American governors and mayors are stepping up to fill a leadership void on climate change after Donald Trump announced that the US will pull out of the Paris climate change accord.
From coast to coast and beyond, American politicians say that the President has left them with little choice in facing the devastating consequences climate changes seems to pose. Hundreds of American jurisdictions say they are prepared to work together — and individually — to honour the now defunct US commitment to curb greenhouse gasses and move toward a greener, more sustainable future.
“We’ve had a lot more discussion amongst governors that it really is time for states to lead on a number of issues. Clearly climate and environment are just one of several issues, but as we’ve worked with other states we do know that many other governors and many other states share the same concern with climate change and sea level rise”, Hawaii Governor David Ige told The Independent.
In the days after the President announced that the US would pull out of the climate deal it played a heavy hand in forming, Hawaii became the first state to codify in law its commitment to honour the goals agreed to by all but three countries in the world. That move put the state at the forefront of the resistance pushing back against Mr Trump’s denial of climate change as a world-threatening movement and policy concern. Hawaii is threatened by climate change on several fronts, most notably the impact that rising sea levels might have on its coasts.
But Hawaii is far from alone in pushing back.
In announcing his decision, the President appealed to forgotten industrial towns in the rust belt of America, saying that he was elected to represent “Pittsburgh, not Paris”. The phrase, which the White House soon after looked to capitalise on in announcing a tour of the US in honour of the sentiment, was quickly undercut by the mayor of that US city.
“As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy, and future”, Mayor Bill Peduto tweeted, noting in other texts that his city — which has seen something of a revival recently — voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Hundreds of American mayors have similarly announced that they would push their towns and cities to cut greenhouse gas emissions, instal more renewable energy sources, and work toward the Paris climate goals to keep man-made global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. In addition to those mayors and Hawaii, the states of California, Washington, and New York all announced that they were going to work hard to curb climate change.
The Paris agreement, which was pushed for and largely brokered by the administration of former President Barack Obama, has the backing of every country in the world but three. The US is joined by Syria — which has been hampered diplomatically, and is suffering from a brutal civil war — and Nicaragua — which has refused to sign the agreement because the commitments are voluntary, and therefore doesn’t go far enough to curtail climate change in that country's view.
The accord is composed of individual goals expressed by every country to cut greenhouse gas emissions. A critically controversial portion of the agreement in America is the inclusion of a fund, paid for by advanced nations formerly including the US, to help developing countries to invest in cleaner energy sources instead of relying on dirty sources like coal that release huge amounts of carbon dioxide.
The United States had committed to a reduction of greenhouse gasses by 2025 to 26 or 28 percent below the emission levels recorded in 2005. Following Mr Obama’s election, emissions began to drop already as industries contemplated a President who said he was committed to acting on climate change, and as renewable energy sources like wind and solar became increasingly competitive against fossil fuels.
In addition to pulling the US back from the Paris accord, Mr Trump has also taken a series of measures to dismantle his predecessor’s environmental legacy. Mr Obama during his tenure signed off on a series of policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including a key rule that pushed for reductions in emissions from power plants known as the Clean Power Plan. Mr Trump has sought to destroy many of those regulations on industry, saying that they hamper economic growth and put an undo burden on American energy providers and manufacturers.
Mr Trump has done so because he has pledged to help beleaguered areas of the United States that have seen massive job losses in the energy sector. By dismantling Mr Obama’s energy and environment regulations, the President has created a much friendlier regulatory picture for coal and natural gas providers with the hopes that miners in states like Kentucky may go back to digging up coal while gas extractors in states like Colorado and Pennsylvania might be freer to take advantage of the nation’s vast oil reserves lying dormant in the earth.
But, the long-term outlook for those energy sources — particularly coal — is stymied by global and economic forces beyond the immediate control of American policy decisions. Natural gas production can only be competitive in comparison to prices set by foreign nations with more traditional oil extraction operations. Coal has become less and less competitive compared to renewable energy sources, as the cost of production of things like solar panels have plummeted.
State governors and mayors say they’ve already pushed for a greener future, even in conservative territory, and will continue to do so regardless of what Mr Trump does. The President’s decision to pull out of Paris was criticised by heads of state of prominent foreign governments, and many American politicians agree with that criticism.
In Salt Lake City, Utah — a state that voted for Mr Trump — Mayor Jackie Biskupsi said that there isn’t time to waste. Salt Lake is warming at twice the rate seen in other parts of the country, and is running out of water. The city's water is is the lifeblood for over a million residents in the area. In addition to that challenge, the area has a dominant and lucrative winter sports industry that once hosted the Olympics, but is threatened by warming that could lead to reduced snowfall on the storied ski slopes there.
To respond to that challenge, Ms Biskupsi and the city have partnered with the main energy provider in the area to move the city away from carbon-emitting energy sources and toward renewable s.
Ms Biskupsi co-chairs a sustainability committee with the US Conference of Mayors, which meets twice a year. She affirms that mayors from all corners of the United States are taking the risks of climate change seriously.
“Part of what the mayors are discussing is that we absolutely need to lead as a nation and at the city level on this issue because we are one of the two biggest polluters in the world” Ms Biskupsi told The Independent. “That is something we definitely want changed. We want to make sure that that change comes, and it will only come with strong leadership. And, apparently, that strong leadership is us.”