Trump Can Withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but U.S. Cities, States, and Businesses Will Forge Ahead
President Trump has decided to turn his back on the Paris Agreement, making the United States the third non-signatory country, together with Nicaragua and Syria. This is a blow to the agreement and risks weakening international resolve beyond the United States. U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico and allies in Europe and Japan have all condemned the decision. The leaders of Germany, France, and Italy released a joint statement of “regret” over the decision and “reaffirmed” commitment to move ahead with implementation. If other states do not follow Trump’s lead, the setback for international climate efforts might turn out to be more symbolic than real. But with political consequences for the United States.
China and Russia have already signaled that they will look to benefit from the power vacuum Washington is leaving, rather than follow Trump into exile. India’s energy minister also reaffirmed New Delhi’s commitment. Paradoxically, the biggest danger of Trump’s move will not be contagion, eroding global consensus to reduce emissions, but rather an erosion in the trustworthiness and power of the United States.
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein clearly signaled that in his first-ever tweet: “Today's decision is a setback for the environment and for the U.S.'s leadership position in the world.” The cost to U.S. leadership is unambiguous, but if China and India work with the EU to implement the Paris agreement, the environmental setback will be less dramatic.
The other consequence of this decision for the United States is on implementation and environmental progress within the country itself. Here the picture is mixed. On the one hand, Trump and his GOP cabinet have been reversing and hollowing environmental protections and regulations since entering office, including through a number of executive actions reversing Obama-era climate policies. Thus, the government has been undermining implementation of the Paris Agreements from the get-go. On the other hand, the federal government is not the only powerful actor on climate policy — so de facto progress can continue, despite Washington’s example.
Now it will be up to U.S. city and state-level governments to play an active leadership role on the climate agenda, as many have already promised to do. Governors from 11 states and seventy-one U.S. mayors — both Democrat and Republican — penned an open letter to Trump urging him to embrace the Paris Agreement. These local leaders concluded that they were “prepared to forge ahead even in the absence of federal support.” Yesterday, in reaction to the decision, they reiterated their commitment in another powerful statement. “We will continue to lead…. If the President wants to break the promises made to our allies enshrined in the historic Paris Agreement, we’ll build and strengthen relationships around the world to protect the planet from devastating climate risks. The world cannot wait — and neither will we.”
Even outside of the Paris agreement, over 20 states have their own plans to reduce emissions and 6 U.S. states have signed up to monitoring schemes similar to the Paris arrangements (Connecticut and New York have already reduced emissions well below 1990 levels).
But cities, especially, are the crucial actors — and will continue to be. Aspen, Colorado; Greensburg, Texas; and Burlington, Vermont have already achieved 100 percent renewable energy. There are 23 other U.S. cities well on their way, from Rochester, Minnesota to San Diego, California.
The leading role of cities in advancing climate goals extends well beyond the United States. While nation states negotiated the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, 1000 mayors met in parallel at the Climate Summit for Local Leaders to pledge support for a transition toward 100 percent renewable energy.
Cities are home to more than fifty percent of the world’s population, consume more than two thirds of the world’s energy, emit more than eighty percent of CO2 emissions, and most are already exposed to climate change and disaster risk. The combination of vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change and a predominant role in energy consumption mean that cities can and will be part of the climate solution. As Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, said in May, “The Paris Accord was the biggest step forward we've taken in many years. It's unconscionable for the president to step away from it….But we'll take matters into our own hands.”
Cities’ climate resolutions, however, are not only driven by the stick. There are also plenty of carrots involved. In 2016, according to figures provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, energy-efficient appliances, buildings, solar, wind, and bioenergy were among U.S. employment sectors. The green economy is already populated by some 3.4 million jobs in the United States, as opposed to 2.9 in the fossil fuel industry. The many ways that the renewables industry benefits the U.S. economy were also voiced by Fortune 100 business leaders in another open letter to Trump.
The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris agreement is sad, and may yet provoke dangerous knock-on effects. But there is some consolation in the fact that even if the White House is abdicating its place as the shining city on the hill, cities, states and major stakeholders are ready to lead by example and rebuild international trust in the United States and its ability to deliver on climate goals.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.