How states and localities can limit the fallout of Trump’s withdrawal from Paris

Multiple homes with solar panels are shown in Scripps Ranch, San Diego, California, U.S.

President Trump shocked the world yesterday by yanking the United States out of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. The other 194 signatory nations are outraged, while the vast majority of Americans, who support our nation staying in, are left feeling voiceless.

And yet, for all that, a measure of consolation can be had in the fact that state and local governments across the United States are already moving to limit the global fallout by renewing their own commitments to clean energy, which is the most important component of America’s contribution to the global climate solution.

And so here is an idea: states and localities should take it to the next level.

They should magnify their impact by formally registering their clean energy commitments with the international community, as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed, and aggregating them together in a single unified announcement, which would be made at a national convention of leaders from all sectors of American society. While such distributed but collective action by state and local governments would not be a complete substitute for the federal government’s pullback, it would be more than a mere holding action. It might even trigger a new wave of “bottom up” progress toward a clean energy economy.

The Paris Agreement itself gives states and localities this valuable leverage. The agreement does not work by punishing non-compliance, but instead by cultivating mutual awareness and building mutual confidence (a key point that the administration seems to have missed in preparing to make this ill-advised decision). Global stakeholders announce independently determined commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and endorse arrangements to measure and verify progress toward them. The transparency of the commitment creates awareness, while the verification measures build confidence. Over time, this structure has the potential to lead to a virtuous cycle of action that will limit the damage to human health, the economy, and the environment caused by climate change, which is already occurring and getting worse each year.

In this regard, while nations are the legal parties to the Paris Agreement, state and local governments are vital stakeholders, too, and can contribute directly to the achievement of its goals. As it happens, advocates of global climate action shrewdly devised a structure for these contributions that parallels that for nations. States and localities may, like nations, decide for themselves to set emissions reductions targets and declare these to the world. The Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA) portal provides a platform that makes all other stakeholders aware of such pledges by registering them with the international community. Over 6,000 commitments by subnational governments around the world have been registered on the NAZCA portal to date. Verification that these jurisdictions are making progress toward fulfilling their commitments is provided by NAZCA’s eight internationally recognized partners, which have established standardized measuring and reporting methods.

Along these lines, the Compact of States and Regions and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy are cooperative initiatives that, while not formally linked to the agreement among nations, provide benchmarks for subnational governments that want to participate in the Paris process. Governors, mayors, and other leaders who join them agree to reduce emissions and report their results via NAZCA. States and localities that aspire to emission reductions of 80 percent or greater by 2050 may join other cooperative initiatives like the Under 2 Degrees Memorandum of Understanding (Under 2 MOU) and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance that further the Paris call for increasingly ambitious action to fend off the worst impacts of climate change.

Already, governors and legislatures, county executives and councils, and mayors and city councils across the United States have begun to step into the breach created by President Trump’s decision. Two hundred and three registrants on NAZCA hail from this country. Minnesota, for instance, belongs to the Compact of States and Regions and the Under 2 MOU and has made a half-dozen specific commitments on clean energy. Houston, Nashville, and Memphis, similarly, are among the 182 American cities that have declared their membership in the global mayors’ group.

However, many more U.S. state and local governments that are taking action to address climate change have not yet registered their commitments internationally. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, more than 1,000 American cities have adopted greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. The Database of State Incentives at North Carolina State University shows that 29 states and the District of Columbia have adopted requirements for the use of renewable resources for electricity generation. For many regions, in fact, clean energy is becoming a key component of economic development, as the Metro Program has shown. Specialized hubs of new, fast-growing clean energy industries that create good jobs have emerged in large and small cities around the country. And so by taking the simple step of registering on NAZCA actions to which they are already committed, U.S. states and localities can send this message to the world: we support the Paris Agreement, regardless of what the President says.

America's clean energy economy is actually a network of regionally varied cluster ecosystems; cleantech patents per million residents, 2011-2016


Which prompts our second idea—the creation of a major new forum for publicizing and adding up commitments. Bottom-up engagement would become even more powerful if subnational governments made it in unison at a new American Clean Energy Convention. At such a convention, each state could share its own state-determined plan to reduce emissions to the degree and in the manner that best suits it. Where states are unwilling to do so, delegations made up of localities and private leaders might fill in. Such an American Clean Energy Convention would help to reassure the world that it is the federal government, not America, that is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. At the same time, the convention, by drawing on the creativity of our dynamic federal system, might also inspire its participants to take more ambitious steps at the state and local levels. Friendly competition, synergies between regional energy systems, and mobilization of citizens and companies could turn the process of making declarations into powerful race to the top.

In any event, a new, more concerted, and more effective surge of “bottom-up” climate and energy problem-solving is now surely needed. States and localities should respond to President Trump’s rash and short-sighted decision with a new phase of commitment to transform our old, outmoded 1900s energy system into a dynamic, clean system suited to this new century.

In this way a four-year hiatus in federal policy need not become the end of the world. Indeed, ambitious steps by states and localities would ensure that a future president who wants to rejoin the Paris Agreement—to which every other nation in the world but two belongs—gets a running start.

David M. Hart (@ProfDavidHart) is a senior fellow at the Brookings Metro Program and at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and professor of public policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Chad Smith is an energy policy professional who resides in Washington, D.C.