President Trump’s vow in June to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement triggered a slew of new CO2-fighting initiatives by states, cities, academic institutions, and corporations and also re-energized existing efforts. While climatologists welcome these localized actions in one of the world’s top two carbon-polluting nations, most say it will take far more coordinated national and international efforts to keep the planet from overheating.
Under the historic Paris pact, 196 nations, including the United States, agreed in late 2015 to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Trump administration, which has been publicly skeptical of climate change science, could not be reached for comment.
“Trump’s announcement definitely set off a tidal wave of action on climate,” says Jamie Henn of 350.org, a Brooklyn-based international climate campaign co-founded by Henn, the author Bill McKibben, and others. “Everyone is stepping up to fill a White House-sized leadership gap.”
Just how all of these subnational efforts will add up is tough to measure but, “It’s big,” Henn says. His group counts hundreds of thousands of supporters across the United States. “The states that signed the ‘We Are Still In’ pledge represent 127 million people—that’s a big chunk of the country,” he says, referring to a national campaign launched days after Trump’s announcement.
Spearheaded by the former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, this coalition of business, education, and local government leaders includes 125 cities, 183 colleges and universities, 902 businesses, and $6.2 trillion in contributions to the U.S. economy. “The businesses signed on represent a huge sector of the economy, much more significant than fossil fuels,” Henn says. “But let’s be clear: There’s no substitute for national action.”
Another group, the U.S. Climate Alliance (USCA), formed the day Trump announced the country’s withdrawal, pledged to cut CO2 emissions at least 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. Led by the governors of California, New York, and Washington State, the USCA represents more than 100 million Americans in 13 states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico—including vulnerable coastal regions, such as Delaware, the lowest-lying state. According to a USCA report released in September, group members have cut emissions by 15 percent over the past decade and are collectively on track to reach the 2025 goal.
On the same day as the USCA was announced, at least 370 self-identified climate mayors of cities across the country separately renewed a 3-year-old pledge to fight greenhouse gas emissions.
Because climate change is global, national governments and the European Union can best confront the problem, says Robert N. Stavins, a climate change expert and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Of subnational efforts, “California is by far the most important,” with its landmark suite of climate policies, including a CO2 cap-and-trade system that extends beyond U.S. borders, thanks to its affiliation with a similar program in Quebec. Within AMC’s region, the most important climate policy is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an 8-year-old cap-and-trade system linking New England and Mid-
Atlantic states, Stavins says.
In mid-July, Bloomberg and California’s governor, Jerry Brown, announced America’s Pledge, yet another plan to measure U.S. subnational efforts and share the results at UN climate talks scheduled for November 6–17 in Germany.
All of these initiatives are “very positive,” notes Sean Birkel, a research assistant professor at the University of Maine and Maine’s state climatologist. “But the best available scientific climate models suggest that averting crisis for future generations will require making significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”
Meanwhile, Deborah Lawrence, a professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, sees “great progress” since June. She cites a cap on CO2 emissions and other measures ordered by Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, as well as the formation of the Climate Leadership Council, a new Republican-led proposal for a national carbon tax with a dividend that would be refunded to all Americans.
While gas might cost a little more as a result of the tax, “We get a big check from everyone who drives a Suburban,” she says. “What’s amazing is, it’s Republicans talking about a carbon tax. It’s the easiest way to make the market work. It’s not a mandate….It’s the ultimate climate solution, and it’s national.”