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US government is refusing to disclose climate information

This op-ed was originally posted for The Hill.

October 28, 2018 — For more than 20 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, the State Department has dutifully submitted regular progress reports to the global community under the terms of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. As of this year, however, this vital element of a global approach to climate change has gone dark.

With no explanation and no indication of a timetable for compliance, the State Department missed its Jan. 1, 2018 deadline to publish a critical quadrennial climate report, and has remained silent internationally ever since.

A federal lawsuit brought by an environmental group to compel the submission of the report has led to a tug-of-war of court filings, culminating in a brief filed Thursday by Justice Department lawyers that maintains the stonewall. In that filing, the government’s technical argument ignores 26 years of consistent practice across Republican and Democratic administrations alike that has abided by the requirements and timetables of the transparency and reporting requirements of our international treaty obligation. 

This is bad news for the U.S., which has already abdicated leadership on a critical global issue, but is even worse for the rest of the world. In many countries, data on emissions, and even basic facts about government policy, are not regularly reported. This makes it difficult for international partners to assess whether a country is living up to its pledges, and even harder for members of the public to hold their leaders accountable.

Just as the formal (if mundane) practices of accounting are an essential part of ensuring that global business can function, so too are these climate reporting practices essential for encouraging the development of cleaner practices across the world’s economies. The United States has fought hard over decades to ensure that such reporting has become both an international norm and has been embedded in the formal treaty structure. And now, by refusing to report on its own emissions data and policies the U.S. government, long a champion of transparency and disclosure under international law, is signaling to the world that it’s OK to hide the ball. 

The good news is that through the “America’s Pledge” and “We Are Still In” initiatives, a broad coalition of U.S. cities, states and businesses has stepped forward to take real action to address climate change. And they are communicating about these steps — and what they mean for U.S. emissions — to the international community. They filed a report Friday with the United Nations to help fill the transparency and information gap left by the Trump administration.

To date, this is the only comprehensive U.S. report that takes stock of economy-wide climate action policies and opportunities for deeper emissions reductions. It communicates U.S. progress in relation to its formal pledge under the Paris Agreement, which commits the country to reduce its emissions by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Specifically, the report shows that the U.S. is currently tracking two-thirds of the way to the original U.S. target under the Paris Agreement, without federal engagement.

Furthermore, it finds that real economy actors — cities, states, businesses and others — have the potential to reduce emissions by more than 24 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, bringing the U.S. within striking distance of its climate goals. The U.S. climate leadership coalition represented in the America’s Pledge report is globally significant — if it were a country, it would be the world’s third largest economy and the world’s fourth largest emitter. Representing more than half of the U.S. population (173 million people) and nearly 60 percent of U.S. GDP ($11.4 trillion), it is a testament to the power of real economy actors taking the lead on climate in our federalist system.

America’s Pledge co-chairman and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has argued that in climate policy, as in many aspects of organizational change, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” If the federal government continues to argue in court that transparency is no longer in America’s national interest, the rest of the country is demonstrating that it is ready to step in to fulfill this critical function.


Author: Nate Hultman and Paul Bodnar

Nate Hultman is Director of the Center for Global Sustainability and lead author on the Fulfilling America’s Pledge report. 51 co-authors across 7 institutions contributed to the report, and it would not have been possible without the input and support from many additional people across the community. The report was made possible with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Paul Bodnar is a managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Bodnar previously served in the Obama administration as special assistant to the president and senior director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council. Hultman and Bodnar co-lead the analytical team for America’s Pledge.