Trumping Mr. Trump with bottom-up climate action

January 31, 2017 in News by Oscar Widerberg

The widely hailed Paris Climate Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016. Just 4 days later, Donald Trump won the presidential elections in the United States of America. Mr. Trump once said: “The concept of climate change was created by and for the Chinese, to make US-manufacturing less competitive”. For those hoping that 45th president of the US Donald Trump wouldn’t live up to this standard, think again. Shortly after the inauguration, the White House’s homepage on climate change went blank. Instead, the Trump Administration launched an ‘America First Energy Plan’ focusing on dismantling Obama’s climate legislation and exploiting the “vast untapped domestic energy reserves” (read oil, shale gas and natural gas not wind and solar power). Within a few days, Mr Trump also revived two controversial pipeline projects – the Dakota Access Pipelines and Keystone XL – deepening the fossil fuel lock-in of the US economy. His views on international climate action under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement have ranged from full rejection to “having an open mind”. However, the appointment of Rex Tillerson – a former ExxonMobil CEO – to become Secretary of State, does not necessarily reflect an open mind. Depending on the scenario, the US could leave the UNFCCC within a year.

To be clear, the US was never keen on ambitious international climate action but the new directions are clearly a step in the wrong direction. Its sheer size in terms of greenhouse gas emissions makes the US a key player if we are to limit global warming to 2 degree Celsius. It is currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions per capita, and ranking second only to China in terms of total annual GHG emissions. Hence, if the US fails to reduce its emissions, it becomes virtually impossible for the rest of the world to pick up the slack. Other policy choices by the Trump administration could also have serious repercussions for other countries’ ability to curb climate change. For instance, advisers to the administration have vowed to cancel funding for renewable energy research and even dismantling NASA’s climate change program, which could inhibit important research progress on climate change. In addition, the plans for rebuilding US infrastructure will most likely also have an impact on future emission scenarios, as we talk rather about new highways than about new railways.

A less gloomy picture, however, emerges if one looks beyond the surface of US climate policy and digs into the sub-national level. Replying to rumors that the Trump Administration would discontinue the use of existing satellites for climate research, Californian Governor Jerry Brown said that “California will launch its own damn satellites.” His state has become a shining example of what local governments and regions can do to take action beyond the federal level. California has launched its own cap-and-trade scheme starting in 2012 and before that took part in the regional Western Climate Initiative, a cooperative initiative aiming to start carbon trading in seven American states and Canadian provinces. It also has among the most stringent car emission legislations in the US, forcing car manufacturers and owners to follow the ‘California Standard’. Considering that California’s economy comes in at 6th place in the global ranking of largest economy, outperforming countries such as France and Brazil, their actions on climate change are not to be taken lightly. On the east coast of the US, another sub-national cap-and-trade program has been set-up called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) between 9 states, targeting emissions from electric power plants generating more than 25 megawatts. The RGGI states have reduced their dependence on carbon-intense energy sources such as coal and petroleum from 33 % in 2005 to 8 % in 2015. The scheme has also generated over US$ 2.4 billion in revenues.

Another source of ambitious climate action has come from cities. New York, for instance, has set a target of reducing its CO2 emissions by 80 % in 2050, and Austin in Texas even wants to reduce their emissions with 90 % by 2050. Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has also become a front-figure for what cities can do to mitigate and adapt to climate change. His efforts have led him to become the United Nation’s first Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change.

Climate action in the US does not end with the inauguration of Mr. Trump. Thousands of local and regional initiatives set up by regions, cities, companies and other civil society groups are likely to continue their work, seeking positive side-effects and understanding the necessity of curbing climate change. A global climate governance architecture that is based on the actions of ten-thousands of organizations and millions of individuals is more resilient than an intergovernmental process that can easily be derailed by the election of just one political leader. It is up to researchers such as us to understand, inform and engage in this transition of climate governance moving from the ‘top-down’ to the ‘bottom-up’.

Philipp Pattberg & Oscar Widerberg

This piece is a reprint of an editorial featured in the newsletter of the Dutch Research School for Socio-Economic and Natural Sciences of the Environment (SENSE) in February 2017