Last Thursday President Trump announced he’d withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement—a shameful act of self-harm. Condemnation has been swift, widespread, and gratifying. But if dangerous climate change is to be prevented then dissenting statements must be backed up with strong climate policies. Fortunately some countries, states, cities, and businesses are already matching words with deeds on climate. Here’s a rundown:
When President George W. Bush pulled the United States from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, other big polluting countries saw an excuse to do less. This time it’s encouraging to see countries rallying together to do more. Statements of commitment to the Paris Agreement have poured in from China, India, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, the European Union and African Union, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, even Russia, among others.
But even more encouraging than words are tangible signs of progress on climate from around the world, from Britain’s first coal-free day since the 1880s to falling emissions in China. Global energy emissions have stayed flat for three years in a row, even as the world economy grew. Countries unhappy with Trump’s decision can also keep up the pressure on the US through diplomacy or a border-adjustment carbon tax on American exports.
The greatest climate success story of the last decade is one many haven’t heard of because it’s not about energy, it’s about trees. While the most ambitious countries and states aspire to cut emissions 80 percent by mid-century, it’s worth noting that Brazil already cut deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent between 2004-2014, making it the country that reduced emissions more than any other. It did so while growing beef and soy production, and it cost governments just one-third the cost of the Rio Olympics, as Frances Seymour and I describe in our book, Why Forests? Why Now?
The best way for rich countries to help other tropical forest countries replicate Brazil’s success story is by putting up funding for performance-payments for reducing deforestation. The largest such multilateral fund, the 11-donor $736 million Carbon Fund, received only $5 million from the United States, highlighting the importance played by other donors such as Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
In the wake of Trump’s announcement, a bipartisan group of governors from nine states formed a United States Climate Alliance aimed at meeting the US climate goals, chaired by the governors of California, New York, and Washington. Ten more governors have expressed support for the Paris Agreement but have not yet joined the Alliance (the most up-to-date list seems to be on Wikipedia).
State governments can match climate words with deeds by putting a price on carbon pollution. This is happening not just in California, where the legislature is vigorously debating alternative proposals for extending cap-and-trade as a cost-effective way to meet the state’s ambitious climate targets. Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe has ordered a carbon cap on power plants. And several gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey have stated intentions for the state to rejoin the northeastern states’ cap-and-trade program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
President Trump justified his announcement on the basis of being “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Pittsburg Mayor Bill Peduto was having none of it—he was “appalled that the President used my city to justify his unacceptable decision.” He issued an executive order committing the city government to run on 100 percent renewable energy.
Since Trump’s announcement nearly 200 mayors and counting have adopted the Paris Agreement. To back words with deeds, they can make their cities higher-density with more alternatives to driving, as Josh Barro writes. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg contends that the US will meet the climate targets it set in 2015 on the basis of actions by states and cities alone; this seems overly optimistic, but certainly worth a try.
The list of captains of industry with harsh words for President Trump included Apple’s Tim Cook, Disney’s Bob Iger, General Electric’s Jeff Immelt, and Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein. But even better than critical statements is demonstrating the profitability of climate-friendly businesses. An Elon Musk disassociation from Trump is fine; low-cost Tesla batteries and electric cars are far better. It’s worth noting that technological advances, while critically needed, are no substitute for strong public policies on climate change—both are needed.
Lost in the noise from the announcement, Exxon Mobil shareholders passed a resolution over management’s objections instructing the company to report on the impact of climate protection policies on their business. (The New York Attorney General is fast on the heels of Exxon Mobil for misleading investors on the costs of climate change.)
President Trump’s announcement told the world he doesn’t care to act on climate, but he’d been showing this for months by deprioritizing climate within executive agencies and issuing executive orders to unravel his predecessor’s achievements on clean power, fuel efficiency, methane emissions, pipelines, drilling on federal lands, and more. However, Trump has had less success pushing an anti-climate agenda through Congress. He has failed in efforts to roll back other Obama-era methane regulations and cut funding for clean energy research and the Landsat satellite program, for example. I hope climate supporters in Congress don’t just oppose Trump’s announcement through statements, like those from Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), but continue to fight to uphold critical functions of the federal government on climate through the remainder of President Trump’s time in office and beyond.
The pronouncements on climate from within the United States and around the world in the last few days have been inspiring; now let’s hope strong words lead to more strong actions.