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Pete Buttigieg tells Cop26 protesters: ‘We hear you, we’re with you’

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Pete Buttigieg had a message for climate activists when he spoke at the Cop26 climate summit on Wednesday.

“We hear you, we’re there with you,” said the US transport secretary while on a trip to Glasgow, Scotland as part of the US delegation.

“Especially to those who are skeptical to the point of pessimism about whether our political and economic systems are even capable of solving this challenge in time to make their lives secure.”

He said he was aware of how “perplexed” those on the outside of the UN summit must be that it had fallen essentially to teenagers to hold the establishment to account.

“The secret about the establishment is most people who are in it don’t think of themselves as the establishment,” he noted. “I don’t think of myself as the establishment and I’m sitting here in a suit as a minister of a large government.”

He went on to say that the reality is that “political systems, economic systems, establishments” are shaped according to the demands of the people they serve.

“That is why there is an important, if sometime off-stage, role to be played by the very activists who are most skeptical,” he added. “The job of anyone who is in here is to do right by those who are displaying very low expectations on one level, and very high expectations on another.”

The former Democratic presidential candidate said he felt it important to “meet people where they are” on climate change while not sugar-coating the severity of the crisis.

“If all people hear is doom and guilt these can be paralyzing emotions,” he said. He then alluded to the common refrain of the Biden administration officials – that climate change equals jobs and opportunity.

“My country does best when it has a national project on its plate.. and this doesn’t involve going to war with another country,” he said, adding that the climate crisis would mean the world “working together in a way we never have before”.

Secretary Buttigieg took part in a conversation on decarbonising transportation at the United States’ Cop26 hub alongside the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe.

Taking his seat, he remarked that the packed audience looked like a “silent disco” due to headphones that had been handed out by staffers so on-stage speakers could be heard over the dozens of other booths in the cavernous space.

Transport is the biggest source of US emissions and Mr Buttigieg highlighted some major transitions that are necessary: wholesale adoption of electric vehicles, and accompanying expansion of charging infrastructure, along with big changes to shipping and aviation including adoption of sustainable fuels.

The US is one of the signatories to the Clydebank Declaration launched on Wednesday as part of Transport Day at Cop26 to support the establishment of “green” shipping corridors, or zero-emission shipping routes between two ports. The declaration’s name pays tribute to the heritage of the city of Glasgow and the River Clyde which flows past the Cop26 venue.

Mr Buttigieg also described some more lo-fi ways to enable Americans with more eco-friendly ways to get around.

He noted that during his time as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he found it difficult to travel even a mile without a car, a reality for “many midsize American cities”.

And while green infrastructure can be about technology, it’s also about “shaping behaviour and making it a bit easier to make a choice from climate and health perspective”, he said.

Dr Hayhoe said that investing in public transport networks for walking and biking was beneficial for “health and state of mind”. She also spoke of the importance of nature-based solutions to create “green urban areas”, particularly in communities which have been disenfranchised.

She highlighted historic red-lining – a racist policy in the US which meant that Black and minority residents of certain neighborhoods were refused financial services, like mortgages, and their areas were crippled by lack of investment. In these areas described as “very gray” by Dr Hayhoe due to the amount of concrete and manmade materials, temperatures can be up to 15F hotter than other parts of the same city.

She noted that the climate crisis “affects people already marginalised more than anyone else”.

Mr Buttigieg also spoke to President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill which passed last Friday, calling it “transformational”.

The bill will see the largest investment in infrastructure for several generations across sectors like transportation, water, energy, broadband, and natural resources.

He pointed to the improvements it would make to America’s highways but also rail lines, noting that while the UK can rely on high-speed rail, “American citizens often can’t”.

“It’s hard to think of a better investment than a child not being lead poisoned,” he added, of the replacement plan for antiquated lead pipes.

Being connected to broadband was also as important as being “connected to interstate highway” while the plan to rollout a national network of EV chargers would mean that “range anxiety” is no longer a barrier to people adopting cleaner vehicles, the secretary said.

Mr Buttigieg and Dr Hayhoe both agreed that it was time to retire the phrase “Save the Planet”.

“What we’re really trying to save is lives,” Sec Buttigieg said.

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