In the run up to November’s presidential elections, all pretence that US climate policy is a non-partisan issue has gone out the window. However, Jonathan Shopley finds that U.S. cities, states and leading corporates are focusing their attention on opportunities to innovate and capture new markets, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is egging them on.

Climate Leadership in the U.S.

The United States was in no small measure a significant contributor to the success of the climate negotiations in Paris. In the lead up to Paris there was a carefully orchestrated series of announcements: about partnerships with China and India; new regulation in the form of the Clean Power Plan; and, an Obama-led round table with Fortune 500 businesses, followed by a commitment from 13 major US corporations, including Apple and Goldman Sachs, to invest $140 billion to decrease their carbon footprints.

That heavy lifting, plus the fact that the U.S. was amongst a minority of countries that had actually achieved their proposed Kyoto Protocol targets (although they didn’t ratify the agreement), gave Obama and the negotiating team credibility and leverage when they engaged at the superbly choreographed two-week climate summit. In the very, very last minutes leading up to the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the U.S. leaned heavily on that lever and colluded with French chair of proceedings, Laurent Fabius, to change one critical word in the agreement from ‘shall’ to ‘should’ – and the deal was done. That one word change meant that congressional Republicans would not be able to stop the deal being adopted back home.

However, in the glowing aftermath of the historic agreement, real-politic caught up with the U.S. climate programme. A Supreme Court challenge to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan was upheld in February, and in an unusual move by the Supreme Court, its implementation will be suspended until the challenge comes before the Court probably in the latter part of 2017. The subsequent death of Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia is turning this into a real House of Cards drama.

However, before we get to the Supreme Court crunch, we have the presidential elections. With both Republican front-runners Trump and Cruz avowed climate deniers, anyone would surely be forgiven if they feel the Obama climate legacy is in grave peril.

Climate Leaders hold our hopes high

That wasn’t the sentiment at the recent 2016 Climate Leaders Conference in Seattle. In a characteristically fiery and defiant keynote address to the assembled corporate, government and NGO audience, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, pointed to unstoppable corporate action as the prevailing force driving clean energy and climate resilience. With clean energy technology representing well over half the U.S. installed new energy capacity in 2014, McCarthy declared, “We marvel at the way the world is changing today. The way the world is heading toward a clean energy future.”

A central feature of the event, which is run by the EPA, C2ES and the Climate Registry, is the Climate Leaders Awards ceremony. This year one individual, 13 organizations and three partnerships were recognized for their leadership in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate action. Winners were a mix of private sector corporates including Cisco, Kimberly-Clark, Microsoft, and Metlife; alongside public sector agencies and partnerships including California Department of Water Resources, United States Postal Services and Washington State’s King County-Cities Climate Collaboration.

Each award recognised an organization or partnership that had set and reached a competitively framed, rather than compliance driven, climate goal using some combination of innovative technology, finance, processes and communications. Rob Bernard of Microsoft accepted his company’s award for the design and implementation of the Microsoft ‘Carbon Fee’. Microsoft has for four years now made its operations carbon neutral through an internal carbon fee raised on emissions across all of its operations. The funds raised are redeployed to drive internal reductions, procure 100% renewable energy, and fund carbon offset projects selected to deliver emissions reductions and fund sustainable development around the world.

Across the three days, sessions explored the most promising dimensions of climate leadership, structured around three themes: Sharing Climate Solutions and Best Practice, Identifying Risk and Building Resilience, and Navigating Policy and Innovative Financing. There were sessions dedicated to deploying smart infrastructure design, mainstreaming innovative technologies, adopting new financing and investment approaches, and building unique and effective partnerships amongst corporate, government agencies and NGOs. The focus was on the parts of the economy where traction is greatest - corporations plus their supply chains, and cities. Threading through all of these was the recurrent theme of how to engage and empower key audiences to action.

Water – the pointy end of the climate spear

The emphasis on the value of innovation and engagement in response to the risks and opportunities behind climate science came together in a panel discussion I moderated on “Adapting to the new water reality: Drought, floods, sea level rise and uncertainty in a warming world”.

The stellar panel was made up of Paul Fleming, Manager Climate & Resilience in the host city Seattle; Washington DC Water Utilities CEO, George Hawkins; representing the corporate sector, MillerCoors’ Technical Services Manager Edward Ghavari; and oceanographer and author of “High Tide on Main Street”, John Englander.

George Hawkins called “Water the sharp point on the climate spear” – the most visible and tangible manifestation of climate change. His job is mostly about engaging customers so he has their support in finding innovative solutions to renewing DC’s 80 year old water infrastructure for 100 year resilience in an ever turbulent world.

MillerCoors also has a 100 year outlook, but is focused on its 2020 goal to replenish 100% of the water in their final products, which they are pursuing through conservation partnerships to improve farm management practices; enhancing irrigation efficiency; constructing & protecting wetlands; improving infiltration; and securing vital water supplies through forest management.

Paul Fleming explained that in most U.S. regions, water resources managers and planners will encounter new risks, vulnerabilities, and opportunities that may not be properly managed within existing practices. Seattle’s 100 year investment plan is less about physical infrastructure and more about a transformational approach to renewable resource usage.

John Englander took us back to what is still often hotly contested territory in the U.S. – the science of climate change. His analysis suggests that we have already locked in sea level rise over the coming century that will wipe out hundreds of billions of dollars of coastal infrastructure, stating that, “Coastal property values will go underwater long before land values do.”

All noisy on the Western Front

The closing plenary of the conference focused on scaling innovation and finance in the clean energy sector. There was no sense here that the US transformation to low carbon and clean energy is facing insurmountable head-winds. On the contrary, there was a buzz of optimism emphasizing that outside of Washington DC where climate policy is facing heavy weather, corporations, cities and states across the Nation are taking no heed, and are driving innovation ever deeper into the exciting territory of designing, and building a clean and resilient U.S. economy.