Despite Trump withdrawal, cities and states will ensure climate action moves forward

Local leaders won’t sit idle as U.S. climate leadership wanes.
A protester takes part in the People's Climate March in Washington in April. (Nicole S. Glass)

President Donald Trump announced Thursday that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. He also said he wants to immediately re-enter negotiations to get “a far-better deal” — and even that he intends to make the U. S. the most environmentally friendly country on Earth. This is simply a non-sequitur and a way to muddy the waters.

Making abundant use of “alternative facts”, Trump in his speech painted the United States and its citizens as victims of this groundbreaking accord. On the contrary, the Paris Agreement and its fulfilment are the best chance for the United States and the world to create green jobs and save millions of lives and billions of dollars, avoiding the worst-case scenarios of climate inaction.

There is no doubt that Trump’s decision is out of step with the current global drive toward the low-carbon transition — and possibly delinked from reality itself. It is a way to hold on to a past era in which fossil fuels were the undisputed prime energy source for growing economies, and climate change was a distant threat that only a handful of researchers were digging into with urgency.

[See: 4 ways U.S local leaders are starting to respond to Trump’s climate withdrawal]

Claiming that the implementation of the Paris deal would hamstring the U. S. economy and drastically reduce jobs, Trump has said that he has a duty to stand up for American citizens. Yet he didn’t stop to check what many of those citizens are actually asking for: continued climate action.

Years from now, perhaps Trump will see what almost everyone else already understands: that there is only one path forward, and it is through the constant and rapid uptake of clean energy and the drastic decline in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst-case scenarios of climate change.

Cities, counties and states in the United States know that this is true, and they are not going to sit idle as U. S. climate leadership wanes. This includes cities that have been hit by processes of de-industrialization, such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a climate champion, ICLEI member and one of the 128 U. S. cities that signed up to the Compact of Mayors, the world’s largest coalition of city leaders addressing climate change. Trump on Thursday used Pittsburgh as a rationale for his decision, stating that he was elected to represent that and other U. S. cities — “not Paris”.

[See: Explainer: What is the Paris Agreement on climate change and what does it mean for cities?]

In the United States already, 78 city and state government entities, representing almost 28 million US citizens, are monitoring their emissions reduction efforts through the carbonn Climate Registry. They are contributing to a global commitment to reduce emissions by more than one gigatonne of carbon-dioxide equivalent by 2030 — roughly the same amount pledged by the United States in its Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement.

Further, more than 250 local U. S. governments are using ICLEI’s ClearPath tool to monitor emissions, for a total of over 40,000 individual inventory records. ICLEI USA counts almost 200 members at the city, county and state level, representing roughly 60 million Americans — engaged in all sorts of projects and campaigns for local climate action and sustainability.

None of these initiatives will slow down.

Whole new economy

For all of his self-professed business acumen, Trump is failing to see where the wind is blowing. Here are some facts: The U. S. economy already has decoupled from carbon dioxide.

“For all of his self-professed business acumen, Trump is failing to see where the wind is blowing. The U. S. economy already has decoupled from carbon dioxide.”

Between 2008 and 2016, the U. S. gross domestic product increased by 10 percent, while carbon emissions decreased 9 percent. The “green economy” already supports more jobs than the fossil fuel industry, with wind, solar and biomass generating up to three times as many jobs as coal, oil and gas for every USD 1 million invested.

[See: Meet the Edmonton official leading next year’s landmark conference on climate and cities]

According to the most recent data from the International Renewable Energy Agency, solar power last year created U. S. jobs at 17 times the rate of the national economy. Wind power jobs alone doubled over the past three years and are currently supporting over 100,000 American households — twice as much as the coal industry and equal to the U. S. coal jobs lost over the past 40 years.

In short, a global transition toward clean and low-carbon technologies and energy is underway, and its uptake is constantly rising. Producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity through renewable sources of energy is now often cheaper than producing it through oil and coal.

It is no coincidence that cities such as Aspen, Colorado, already have gone 100 percent renewable for their electricity needs. At least 20 more in the United States alone are in the process of doing the same.

Of course, there is a flipside to this coin.

The momentous rise in clean-energy jobs in the United states was spurred by federal policies and incentives that encouraged companies to enter this market and make it increasingly competitive. It’s fair to assume that the new U. S. budget will discontinue this important policy, even while it keeps up fossil fuel subsidies currently worth more than USD 20 billion a year.

[See: Trump budget proposal would result in ‘big impacts for cities’ around the world]

Cities in the United States and worldwide already are experiencing the first dangerous effects of an altered climate — as Miami-Dade County, Florida, knows very well. One of the most vulnerable areas to climate change in the country, Miami-Dade is an active member of the Resilient Communities for America (RC4A) campaign.

Federal funds and policy instruments for resilience and disaster risk reduction will be crucial in keeping U. S. citizens safe. At the moment, however, it doesn’t look like this is a priority of the Trump administration.

Filling the gap

Finally, communities worldwide and particularly in developing countries need financial help to build resilience and stay on a low-carbon path to development.

“It is no coincidence that cities such as Aspen, Colorado, already have gone 100 percent renewable for their electricity needs. At least 20 more in the United States alone are in the process of doing the same.”

Such help has so far been limited and episodic. But the United States has made substantial pledges to instruments such as the Green Climate Fund that if not fulfilled, will make it much more difficult for those cities and countries to deal with climate change.

[See: Make no mistake, momentum is growing to ‘localize’ climate finance]

The fund was one of the centrepieces of the Paris Agreement — USD 100 billion in climate finance that developed nations pledged to put on the table to help developing countries enact the agreement. Some cities and states in the Global North figure among those that made financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund, but most of these will need to be on the receiving end of those funds in order for local climate action to be scaled up as needed.

Finally, much more needs to be done to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the vision adopted in the Paris accord. Current national commitments give us a scenario for 2030 in which global emissions will be far higher than the level needed to stay on this track — roughly equivalent to a full year’s worth of emissions from 6,400 coal-fired power plants. With the U. S. out of the picture, that figure will inevitably be higher.

Cities and regions worldwide are ready to step in to help fill this gap. They have shown their potential and commitment to do so time and time again. In the United States alone, prominent leaders at the city and state level, such as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and California Governor Jerry Brown, have made it clear that they will do whatever is in their power to ensure that the U. S. as a nation stays on the path of climate action.

[See: In Mexico City for climate talks, U. S. mayors get advice on how to deal with Donald Trump]

However, filling the gap and ensuring that climate action moves forward will require a new, broader climate leadership. Recent statements by China and the European Union seem to be pointing in that direction, and the ever-greater involvement of local governments and non-state actors promises a potential for more-inclusive coalitions supporting implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Starting today, it will be a bit more difficult to achieve the goals we set for ourselves in Paris a year and a half ago. We dreaded this moment since the day of the U. S. elections, knowing that this was one of the potential outcomes of a Trump presidency. Now that the worst has happened politically, it’s time to collectively roll up our sleeves and demonstrate that one president in one country cannot derail the most concerted effort in human history to change the world for the better.

NOTE: This analysis has updated.

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Angie Fyfe

Angie Fyfe is executive director of ICLEI USA.

Yunus Arikan

Yunus Arikan is head of global policy and advocacy for ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability.