Four months ago, on the day President Donald Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Gov. Jerry Brown of California, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington announced their states would team up to meet the target anyway.
Since then, what started as a contrarian statement by three Democratic leaders has grown into a green rebellion. The coalition now numbers 14 states and Puerto Rico — North Carolina joined last week — and includes several states with Republican governors.
The U.S. Climate Alliance, as the group is calling itself, released a report last week showing that through expanding solar power, wind energy, incentives for electric cars, building efficiency standards and other local efforts, the participating states cut greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent between 2005 and 2015, compared with 10 percent for the rest of the U.S. They are already on track to meet the Paris target of a 26 percent reduction by 2025.
Meanwhile, economic output in those states grew by 14 percent from 2005 to 2015, compared with 12 percent for the rest of the country. The group is made up of states that have 107 million residents — 36 percent of the U.S. population — and a $7 trillion dollar combined economy, enough to be the world’s third largest country.
“Together, we are a political and economic force,” Brown said in New York last week during a whirlwind visit to the United Nations, Yale University and Canada to push more climate agreements in opposition to Trump’s approach. “We will drive the change that will get us to the climate goals that we have to reach.”
After Trump’s decision, only three countries had opted out of the Paris climate agreement, which includes 189 nations that each set a voluntary target with the goal of limiting the warming of the Earth to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2100. They were the U.S., Nicaragua and Syria, which is torn by a brutal civil war. Last week, Nicaragua announced it would sign on, having withheld support because President Daniel Ortega said the agreement wasn’t as strong as his country would have liked. That leaves only the U.S. and Syria.
Trump has denied the science behind climate change, despite the fact that the 10 hottest years globally since 1880 when modern temperature records were first taken have all occurred since 1998, according to NASA and NOAA. He has called climate change “a hoax” made up by the Chinese to hurt American business. And earlier this month he disputed assertions by scientists that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were made stronger and wetter by warmer ocean waters.
“If you go back into the ’30s and ’40s, and you go back into the teens, you’ll see storms that were very similar and even bigger, OK?” Trump told reporters on Air Force One on Sept. 14 after touring damage from Hurricane Irma in Florida.
Only hours before, however, Trump said Florida residents experienced something “the likes of which we can really say nobody’s ever seen before.”
The reality: There have always been hurricanes, but there is significant evidence they are getting stronger as sea levels rise and ocean temperatures warm, which draws more moisture into them. Hurricane Harvey dumped 51.8 inches of rain on Texas, the all-time record for the continental U.S., and Hurricane Irma sustained 185 mph winds for 37 hours, also an all-time record.
“This federal government is the most ignorant federal government we’ve ever had when it comes to the environment and climate change,” Cuomo said last week in New York at a news conference with Brown.
“In the state of denial, you can drill in the Arctic,” Cuomo added. “You can build in floodplains, build in wetlands, use whatever pesticides you want, burn coal for power. There’s no need for any change. It’s like having a great party on the eve of destruction. But for the other 50 states, we don’t have the luxury of denial. We understand what’s going on, and we have to take very aggressive action.”
The states that are part of the U.S. Climate Alliance so far are California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Virginia, Vermont, North Carolina, Delaware and Rhode Island, along with Puerto Rico. The states emit 21 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.
Environmental groups are hoping that as more U.S. states continue to band together and share technology and policy experiences, more big businesses will take up the cause and eventually the federal government will change.
Some climate experts say the states alone can’t make much of a difference in worldwide emissions, however.
“Every action and reduction helps, but this is most important symbolically,” said economist Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program.
“It is evidence that although the U.S. federal government may have announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement,” he said, “the United States, defined geographically, is continuing to move forward with meaningful policies. It is important that other countries in the world perceive this, in order to prevent a global backslide.”
David Victor, co-director of UC San Diego’s Laboratory on International Law and Regulation, said that although most of the states involved are Democratic, he thinks others may join, including possibly more conservative places like Iowa and Texas, which have a large wind industry, if their leaders frame the issue as supporting renewable energy rather than climate change, a more loaded political term. Even then, he said, it’s unclear how many of the signatories will follow through.
“It’s easy to make bold claims, but across the industrialized world there is a big difference on the pledges countries are making and what they are delivering on,” he said, adding: “We don’t know how much of this is talk and how much is reality.”
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