“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” President Donald Trump said during his June announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate accord. This pithy line, the key soundbite from Trump’s statement, was surely intended to appeal to the president’s pro-coal, anti-regulation support base, as well as signalling that the new administration’s ‘America First’ stance will protect working-class middle Americans at the expense of the rest of the world, which he accused of framing the Paris Agreement with the purpose of “gaining a financial advantage over the United States”.
“The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement – they went wild; they were so happy – for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage,” Trump continued. “A cynic would say the obvious reason for economic competitors and their wish to see us remain in the agreement is so that we continue to suffer this self-inflicted major economic wound.”
Au revoir Paris
Paranoid isolationism aside, America’s withdrawal from the agreement was in reality more of a formality than a decisive move. The Trump administration had already stated its intention to ignore its decarbonisation commitment under the agreement – primarily a 26%-28% reduction in CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by 2025 – with its plan to dismantle Obama-era emissions standards being applied to the automotive and power generation industries.
In any case, the Paris climate accord is based on a system of voluntary nationally determined contributions (NDCs) with no mechanism to enforce the targets set. Given that the agreement, adopted by the UNFCCC in 2015 and ratified by the US in September last year was shaped as a non-binding foundation on which to build, America could have either ignored or attempted to re-negotiate the agreement while maintaining its involvement.
This was a point made by Trump’s own Energy Secretary, erstwhile Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, the latter of whom argued in the run-up to Trump’s decision that it would be better for the US to keep a seat at the international climate policy table.
From a global perspective, the main danger that the US withdrawal poses to the Paris accord is the potential to de-legitimise the agreement and its relevance as the world’s foremost effort to curb emissions.
Systems of international co-operation, especially when it comes to the environment, tend to survive on mutual agreement and example-setting, with decarbonisation successes in one country spurring activity in others in a virtuous cycle. Conversely, it was feared that losing the US, the world’s second-largest carbon emitter and a major investor in renewable technologies, could demoralise other signatories and undermine their commitment to hitting their own targets.
But as it happens, news of the US’s withdrawal seems to have had the opposite effect, both domestically and abroad. Internationally, criticism of Trump’s decision has been virtually universal, from scientific groups and think tanks to national governments.
Rebellion at home
Domestically, the US has seen a significant rallying of voices in favour of sticking to the goals laid out under the Paris Agreement. While Trump’s decision was supported by many senior Republicans and certain quarters of the energy industry, the administration faces a growing rebellion at the city and state levels, with many political leaders planning to move forward with ambitious emissions reduction programmes regardless.
On the same day as the announcement of the US withdrawal, three state governors – Andrew Cuomo of New York, Jay Inslee of Washington and Jerry Brown of California – launched the US Climate Alliance, a coalition of American states that are doubling down on their commitment to reduce emissions by at least 26% by 2025, as well as meeting the targets and standards set out under President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, one of the major pieces of climate change legislation that Trump has signed an executive order to overhaul.
“Today’s announcement by the president leaves the full responsibility of climate action on states and cities throughout our nation,” said Inslee. “While the president’s actions are a shameful rebuke to the work needed to protect our planet for our children and grandchildren, states have been and will continue to step up.”
The alliance’s three founding states represent around a fifth of the total US population and at least 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and since the beginning of June the coalition has swelled its ranks to incorporate 13 states and the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico, representing more than a third of the US population and bringing the collective emissions of the alliance’s members to more than 18% of the US total.
States that have signed up are committing to significant emissions reduction plans and widespread rollouts of renewable energy technologies. Through Renewable Portfolio Standards, Hawaii has become the first state in the US pledging to produce 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2040, while California – the second-largest state-level CO2 emitter in the country, behind Texas – has already stipulated that 60% of its energy will come from renewables by 2030 and is working towards establishing a 100% renewable electricity system by 2045.
American support runs deep
The states that have signed up to the US Climate Alliance will also be aiming to prove that progressive energy policies don’t necessarily have to come at the expense of the economy, with the alliance emphasising that its members host more than 1.3 million clean energy jobs in the fields of renewables and energy efficiency.
Other opportunities abound: Colorado, which became the latest state to join the alliance on 11 July, plans to develop a state-wide electric vehicle (EV) plan by the beginning of 2018. State-level schemes such as this could boost employment and local economies by creating thousands of jobs in EV manufacturing, grid management, renewable energy deployment and other fields.
There are certainly challenges ahead for the sections of the US that are planning to defy Trump’s step back on climate action and the transition to cleaner energy systems. The void of legislative and regulatory support at the federal level will place a heavier burden on state actors to push forward with their agendas without a wider example being set by the federal government, and with an Environmental Protection Agency administrator (Scott Pruitt) who looks determined to tear apart the agency’s mandate from the inside. Meanwhile, some of the US’s largest and most energy-intensive states, such as Texas, have not joined the alliance and are unlikely to do so.
Nevertheless, there is increasing evidence that support for the Paris Agreement, renewable energy deployment, green jobs and decarbonisation efforts run deep in the US. Beneath state governments, the mayors of more than 300 cities – including major urban hubs like Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, Houston, Chicago and, somewhat ironically given the key soundbite from Trump’s Paris Agreement speech, Pittsburgh – have also committed to climate action.
“We are increasing investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency,” the mayors said in a joint statement on 1 June. “We will buy and create more demand for electric cars and trucks. We will increase our efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, create a clean energy economy, and stand for environmental justice.”
Room for reversal
There is widespread support for the goals of the Paris Agreement across US states, cities and at the grassroots level. The pro-Paris We Are Still In nationwide coalition of local governments, businesses and universities represents around 120 million Americans, and a May poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that nearly 70% of registered American voters support US involvement in the agreement, including a majority of Republicans.
With a criss-crossing network of climate change action coalitions springing up around the country, it’s increasingly clear that President Trump has not effectively made the case on withdrawing from Paris to large swathes of the American people. It also raises the prospect that the same virtuous cycle that the Paris accord is trying to develop internationally could be replicated in the US, with commitments from key states and cities encouraging others to invest more heavily in renewable power and energy efficiency schemes. It’s little wonder that Trump, in July, hinted that he was leaving the door open to reversing his decision on the Paris Agreement, or re-negotiating the terms of US participation.
In any case, Article 28 of the agreement stipulates that the earliest opportunity for the US to exit the accord is 4 November 2020 – one day after the next presidential election – so there’s plenty of time for the American people to make their views known between now and then.