The political and environmental worlds are up in arms over the decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. As someone with literally no understanding of environmental science or climate change, I’ll leave it to others to ruminate on the environmental implications of the withdrawal (I’d recommend the symposium Josh Busby has put together over at Duck of Minerva here as a nice starting place). However, given that the agreement was non-binding and that the US was planning on partially meeting its commitments through the production, but likely not the sale, of low-emission vehicles, the immediate effect of withdrawal is likely to hurt the US’s role as global leader more than it will damage the environment.
But there is a potential silver lining in the clouds surrounding Paris, a silver lining that is already becoming visible. Immediately after the announcement, states, cities, and private citizens began stepping up to soften the blow of the US leaving the agreement. Washington, California, and New York have created an alliance designed to help individual states produce the emission reductions that President Obama had committed the US to in the Paris agreement. Several American cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City, are submitting a proposal to the UN that their emission reductions be taken into account as part of the Paris agreement. Former mayor of NYC, Michael Bloomberg, has pledged $15 million to replace the money that the US would have contributed to the operating budget of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
These kind of decentralized, grass roots approaches may very well be better suited to addressing the problem of climate change than a top-down process led by the federal government and driven by multi-party international agreements. International environmental issues are notoriously ill-suited to global, collective solutions or even nationalized ones. There are too many sovereign states with conflicting interests that overlap with their economic health and national security to get functional binding agreements, which is why the first attempt, the Kyoto Protocol, failed. It’s also why the Paris agreement was not legally binding–that was the only way to get nearly every country on board. States and national-level politicians are hesitant to make binding agreements that will limit their economic health in the short-run for long-term benefits for which they won’t reap any electoral benefit. Experimentation in the laboratories of multiple states and cities might be more likely to develop scientific breakthroughs. And the outrage and attention stirred up by such a flagrant rejection of global norms and environmental sensibility, combined with the general anti-Trump sentiment, might just keep today’s reactions going strong into the future, producing a stronger environmental movement and better
While I’m not happy with the president’s decision to withdraw from Paris, largely for the damage it will do to America’s broader foreign policy goals–especially in the context of the other signals from Trump that the US is pulling back from its traditional role as global leader. But the silver lining may very outweigh the environmental impact of the US’s efforts.