State Sen. Reuven Carlyle has spent years in the Washington legislature crafting laws to reduce greenhouse gas pollution driving climate change. At the UN climate conference underway in Glasgow, he encountered some of those who have most at stake as temperatures warm — delegates from nations that likely will lose big swaths of their low-lying territories to the rising seas of the 21st century.
"It is the urgency of the now," said Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat. "I am a passionate climate warrior but you cannot walk out of some of these discussions and not be rattled to the core. We have to choose to live in different ways."
The two-week 26th United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26) that ends Friday has put a spotlight both on the intensified efforts to find ways to slash global greenhouse gas emissions, and the slow pace of progress on tangible measures to curb this pollution.
A United Nations analysis released Oct. 25 found emissions are on track to increase by 2030 16% over 2010 levels. This increase would put the planet on track for a 2.7 degree Celsius temperature rise by the end of the century, which is far above the 1.5 degree Celsius target called for in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Carlyle arrived at the conference Nov. 3 and arrived back in Seattle Wednesday in a trip financed by the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. He talked, on panels and other forums, about Washington's climate laws which he called "some of the boldest in the world."
Under legislation passed in 2019, fossil fuels are supposed to be phased out of power generation by 2045, and laws passed earlier this year require the reduction of the carbon content in transportation fuels and a broader clamp down on greenhouse pollution intended to achieve — by midcentury — net zero in these overall emissions.
In addition to Carlyle, other Washington participants at COP26 include Gov. Jay Inslee, who arrived Nov. 6 and departs Friday. He is in Scotland with his wife, Trudi, four staff members and four members of the executive protective unit providing rotating coverage. Tara Lee, a spokesperson for the governor, said "my understanding" is that all costs of the trip, which have yet to be tallied, will be covered by state funds.
Inslee is a leader of 68 state, regional and city governments that have taken actions to address the climate crisis. And at the Glasgow conference, Inslee has championed the role of what "subnationals" — governments that act at regional or local levels — can play in tackling climate change, and used Washington state's climate legislation as an example.
"I think it is the new sort of secret weapons that we have brought to the fore, of not just depending on the nation states," Inslee said in a Monday briefing with reporters. "Washington wants to be ahead of Washington D.C., and we are."
At the conference, Washington was one of three U.S. states to sign a conference declaration published Wednesday that calls for working toward all sales of new cars and vans to be zero emission vehicles by at least 2040, and 2035 in some markets. Lee, the Inslee spokesperson, said that the declaration was in line with state efforts to follow California's lead in requiring zero-emission passenger vehicles sales by 2035.
Cities that signed the declaration included Seattle. Mayor Jenny Durkan attended the conference as one of two North American vice-chairs of C40, an international group of mayors taking actions to combat the climate crisis and seeking a bigger voice in conference negotiations.
C40 paid for the flights and most of the lodging for Durkan and an aide who accompanied her on the trip, which began with an Oct. 31 departure from Seattle and ended Nov. 4.
While at the conference, Durkan chaired a meeting of the organization's steering committee, and announced an executive order that will prohibit fossil fuel use in city-owned buildings by 2035, and directs other measures including a carbon-based performance standards for commercial or multifamily buildings of at least 20,000 square feet.
Outside of the high-level negotiations, the conference has featured a huge number of other events that Carlyle said felt like a crammed graduate course on climate change. He attended science lectures about the impacts, panels on new technologies, such as hydrogen to replace fossil fuels, and meetings focused on environmental justice and challenges of Indigenous peoples.
He learned more about the growing global use of hydrofluorocarbons, used in refrigeration, air conditioning and aerosols. Pound for pound, they are thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide released by the combustion of fossil fuels.
The conference also offered a chance for Carlyle to mingle with legislators from other U.S. states who have worked on climate change laws, including those in California whom he spent a lot of time with this week.
At the pubs around the Glasgow convention center, Carlyle said the conference buzz continued at tables where patrons discussed wonky topics such as "decarbonizing buildings."
Outside the conference, climate activists, many have of them young, have called for a much greater sense of urgency. In a withering critique, 18-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, blasted the conference as a failure, a "PR event where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets while behind the curtains, the governments of the global north countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action."
Carlyle says he has "been incredibly proud to tell the Washington state story," but acknowledges that task of turning laws on paper into significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions has yet to begin. In 2018, Washington greenhouse gas emissions edged higher, increasing 1.3% from 2017 and putting the state more than 9% above a 2020 target.
Much of the key legislation to drive down state emissions is still going through the rule-making process, which will help determine how effectively these laws work. And Carlyle say his time at the conference has reinforced the need for legislative oversight of the rule-making.
"Making this real is the hard work," Carlyle said.