Jon Talton | Even though the Trump administration has withdrawn the United States from the climate-change accord of 195 nations, many American cities and some states are trying to fight back.
This past week, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution to stick with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change even though the Trump administration has withdrawn the United States.
The big question is whether it can make a difference.
To be sure, the city is not alone. Earlier this month, 298 mayors committed to “adopt, honor and uphold” the Paris goals of limiting temperature rise. More municipalities are joining almost daily.
When President Donald Trump justified dumping the climate deal because he was “elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the Steel City’s mayor tweeted, “I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”
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At least 13 governors have made similar pledges, including Washington’s Jay Inslee.
In addition to California’s Jerry Brown and New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Inslee made Washington a founding member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a pro-Paris coalition.
This is not mere symbolism. The cities and states (plus Puerto Rico) represent one-third of U.S. gross domestic product and 100 million Americans. California alone, which has made the biggest efforts to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate change, enjoys the world’s sixth largest economy.
Earlier this month, Brown met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss climate change and green technology. With America out of Paris, the leaders are China, Europe and … California.
According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, under the Paris accord “states and localities may, like nations, decide for themselves to set emissions reductions targets and declare these to the world.”
Like most issues in our national debate, climate change is highly partisan. This, even though almost all scientists who actually study climate agree that climate change is real, caused by humans and getting worse faster than expected even a few years ago.
Most Democrats support aggressive measures to hold down temperatures before they reach a level that would be catastrophic. Most Republicans hold opposite views to varying degrees.
So not surprisingly, the cities and states supporting Paris are majority blue. This includes Pittsburgh, which long ago cleaned up from steel mills to be a city whose economy is based on advanced technologies, health care and higher education.
The first roadblock many progressive cities may face will come from Republican-dominated state legislatures and governors. City efforts can be blocked in state capitals. Similarly, mayors might be stymied by city councils that tilt red.
Then comes the test of whether the Trump administration will allow state defiance of its stance on Paris. For example, Trump’s EPA has made threats of going after California’s tough emissions laws.
Yes, the world turned upside down. Through most of the life of the republic, “states’ rights” were of prime importance to the South, especially in perpetuating slavery and Jim Crow. Now blue states are seeking to assert their powers — or “rights” — under the Constitution’s 10th Amendment, to save the planet.
This amendment says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
It is a backbone of our federal form of government (as opposed to a centralized national government). States are praised as “the laboratories of democracy.”
Yet interpreting this amendment has been debated for decades. FDR and his backers used the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to empower the New Deal. Even so, it faced tough opposition based on the 10th Amendment.
To these conservative critics, the Constitution didn’t allow the federal government power to implement these measures to fight the Great Depression.
It will be interesting to see how conservative jurists rule if states fighting climate change assert their 10th Amendment powers.
Cities and states, along with corporations, can make a big contribution in lowering American greenhouse-gas emissions. But they likely can’t balance a federal government that is detached at best — and hostile at worst — to reducing carbon in the atmosphere.
The evidence points to the worst case: This is an aggressively pro-fossil fuels administration. In withdrawing from Paris and rolling back Obama-era rules, Trump cited the economic costs of compliance.
But as Debra Knopman and colleagues at the RAND Corp. think tank wrote earlier this month, “Trillions of dollars will be invested in new energy systems in the coming years. The U.S. may have just ceded to other countries economic leadership and the new jobs in these growing industries.”
Meanwhile, the Trump budget makes severe cuts to green-energy research, Amtrak and transit. The feds held up a $647 million grant to electrify Caltrain, the crowded Bay Area commuter-train system, before finally releasing the funds last month.
The federal government not only can commit the nation to reducing emissions, it is a big emitter itself.
The Defense Department is an enormous contributor to greenhouse gases, even as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis considers climate change a national-security threat.
Too bad his Cabinet colleagues don’t share this assessment. The Obama administration committed to reducing the government’s carbon footprint. The Trump administration is trying to delete climate data.
But climate change is real. The big question is whether we can buy time before another election — and before the worst consequences become unstoppable. Cities and states will be an essential part of the battle.