With or without President Donald Trump, the United States will work to address climate change. Not because of the Paris agreement, which is nonbinding. Not because backing out would earn the ire of the other 194 countries that have signed on to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S. will work to address climate change because it cares about environmental health and economic stability.
The U.S. will work to address climate change because it cares about environmental health.
The Paris climate agreement, which went into effect in November, was an attempt to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius in this century—a level at which, science tells us, the impacts to the planetary ecosystem will be insurmountable. Though nonbinding, it allowed countries to set their own goals for reducing atmospheric-heating emissions, largely from the combustion of fossil fuels, and asked wealthy countries to chip in to help developing nations in their efforts. The agreement was met with praise worldwide, and the active role taken by President Obama put the U.S. in a place of climate leadership.
Now Trump wants to renege, making good on a campaign promise to his voting base and the energy executives in his circle. Yet, a majority of Americans in every state—70 percent of all registered voters in the nation—have expressed support for the agreement. And the actions of cities across the nation prove it.
American cities have already spent billions of dollars on climate action and have committed themselves to environmental goals that go beyond the Paris agreement commitments. Here are four key points of the Paris climate agreement with examples of how cities are already moving forward on them.
Greenhouse gas emissions reductions
The U.S. goal from the Paris climate agreement is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2025.
Recognizing future costs of inaction as seas rise and weather systems intensify, mayors across the nation are addressing climate change on their own. Thirty-five major cities have already set emissions reductions goals of 80 percent or more below 2005 levels, a World Wildlife Fund report found, and 62 cities were on track, as of 2015, to meet or exceed the federal target established in the Paris agreement.
As of March, 25 cities have committed to moving toward getting 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources. Most recently, the largely Republican town of Abita Springs, Louisiana, made the commitment. “Transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy is a practical decision we’re making for our environment, our economy, and for what our constituents want in Abita Springs,” Mayor Greg Lemons said in a statement. “Politics has nothing to do with it for me. Clean energy just makes good economic sense.”
The Paris accord is nonbinding by design. On one level, the agreement was designed to send a message to businesses interests and investors that this is the direction the world is going and that steps toward a sustainable economy would not be taken alone.
For many cities, the decision to push for renewable power grids has been based on business acumen. Not only has the cost of solar and wind dropped dramatically since those early inaccurate reports of how expensive green energy would be, but power utilities are finding that integrating renewables insulates them from the instability of fossil fuel markets. The small town of Georgetown, Texas, just north of Austin, has made headlines recently by adding itself to the list of conservative towns that have embraced renewables. Again, it’s about business.
“It’s a great economic development tool because there’s a lot of high-quality companies in this country that have robust green energy policies. Wal-Mart is one of them,” Mayor Dale Ross told NPR. “The Wal-Mart in Georgetown can report to Bentonville that every kilowatt of energy that they bought last year was green energy from either wind or solar.”
Help with adaptation
Climate change has been intensifying for decades. The Paris agreement seeks to address the impacts that are already underway. It strongly urges wealthy nations to invest at least $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing nations in reducing their emissions and adapting to the unavoidable effects of climate change.
Hotter air and rising ocean surface temperatures are expected to increase the severity, and likely the prevalence, of tropical storms and coastal flooding worldwide. The old ways of dealing with city storm water has been to hold back as much as possible and shed the rest quickly. New Orleans, however, is taking a different approach. The city is turning park lagoons into a massive retention pond designed to collect storm water from surrounding neighborhoods. The project, funded by a $1 million donation from the bet-hedging Zurich Insurance Group, is part of a larger water management strategy the city hopes will reduce the future impacts of climate change.
The U.S. played a significant role in amplifying discussions around the Paris agreement, and its participation encouraged emerging economies like China and India to commit to reductions.
In 2015, Los Angeles hosted the U.S.-China Climate Leaders Summit, which aims to promote an exchange between mayors in both countries on how to reduce local emissions. Among the many outcomes of the meeting, 10 cities from China and 10 cities from California inaugurated a long-term exchange of ideas around climate action planning and the clean technology industry. Additionally, the cities of Shenzhen and LA signed a memorandum of understanding to share the lessons and practices for green building construction and managing the shipping vessels in daily route between the cities’ ports, develop carbon market strategies in China, and introduce California’s zero-emission vehicle credit trading to Beijing.
“Washington is not the only regulatory game in town,” writes Jackson Ewing, director of Asian Sustainability at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “China can play a role in ensuring that the United States does not fully derail U.N.-led climate negotiations, and continue to engage in subnational cooperation efforts with symbiotic benefits.”
Stephen Miller is a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado and a former senior editor of YES!