Here’s why you shouldn’t totally despair if the U.S. ditches the Paris Climate Agreement


President Donald Trump could soon withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. But that doesn’t mean the country will actually follow his lead.

Mayors and governors across the U.S. are vowing to uphold the aims of the historic accord, even if the federal government is no longer officially involved. Cities and states have set their own ambitious targets for reducing emissions and boosting clean energy, and leaders say they aren’t planning to pull back anytime soon.

“The local commitment to acting on climate change is as strong as ever,” a group of 70 mayors and city council members wrote in a March letter addressed to Trump.

“As the elected officials closest and most directly accountable to residents, we cannot let our communities down by taking a step back on our actions and commitments to address climate change,” the group said.

A rooftop is covered with solar panels at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York.

A rooftop is covered with solar panels at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York.

Image: AP/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

On Wednesday, just hours after news broke that Trump could pull the U.S. from the accord any day now, local leaders emerged to voice their support for the Paris Agreement. 

The landmark treaty, which entered into force in 2016, calls for nations to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels by 2100. If countries around the world do meet that goal, it could limit some of the worst effects of global warming, like rising sea levels, severe flooding, and more frequent wildfires, according to scientific consensus. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he planned to sign an executive order reaffirming the city’s commitment to addressing the risks of global warming. He said New Yorkers will “take matters into our own hands” and called climate change “a dagger aimed straight at the heart of New York City.” 

In recent years, more than 400 U.S. cities have pledged to cut carbon pollution and prepare their communities for the effects of climate change. Nearly 30 of those cities, including most recently Atlanta, have committed to transitioning to 100 percent clean energy in the coming decades.

Thirty-seven states have adopted renewable energy standards that require utilities to get a certain percentage of electricity from low-carbon sources. Such mandates have proved essential to boosting investments in wind, solar, and other renewables projects across the country.

Universities and private companies have made similar pledges to curb campus and supply-chain emissions, and many leaders have expressed support for keeping the U.S. in the Paris accord. Earlier this month, the heads of major U.S. corporations, including Apple, Google, Tesla, General Electric, and Coca-Cola, signed full-page newspaper ads urging Trump not to withdraw.

“We are committed to working with you to create jobs and boost U.S. competitiveness, and we believe this can be best achieved by remaining in the Paris Agreement,” executives wrote in a Wall Street Journal ad.

These individual efforts — such as adding wind and solar projects, designing energy-efficient buildings, adopting electric vehicles, and developing mass transit systems — are essential for the U.S. to both reduce its heat-trapping emissions and prepare for the effects of a warming planet.

America's first and only offshore wind farm: the 30-megawatt Block Island facility near Rhode Island.

America’s first and only offshore wind farm: the 30-megawatt Block Island facility near Rhode Island.

Image: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Yet on their own, local climate action might not be enough to ensure the U.S. meets its current commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Under former President Obama, the U.S. pledged to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. In order to meet that target, experts say the U.S. needs more rigorous policies to curb the use of coal, oil, and natural gas, and replace it with renewable electricity and low-carbon fuels.

But the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction. In recent weeks, the White House has started unraveling federal policies to curb carbon emissions from power plants and vehicle tailpipes. The administration has also scrapped clean air and clean water restrictions for coal mines and oil and gas drilling sites.

Local climate efforts similarly won’t suffice to repair America’s frayed relations with international leaders, should Trump ultimately take the U.S. out of the agreement. Only two other nations — Syria and Nicaragua — have refrained from joining the historic pact. (To be fair, Nicaragua abstained because its diplomats thought the Paris treaty didn’t go far enough in trying to limit climate change, not because they don’t accept that it’s happening.)

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt receives a miner's helmet in Sycamore, Pennsylvania.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt receives a miner’s helmet in Sycamore, Pennsylvania.

Image: justin Merriman/Getty Images

“Pulling out of Paris would cause serious diplomatic damage. The countries of the world care about climate change. They see it as a profound threat,” Todd Stern, who led Paris negotiations on behalf of the U.S., wrote in the Atlantic on Wednesday. 

“They recognize there is no way to meet that global threat without an effective global regime,” he said. “And they understand that the Paris regime cannot work in the long run if the world’s indispensable power has left the table.” 

Despite the caveats, efforts by cities, states, companies, and colleges to fight climate change may be America’s best shot at maintaining momentum on the climate front, particularly as policies vanish and sputter at the federal level. 

“Our resistance is sustainable and we will serve as a counterpoint to Trump’s dangerous policies every step of the way,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement on Wednesday. 

“Like leaders across the world, we aren’t going to wait around for our climate denier-in-chief to play catch up.”

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