The Cities and States Tackling Climate Change, Despite Donald Trump


Since his inauguration in January 2017, the governing style of President Donald Trump has largely followed a predictable trend: oppose Obama. Since the constitutional authority of U.S. Presidents is broadest in matters of foreign policy, it comes as little surprise that the former President’s achievements abroad have become the new executive’s easiest targets. Another of President Trump’s defining characteristics is that he is a self-proclaimed climate change skeptic, appealing to his base with schemes to resuscitate the polluting coal industry and having marketed his presidential campaign with the quasi-slogan that climate change is a Chinese conspiracy.

These two attributes united on June 1, 2017, in a ceremony held in the White House Rose Garden with temperatures slightly above the historical averages, as the President withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement, effectively reversing Obama’s executive order committing the nation to the climate concordat. Later that day, the governors of California, New York, and Washington announced the formation of the United States Climate Alliance and their intention to spearhead policies aimed to keep the U.S. on track to meet their international commitments. Seventeen states have since joined the Alliance, opening a new front against the reversal of climate regulations by the Trump Administration.


What is the Paris Agreement?

Part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), a 1992 international environmental treaty, the Paris Agreement is a covenant between the 195 signatories of the 21st Conference of Parties of the UNFCC (COP 21). The agreement’s principle aims are to limit the rise in global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, specifically by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Contrasting from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (COP 1) agreed to by a majority of UNFCC signatories (the U.S. failed to ratify and later left the protocol), the Paris Agreement is a non-binding non-enforcing agreement that provides for the individual determination of contributions and the enactment of domestic legislation to these ends by signatory nations.

In March 2017, leading up to COP 21, the United States submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the convention. Among its provisions, the U.S. vowed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2025 (an international benchmark). To do so, it planned to pass and institute a slew of domestic environmental legislation that would implement more stern regulations regarding emissions and provide a plethora of incentives to switch to renewable energy sources and high-efficiency appliances. All member states are also required to submit their most up-to-date emissions data to the UN. Furthermore, the Obama administration pledged $3 billion (with $1 billion already paid) to the International “Green” Fund in order to assist fiscally challenged developing countries in moving away from cheaper fossil fuels.


Trump’s Decision to Renounce the Treaty 

Following the June 2017 withdrawal announcement, the Trump Administration took active steps to formally remove the U.S. from its international obligations and reverse recent environmental regulations. On Aug. 4, 2017, the Administration submitted an official notice informing the UN of its decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Agreement. While under international law, the U.S. cannot formally withdraw until Nov. 4, 2020, the notice serves as a harbinger to actual cancellation. In the meantime, the Administration has removed a myriad of environmental regulations and has begun revising key statutes implemented by the Obama Administration, such as the Clean Power Plan of which Trump mandated a review through an executive order in March 2017.  

While it is stipulated that Trump’s deep ties to the fossil fuel industry motivated his decision to renounce ascension to Paris, the public justification for the action was largely economic. Despite debates on the severity of effects, both liberals and conservatives agreed that the new regulations needed to meet the U.S. INDC would have a negative impact on the economy. Specifically, the White House pointed to a dramatic loss of jobs (6.5 million), the unfair redistributive mechanism inherent in the International Fund, and a loss of U.S. competitiveness in the global economy due to higher energy costs (see the full speech here).


State and Local Initiatives to Remain Adherents

In response to these measures by the federal government, local and state officials have reaffirmed their support to the tenants of the Paris Agreement. Significantly, these states have come together in a handful of groups aimed to assist each other in what they see as their common fight against the non-scientific approach to climate change by the Trump Administration. The most prominent among them is the United States Climate Alliance which numbers seventeen states representing 40 percent of the U.S. population and roughly $9 trillion of the U.S. GDP. Alongside other smaller groups, these states have implemented programs meant to reduce emissions and facilitate environmental policy knowledge sharing. Together, they are responsible for the planned reduction of carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2025 (more than half of the originally planned reductions).

Filling the vacuum in leadership created by the withdrawal of the federal government, these states have hosted international summits and have piloted pioneering carbon emission cap and trade programs with foreign entities, such as the California-Quebec partnership. Legislatively, these states have been aggressively targeting emissions and transitioning away from fossil fuels towards renewables and electric vehicles. Across the country, legislation has been introduced and programs have been put forward, all aimed at reaffirming America’s commitment to the Paris Agreement. In California, SB.350 (2015) and SB.100 (2018) require 50 percent of electricity production to be done through the use of renewables by 2030 and intend to have 100 percent of retail energy use be produced by renewable energy by 2045, respectively. In New York, the state-sponsored “Green Bank” serves as a financial institution which directs massive sums to environmentally conscious projects. And in Massachusetts, Bill H.3994 explicitly names the Paris Agreement and the U.S. INDC as its emission reduction benchmark.

States are not alone in fighting back against the removal of federal environmental regulations and the retraction of U.S. international environmental commitments. Local actors such as mayors of major cities, business boards, and members of academia have joined the climate conscience states to reduce pollution in general and emissions in particular. Many U.S. cities have made environmental commitments such as pledging to purchase only zero-emission municipal buses, reducing the amount of waste generated, and promoting investments in public transportation to reduce transit congestion. With more than half of the INDC planned to be achieved on time by only a third of the states representing half the economy, these inter-state alliances hope that other more polluting states (e.g., Texas) will join their ranks.


Popular Support and Initiative at the Polls

While a silent war rages between American government actors, public opinion on the subject of climate change does not have such well-defined positions. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which released a series of maps and statistics on voters’ views on climate change, 70 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening. However, their views differ on whether climate change will harm them personally (50 percent disagree) or whether it is caused by human activities (53 percent agree). Despite this split in the accuracy of the human activity argument, there is clear majority support for policies aimed at funding research (82 percent) and regulating CO2 pollutants (75 percent).

In states with an initiative process, however, voters have shown mixed support for environmental regulations. Among the handful of policies listed in the 2018 midterm elections, measures to transition energy production to 50 percent renewables were defeated in Arizona (Proposition 127) and approved in Nevada (Question 6), while a Florida measure (Amendment 9) to ban off-shore drilling was approved the same day a carbon emissions pricing scheme was defeated in Washington (Initiative 1631), a traditional bulwark of environmentalism. These events show that while some state voters are eager to transition, many others, even those residing in those considered climate change leaders, are more reticent to change.