U.S. Governors Stand By Paris Agreement Despite Trump Administration’s Increasing Distance From Climate Change Threat

U.S. governors have publicly reiterated their support for the Paris climate agreement, after President Donald Trump failed to broach both the threat of climate change and his administration’s support and plans for fighting climate change, during his first appearance and address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Trump addressed the 193 heads of state, diplomats, ministers, and state representatives that attended the 72nd session of the UNGA, and focused his speech on his “America first” policy, the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, the “embarrassment” of the Iran nuclear deal, and the virtues of state sovereignty. While it was unsurprising Trump made no mention of climate change, given his administration’s negative opinions of both the Paris agreement and the United Nations (UN), it was nevertheless disappointing, particularly after the violence of the 2017 North Atlantic hurricane season.

U.S. governors, including Jerry Brown (California), Jay Inslee (Washington), and David Y. Ige (Hawaii) were also present at the UNGA and have increasingly stepped further onto the international stage to assure leaders that they will continue to work towards the goals previously set by the U.S. in the Paris agreement. Brown met with European, Brazilian, and small-island leaders at the UN to pledge state support for fighting climate change primarily through the United States Climate Alliance – a bipartisan group of 13 states, plus Puerto Rico, all committed to the Paris agreement. Brown also met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres and participated in climate week with Inslee and Ige – a series of high-level panels and talks in New York City. A major component of their presence and meetings was to convince world leaders of the climate alliance’s ability to influence other U.S. states and cities and meet the goals set by the Paris agreement.

The Paris climate agreement was adopted by consensus on December 12, 2015, after negotiations between representatives of 196 parties. The agreement is in conjunction with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and allows each member nation to set goals and targets towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and create plans that contribute towards mitigating global warming. As of September 2017, 195 UNFCCC members had signed the agreement. Nicaragua recently announced their intention to also join the agreement, which places Syria and the U.S. as the only two UN member nations not in the agreement.

Trump announced in early June 2017 that he would be withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris agreement, calling it a “draconian” deal and claiming it would result in a rise in unemployment and cripple the economy. He also cited further isolationist “America first” policies and stated he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” World leaders largely condemned his decision. Under stipulations put down in the Paris agreement, however, the earliest the U.S. can fully leave the agreement is November 2020.

After the Trump administration’s announcement, dozens of states and cities across the U.S. condemned Trump’s decision and announced their continued support for the Paris agreement and the fight against climate change. This group included the state governors of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington. A further 83 city mayors were also a part of this group. Soon after, the governors of California, Washington, and New York formed the United States Climate Alliance; a bipartisan coalition of states (the above-listed states, plus Vermont, Delaware, Minnesota, and Puerto Rico) that would share information and attempt to meet the goals set down by the U.S. in the Paris agreement – and in particular the goal to reduce carbon emissions to between 26% to 28% from 2005 levels. Currently, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the alliance makes up 32.23% of the U.S. population and 37.68% of U.S. GDP. The member states’ combined share of carbon emissions in the U.S. was 20.7% and 19.9% in 2005 and 2014 respectively.

Already, Hawaii has passed two laws that adopt parts of the Paris agreement to reduce carbon emissions, and Governor Brown has met with both Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks. Boston is set to host an international climate summit in the summer of 2018 and North Carolina is also expected to announce their entry into the alliance; providing a major boost for the alliance, as North Carolina is one of the highest carbon emitters in the U.S.

However, the most prominent question is whether the climate alliance will be able to make any kind of impact against climate change and significantly reduce carbon emissions without the federal government. While many states, cities, businesses, and independent investors have all pledged to fight the threat of climate change and uphold the goals set by the U.S. in the Paris agreement, without the support of the highest carbon-emitting states, they will fall short of the Paris agreement pledge. A federal government that works against the alliance will make it that much more difficult, something that mayors and governors have acknowledged.

While states can pass laws and executive orders, they may struggle to make significant changes and reductions in the power, transportation, and infrastructure sectors. As federal government funding for climate and clean energy research is at risk of being slashed, states will also have to find a way to take on roles traditionally filled by the federal government. Perhaps most importantly, the alliance needs to grow. Larger states with higher carbon emissions must be convinced to join the alliance and do their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order for the alliance to come closer to meeting the goals set down in the Paris agreement.

Ashika Manu