Paris pullout: Defiant US Climate Alliance emerges in its wake

US states, cities, and companies have banded together to try to meet the emissions reductions goals set by the Paris climate pact, despite President Trump's decision to withdraw.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California Gov. Jerry Brown said he will need Republicans' help to renew California's cap-and-trade program, while speaking at the California Chamber of Commerce 92nd Annual Sacramento Host Breakfast, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.

President Trump’s historic decision to withdraw from the Paris global climate accord has produced an extraordinary reaction from a group of US states, cities, and corporations opposed to the move. They’ve banded together in a loose coalition that intends to try and meet US greenhouse gas emission targets set by the pact, despite official Washington policy.

Does American leadership always reside in the White House? That’s a question to which the US Climate Alliance – which includes the governors of at least four states, dozens of mayors, and more than 100 corporations – may provide at least a partial answer. 

“I have to say, the president’s short-sightedness and just offensive breaking of a promise that this country made with the rest of the world is really inspiring others to step forward into the void of leadership that he has left," says Libby Schaaf, the Democratic mayor of Oakland, Calif, in a phone interview. “I believe in some ways his action is going to inspire more philanthropists, more industrial leaders to come out and say, ‘We as Americans are not breaking our promise.’ ”

There’s partisanship in this action, of course. But it is also driven by a concern on the part of many non-national officials and executives – including some Republican leaders – that the United States needs to keep its eye on building new jobs and industries around the work of adapting to a changing global environment.

“These are not tree-huggers,” said Mindy Lubber, president and chief executive officer of Ceres, a sustainability advocacy group, in a phone briefing Thursday organized in support of the new coalition.

That said, some of the biggest names in the nascent organization are politicians long opposed to the Trump administration’s America First approach to world affairs. They include Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and billionaire, Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York State and possible 2020 presidential candidate, and Jerry Brown, Democratic governor of California. New York and California – together with the states of Washington and Connecticut, which have also signed on – represent nearly one-quarter of America’s gross domestic product (GDP).

“Donald Trump has absolutely chosen the wrong course. He’s wrong on the facts,” said Governor Brown on the Thursday phone call, which was organized by the World Resources Institute.

The new group is trying to determine if it can submit a greenhouse-gas emission reduction goal to the United Nations alongside those submitted by almost all the world’s sovereign nations. Given the size of the California and New York economies it is possible this goal could approach the one pledged by former President Barack Obama of a 26-28 percent reduction in emissions by 2025, measured against 2005 levels.

It’s the 26 percent reduction goal, itself non-binding, that Mr. Trump has said that the US will no longer take steps to meet, during his administration.

Why companies are getting greener

But politics isn’t the only reason for the new group’s formation. It also reflects the fact that many states and localities have already taken steps to try and reduce emissions, under voter and corporate pressure.

About 30 states have already adopted mandates that require utilities to reduce their use of fossil fuels and increase use of renewable energy, for instance.

Corporate leaders also see green energy as an aspect of many developing industries and possible marketing tool. They don’t want to cede leadership in this area to competitors such as China. Many lobbied Trump to stay in the Paris agreement and were unhappy when he withdrew.

“Disappointed with today’s decision on the Paris Agreement,” tweeted Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric, following Trump’s announcement. “Climate change is real. Industry must now lead and not depend on government.”

The world is now moving in a different direction than the US on the environment, and if US companies don’t move with their global competitors they will be left behind with primitive technologies and primitive manufacturing processes that won’t match up in the years ahead, says William Rees, an ecological economist at the University of British Columbia.

Boosting oil and gas production and attempting to revive the coal industry is 19th -century thinking, says Professor Rees. That won’t work for companies that want to maintain global market share in the 21st century.

“No corporate entity that has an international status is going to want to climb onto a 19th -century bandwagon, and that’s what Trump and his people represent,” says Rees.

Not just happening in the Arctic

Meanwhile, it is states and cities that are already being forced to deal with the realities of climate change on a practical level. This includes not just East and West Coast cities dealing with rising oceans but Middle American places like South Bend, Ind.

Last August South Bend had one of the most devastating storms in its history, says Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democrat who made a brief run for the leadership of the Democratic National Committee earlier this year. Seven inches of rain fell overnight. Families had their homes destroyed by rainfall and flash flooding.

“We have to stop thinking of climate change as something that happens in the Arctic, and recognize it as something that’s impacting us at home,” says Mr. Buttigieg.

South Bend is now reengineering its sewer systems as a “green infrastructure” that can handle increased rainwater. It’s revising its city forestry plan to include trees better fitted for a changing climate. It has retrofitted police cars and other city vehicles to run on natural gas, and optimized traffic lights to reduce idling times.

“This is one of the many issues where the federal level of politics has let us down, and when that happens it’s increasingly fallen to cities to step up and take a leadership role,” Buttigieg says.

On the other hand, Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, says the federal level did not let down US voters in this instance. Trump was right to withdraw from the Paris agreement, he says.

Many of the adjustments away from fossil fuels made at the city and corporate levels are the result of onerous regulations that the Trump administration is now in the process of unwinding, he says. And the Paris agreement carried a real cost for US taxpayers. The US had pledged up to $3 billion in aid for poorer nations to make their own investments in renewable energy. (Of that amount, $1 billion has been paid.)

That’s money that the GOP-controlled Congress was not going to authorize, Pyle points out. Given all that, “there is really no reason to be in the agreement at all,” he says.

A determination to do more

It’s unclear whether the pro-Paris group of non-federal government and businesses can earn any sort of official standing with the UN overseers of the climate agreement. The accord was designed around nation-states, not ad hoc groups of concerned organizations.

But even a separate pledge would indicate that leadership in the US has passed to different levels and progress is being made, according to former New York City Mayor Bloomberg and other leaders of the effort.

That could counteract one of the biggest worries of environmental groups: that the US action could spark an “us, too” reaction among other nations. The thinking would run along predictable lines. The US isn’t going to participate. Why should we?

This sort of thinking could trickle down to the individual level of mayors and companies both in the US and around the world, says Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies at Brown University in Rhode Island.

But “that’s not what I’m seeing now,” he says. “I’m seeing a defiance and grim determination to do more.”

Staff writers Noelle Swan and Eva Botkin-Kowacki contributed to this report.

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