take advantage of whatever solutions they offer, then ask them to commit to specific goals for reducing greenhouse gases.

Whether and how such promises come to fruition or any other meaningful action comes out of the summit is the question that typically bedevils these talk-heavy, photo-opportunity events.

“It could be a lot of pomp and not much action, but there could also be a lot of good things coming out of it,” said Sean Hecht, Co-Executive Director of UCLA’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

“If your metric for success is how confident are we that this will help us turn the corner—there’s certainly reason for pessimism. On the other hand, you have to keep trying,” Hecht said. “It’s possible that there will be some moment that the corner gets turned.”

Among the invitees are the heavy hitters of the climate-change world: former Vice President Al Gore; Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change; primatologist Jane Goodall; and prominent climate scientists and researchers. And, this being California, a sprinkling of activist movie stars and other celebrities will be on hand, including actors Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, and musician Dave Matthews.

But with business leaders front and center, the summit affords companies a chance to brag about their green credentials. As unusual as that opportunity may be at climate conferences, it’s not uncommon in California.

In fact, much of the state’s conservation achievements have been driven by business advocacy, according to David Vogel, a retired business and political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

His book, “California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader,” which was published in May, traces the influence of private enterprise in forging environmental and conservation policies.

“The state has carved out a leadership role on climate issues, but influential business leaders have historically supported much of that,” Vogel said, citing steamship companies’ having lobbied for Yosemite to become a national park, in part so they could gain the lucrative trade in ferrying visitors to California.

Summit co-host Michael Bloomberg. Photo by World Bank via Flickr

Summit co-host Michael Bloomberg. Photo by World Bank via Flickr

“Business has certainly awakened to self-interest around climate,” said Kathy Gerwig, vice president of Employee Safety, Health & Wellness and Environmental Stewardship Officer at Kaiser Permanente, a health-care giant.

Kaiser donated $1 million to help fund the summit, as did the Schwab Charitable Trust, according to filings with the state. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation gave $1.25 million. Other sponsors contributed as well.

Kaiser set a goal to reduce carbon emissions 30 percent across the company by 2020, which was achieved three years early, she said.

Climate change affects the health-care business—both its care facilities and its patients, she said.

“There are business risks associated with climate change—infrastructure where facilities are located, storm damage. Those are real costs,” Gerwig said, referring to extreme weather and rising seas. “And the number, variety and severity of some of the health impacts of climate change are what’s front and center for our mind, that’s our business.”

She cited heat-related illness and the poor air quality that often plagues poorer neighborhoods.

Among the themes to be addressed in panels and seminars at the summit are inclusive economic growth, sustainable communities and land and ocean stewardship. Some events are open to the public; others are not.

In keeping with the inclusive approach, there will be hundreds of side events, exhibits and tours in addition to the main speakers and panels. There will be much emphasis on environmental justice—how climate change can disproportionately harm low-income communities, many of which are near industrial sites that foul air and water.

The summit is expected to be accompanied by demonstrators, but they, too, are welcomed by at least some participants. A march was planned for the weekend before the conference, and another on its opening day. Greenpeace has docked its ship Arctic Sunrise, which will carry a banner calling for immediate action on climate change.

“I love the collaborative nature of this summit,” Gerwig said. “I don’t care what anybody’s motivation is for action on climate….Come to the table.”

The official portions of the summit run Wednesday through Friday at the George R. Moscone Convention Center. Affiliated events will take place all week around the Bay Area.

On Wednesday, CALmatters will host a panel about California’s leadership on climate issues, featuring former state senator Fran Pavley, business lobbyist Michael Shaw and clean-energy advocate V. John White. The event, at noon at the Public Policy Institute of California, is open to the public; RSVP requested.

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