Casten Reports on Madrid Climate Conference

December 6, 2019
In The News

An Illinois congressman who’s made climate change a key issue is back from the United Nations climate conference in Madrid saying that President Trump has abandoned the U.S. leadership role in taking on global warming.

U.S. Rep. Sean Casten of Downers Grove joined a Democratic congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in attending the opening of what’s being called COP25 as the 25th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change. Trump, a frequent climate-change denier, skipped the conference to attend a NATO summit in London. Upon his return, Casten held a media conference call Wednesday from his office in Washington, D.C., to discuss his impressions.

“We have self-isolated ourselves,” Casten said, in the Trump administration’s actions to make the United States the only country to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. “Speaker Pelosi did a masterful job of letting folks know that the diversity of views in this country is much broader than what’s represented by the current occupant of the White House — that we absolutely take this problem seriously, that we absolutely understand the science.”

Casten said a large part of the delegation’s role was to bolster U.S. State Department officials formally representing the nation at the conference. “They’re under very difficult circumstances right now,” he added, “given President Trump’s decision to pull out.”

He quoted former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in saying, “When America is absent, bad things happen.”

The congressional delegation was for the most part well-received, he said, adding, “We were treated with great respect, with great gratitude for being there.”

According to Casten, the United States came into criticism from Claire Perry O’Neill, a British politician slated to head next year’s COP26 climate summit in Scotland, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. O’Neill said, “At this point, look, you’re either with us or against us,” while Guterres “pulled no punches. He said No. 1 we must abandon coal if we are to survive as a species.” Casten said Guterres felt that smaller nations had largely complied with their commitments under the Paris Agreement, “the problem is the big ones.”

Casten quoted Guterres as saying, “We have to be transformational now, not incremental.”

Guterres said Sunday on the eve of the conference’s opening that the world is at “the point of no return” in working to diminish greenhouse-gas emissions and slow global warming. The World Meteorological Organization also released a new report this week finding “2019 is likely to be the second- or third-warmest year on record. The past five years are now almost certain to be the five warmest years on record, and the past decade, 2010-2019, to be the warmest decade on record. Since the 1980s, each successive decade has been warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.”

“It is depressing that, as we learn more, we learn vastly more things that suggest that it’s worse than we thought,” Casten said. “Five years ago, there were no models that predicted that the Antarctic ice sheet was going to melt. It’s now melting. That is a huge issue.”

The freshman congressman ran for office as a scientist and environmental entrepreneur with a commitment to address climate change. He echoed that Wednesday, insisting global warming is incontrovertible and that “arguing about climate change is like arguing about gravity.”

“What I’ve said consistently — and this isn’t opinion, this is scientific fact — is this is the test of our species. This is the existential threat that we face as a species.” In the U.S. House of Representatives, he added, “we’re taking it seriously and we’re stepping up at this moment. I wish that was not a partisan conversation. Science doesn’t give a damn about your party.”

Republicans have for the most part resisted acknowledging climate change and making efforts to minimize it.

According to Casten, many at the conference recognize that the United States is torn politically on the matter, but that it has large segments of the population taking action. “In general, what was nice to see in Madrid was that, while there was not a robust United States presence, there was a robust presence from multiple states,” such as California, and from many U.S. universities and other organizations. (The University of Illinois joined more than 200 colleges worldwide this week in signing a letter declaring a “climate emergency” and delivering it to the conference.)

“One of the strongest things we can do as a country is keep reminding the rest of the world that there are an awful lot of commitments and actions taking place below the federal level which are going to have the practical effect — if we continue on the current trajectory — of forcing the federal government to play a followership rather than a leadership role, following all the states and municipalities,” he said. “That’s not the best way to lead, but it’s at least more optimistic than being fatalistic about it.”

Gov. Pritzker signed an executive order committing Illinois to observe the Paris Climate Agreement in his first days in office back in January.

Casten criticized the Trump approach, saying, “When we take decisions to act unilaterally, what we’re effectively doing is taking a decision to cede leadership to others.”

Casten said the United States had historically led the way when “what is necessary exceeds what is poltically possible,” and he cited the Normandy invasion in World War II, the Marshall Plan to feed residents behind the Iron Curtain after the war, and the Cold War in general, as well as the Montreal Protocol “when we stepped up to deal with the ozone hole” in the atmosphere.

“Holy smokes,” Casten added, “do we need someone in that moment right now.”