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How Far Can California Go It Alone After Trump Withdraws From Climate Accord?

June 3, 2017 1:01 PM
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“Trump is AWOL, but California is on the field, ready for battle,” asserted Gov. Jerry Brown, as he headed to China for a meeting to continue his efforts to combat climate change in the largest state.

Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.

Californians who watched cable news on Thursday before, during or after Trump’s error-ridden Rose Garden speech, kept hearing—from Senator Rand Paul, from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, and from Trump himself—that the Paris climate agreement was a “bad deal” for Americans. Paul, the Kentucky Republican, asserted on CNN that the agreement required too little of other countries; Pruitt, that it somehow hindered American independence. Trump promised he would “exit and renegotiate any deal which fails to serve America’s interest,” he said, and so that’s what he was doing.

But what the U.S. signed onto in Paris 18 months ago wasn’t really wasn’t really a “deal” at all; it was a voluntary agreement, without the force of law or the treaty imprimatur of the U.S. Senate. It was so manifestly not an ironclad deal, in fact, that reportedly Secretary of State John Kerry, four hours before deadline, refused to sign unless the word “shall” was changed to “should” in the segment about the U.S. providing $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, which helps poorer countries in their efforts to establish clean-energy economics. (Trump on Thursday referred to that sum as “a vast fortune.”)

Nor was the U.S. government’s “nationally determined contribution,” or NDC, to greenhouse gas reductions all that “draconian,” as Trump claimed. California has a near-term legislative mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and an executive order to achieve 80% below 1990 reductions by 2050. An international coalition of regional and local jurisdictions led by California, the Under2 MOU, assumes only reductions of 80% to 95% by 2050 will keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), by the end of the century. The Paris compact hewed to the same climate goal, but when John Kerry put his pen to the agreement in December of 2015, the U.S. had agreed to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions to, at best, 28% of 2005 levels by 2025. By some estimates, thanks mostly to the decline of coal-fired power, the nation is already a third of the way there.

Which doesn’t mean Paris was useless. The 21st “Conference of Parties,” or COP, an assembly mandated under a United Nations treaty the U.S. Senate ratified in 1992, is where governments come together and share observed data on climate impacts, exchange technological fixes to dirty energy plants and, most of all, affirm individual commitments to climate mitigation. The United States has so far not withdrawn from the UN treaty, and consequently, it must still participate in that process. And dozens of U.S. states and cities remain committed not just to the Paris goals, but to even more aggressive standards arrived at in separate constructive alliances.

In fact, as the news broke Thursday that Trump would pull out of the Paris accord, California Gov. Jerry Brown was packing his bags for China. On Friday, he’d be on his way to a convocation of multinational energy policy makers called the Clean Energy Ministerial. On his agenda next week is a Beijing gathering of the Under2 group, which Brown and Winfried Kretschmann, the minister-president of the German state of Baden-Württemberg initiated two years ago to promote local solutions to a global problem. So far, over 170 regional and local jurisdictions from 33 countries have signed on, including Oregon, Minnesota, and the city of Austin, Texas. With the recent additions of Canada and Mexico in April, the coalition now represents 37% of the global economy.

The Under2 Coalition may be California’s most significant contribution to climate mitigation since 2006, when then-assemblymember Fran Pavley successfully pioneered legislation to control climate-forcing pollutants. Brown insists that the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accords will only fuel its momentum. California’s too: “California will resist this misguided and insane course of action,” Brown said in a statement. “Trump is AWOL, but California is on the field, ready for battle.”

Informal, information-sharing collaborations with other countries such as Under2 are well within any state’s constitutional rights, says Michael Wara, an associate professor of environmental law at Stanford University. But there are other ways in which states need to be careful. As much as Brown wants to present California as a vanguard nation-state, there are limits to the state’s autonomy. “There’s a problem for us in the Constitution in that it dictates that the nation speaks with one voice. And that voice is, as we’re learning, the president’s voice.”


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