How Cities, States and Businesses Are Already Fighting Climate Change Without Trump

Jun 02, 2017

The response to President Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change was swift and harsh—and it wasn't just environmental groups and progressive politicians. Corporations and state and local officials on both sides of the aisle called the decision a risky move that not only will harm global efforts to halt climate change but also abdicates U.S. leadership around the world.

Beyond the symbolism, however, progress reducing greenhouse gas emissions is likely to continue even as the role of the federal government dwindles. Cities, states and corporations have announced their intention to adhere to the goals of the Paris deal, while other leaders, like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown, will continue to represent the U.S. on the world stage. (Bloomberg has said that his charity will cover the $15 million fee the U.S. would have paid to the United Nations climate change body as part of the accord.)

"Cities and businesses have sort of played second fiddle, they now come to the fore," says Paul Bodnar of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who helps companies adopt sustainable energy practices. "U.S. leadership continues, albeit in a different form." Here are some of the ways others are stepping up:

States

Much of U.S. energy policy is set at the state level. State public utility commissions following local laws and regulations control many of the decisions about where Americans get their electricity. That reality presented challenges for President Obama when he tried to push the country away from coal-fired power plants as red states challenged his Clean Power Plan in court. But now the tables have turned, and many state leaders have promised to meet and exceed the goals set in the Paris Agreement even in the absence of Trump.

Following Trump's announcement, the governors of New York, California and Washington announced the United States Climate Alliance, which commits members to working toward the targets of the Paris Agreement without federal support. Those three states alone represent more than 20% of the country's GDP and 10% of its greenhouse gas emissions.

“Donald Trump has absolutely chosen the wrong course,” said California's Brown on a conference call following the announcement Thursday. “California will resist… While our president may be AWOL in the battle against climate change, we’re not. “

Several states had already participated in coalitions and consortia with the same goal in mind prior to Trump’s election. In advance of the Paris Agreement, Brown helped launch a coalition called Under 2 MOU (referring to the target of keeping temperatures from rising more than 2°C by 2100). The coalition, which now includes ten states from across the country, provides a framework for states and other sub-national governments around the world to report on their progress in a transparent way. “We don’t have to wait for the federal government to say jump. We’re already moving," Brown told TIME at its launch.

Cities

Cities also exercise control over much of how energy is used within their jurisdiction. And in response to Trump’s announcement, nearly 70 mayors of major cities including Los Angeles, New York and Houston made the same commitment to uphold the targets of the Paris Agreement in their own backyards.

After Trump said in his remarks on withdrawing from the agreement that he "was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto issued an executive order committing the city to the goals of the accord and a rebuke on Twitter:

Many metros are going even further. Nearly 30 cities across the country, from Orlando to Salt Lake City, have committed to getting 100% of their energy from renewable resources as part of a Sierra Club coalition. Stephen Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, S.C., is spearheading an effort to create a framework in the U.S. Conference of Mayors to formally support the 100% renewable target. "It was important before this week," he says. "But it’s made that much more important because of the president’s decision."

Some global coalitions, including the C40 Cities group sponsored by former New York Mayor Bloomberg, help structure city commitments to fighting climate change and have been working to that end since before the Paris Agreement was reached.

Business

The list of corporations critical of Trump's decision is long and includes the likes of Silicon Valley tech giants like Apple and Facebook but also oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. Even some coal companies called on Trump to remain in the deal.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Disney CEO Bob Iger both dropped out of Trump's business advisory councils as a result of the move:

Now, attention turns to whether these companies will actually take the fight against climate change into their own hands. While not all will respond the same way, many have already made commitments. Nearly half of Fortune 500 companies have some form of target for renewable energy deployment, greenhouse gas emissions reductions or energy efficiency, according to a report from the WWF and other organizations. And a long list of nearly 100 companies that includes the likes of Walmart, Google and Bank of America have committed to sourcing 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources. Many corporations like Microsoft have introduced internal carbon fees to reduce emissions across the company.

The switch to renewable sources is in part to aid climate change efforts, but the targets also help corporations cut costs. The WWF report estimated that 190 companies saved $3.7 billion in 2016 with projects targeting emissions. Those efforts operate outside the influence of federal policy and will likely continue.

"Simply put, the private sector already chose a low-carbon future," President Obama said in a statement following Trump's announcement. "And for the nations that committed themselves to that future, the Paris Agreement opened the floodgates for businesses, scientists, and engineers to unleash high-tech, low-carbon investment and innovation on an unprecedented scale."

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