The mobilization of American cities against the withdrawal from the Paris Climate change agreement: A sign of the changing regime for climate change?

Martine Azuelos, Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin

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A broad coalition of American cities and states has emerged in response to Donald Trump’s announcement on June 1st, 2017 that, as promised during his electoral campaign, the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate change agreement. Should this mobilization be interpreted as the emergence of a political movement against the President? As an illustration of U.S. environmental federalism at work? Or should it be understood as pointing towards the polycentric systems of a transnational, multiscalar ‘regime for climate change’ (Ostrom, 2010; Keohane & Victor, 2011)?

These are the questions raised by our analysis of the leadership taken by American cities and states on the issue of climate change. We begin by presenting the Presidential decision (1) and the mobilization of cities and states which have organized, built networks, and reached out to the world (2). We also analyze the response of the business world to the Trump announcement (3). Then we discuss the meaning of this mobilization, arguing that U.S. cities and states, as well as private enterprises, are key actors in the emergence of “polycentric systems” aiming at addressing the complex issue of climate change.

1- The Presidential decision: the federal level

Donald Trump’s announcement on June 1st, 2017 that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate change agreement was —as he made it clear in the speech he delivered on the occasion— a political move meant to please his electorate by fulfilling a campaign promise at a time when he probably felt the urge to lift the spirits of his supporters. Indeed, the timing of this decision was not fortuitous, four months into the Trump presidency, at a time when opposition from the judiciary branch of government or from Congressional Republicans meant that the President had difficulty in ‘delivering’ on most of his other campaign promises, whether it be restricting immigration, building a wall on the Mexican border, or repealing Obamacare.

As President Obama had chosen not to treat the Paris Accord as a formal « treaty » requiring congressional ratification1 —because he could not count on the two-thirds majority required in the Senate— and simply signed an Executive Order, getting out of the Paris Accord did not require congressional agreement either. Trump simply had to sign another Executive Order reversing Obama’s. His rhetoric on the occasion was in keeping with his commitment to « make America great again » and combat policies launched by his predecessor who he saw as going against the interests of American citizens, killing jobs and slowing down economic growth.

Trump’s « America First » focus accounts for the anti-global, go-it-alone stance he has taken repeatedly since his inauguration and explains why he suggested that the agreement infringed on U.S. sovereignty, overlooking the fact that each country is free to determine the measures it wishes to implement to fight against climate change2. This was likely to be music to the ears of those who do not see climate change as a priority or who consider it a « hoax »: rural America, workers and industries depending on fossil fuels and nuclear energy, or think tanks like the Texas-based Heartland Institute (www.heartland.org) which rejects the international scientific consensus about climate change.

These circles were well represented at the forum hosted by a White House team at the COP23 in Bonn in November 2017, where speakers included executives from Peabody Energy, a coal company; NuScale Power, a nuclear engineering firm; and Tellurian, a liquefied natural gas exporter.

Trump’s decision has been as controversial as was Obama’s commitment to fight climate change, a response which reflects the polarization of America on the subject. Indeed, although environmentalism has been gaining ground in the United States in recent decades, only 36% of Americans feel « deeply concerned » about climate change and its effects, and a minority (48%) agree that « the earth is warming mostly due to human activity ».

This polarization largely reflects partisan divides, as among those who feel « deeply concerned » a majority are Democrats (72%), while less of a quarter (24%) are Republicans (Pew Research Center, 2016). It also reflects geographical divides—pitting the east and west coasts against the midwest, and cities against rural communities; and socio-economic divides—with Trump representing the interests of the ‘old’ economy while his opponents are confident that technological innovation and more environment-friendly business practices can reverse global warming.

Opposition to Trump’s decision has been very vocal and has led opponents to mobilize. Key actors in the mobilization have been mayors of major cities, state governors, and business leaders.

2-The mobilization of cities and states

Local authorities have played a key institutional role in this momentum. Indeed, as the Paris accord relies on countries setting carbon emission reduction targets for themselves and reaching those targets in due time, in the United States the federal government’s withdrawal does not mean that cities or states will be prevented from implementing such targets for themselves. All the more so as environmental policy has been largely developed at the local or state level since the late 1990s.

California Governor Jerry Brown and Michael Bloomberg have launched America’s Pledge on climate change, an initiative to compile and quantify the actions of states, cities and businesses in the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. This was stressed by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg in the speech he delivered to the European Parliament in Brussels in June 2017:

“It is important for you, and the world, to understand that the fate of America’s Paris pledge does not lie with Congress or the White House”…. “Few people realize it, but the US is already half way to our goal of a 26% reduction in emissions by 2025— and Washington has had almost nothing to do with that progress. Cities, states, businesses, and citizens, were responsible for it.” (Quoted in The Guardian, June 23, 2017).

Through the America’s Pledge initiative and the “We are still in“ declaration, Brown and Bloomberg intend to work to demonstrate continued climate leadership across U.S. society, and that subnational action can significantly reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at a time of limited federal leadership. Following its initial release on June 5, 2017, more than 2,500 mayors, governors, corporate leaders and college presidents had signed the We Are Still In declaration by November 2017 (www.wearestillin.org).

A bi-partisan coalition of 15 States created in June 2017, the U.S. Climate Alliance that claims to represent more than 36% of the US population, at least $7 trillion in GDP and 1.3 million clean energy jobs (www.usclimatealliance.org). The nearly 27,000-square-foot inflatable tent adorned with American flags which housed the U.S. shadow delegation at the COP23 was a mirror of this broad-based coalition.

American mayors of 75 cities representing 42 million Americans have organized the U.S. Mayors National Climate Action Agenda (MNCAA) under the leadership of Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti. They wrote a letter to President Trump to roll back on US Climate Actions (http://climatemayors.org/) on March 28, 2017. They stressed the fact that “climate change represents a growing threat to national security”.

The city of San Francisco illustrates more than any other the willingness to follow the Paris agreement. On June 6, 2017, San Francisco’s Board of supervisors introduced a resolution stating that the city would stay the course and claimed “We are not going to stop doing what we do best”. Since 2008, each of the city’s scores of departments have been required to submit climate action plans.

In 2015, the city measured its greenhouse gas emissions at 28% below 1990 levels —despite the city’s population having grown by nearly 20% since then, with its gross domestic product up by a robust 78%. The plan is now to cut emissions by 40% by 2025 and 80% by 2050.

San Francisco’s reduction goals, says the Business Council on Climate Change’s executive director, are fairly standard among large American cities. But in achieving and surpassing those goals rapidly, the city “is a national leader”. Mayor Edwin Lee —who passed away in December 2017— had set the goal of achieving 50% renewable electricity by 2020 and 100% by 2030 —a commitment that echoes Governor Brown’s 2015 mandate.

A total number of 142 US cities have joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (www.globalcovenantofmayors.org) which is co-chaired by Maros Sefcovic, the European energy Commissioner, and Michael Bloomberg, U.N.’s special envoy for cities and climate change. US mayors have been very active in such fora as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, ICCLEI (icclei.org) , C40 (c40.org), and Cities for Climate Action (CCP).

Political coalitions around cities have emerged throughout the United States, in addition to the more traditional campaigns mounted by NGOs like the Sierra Club (set up in 1892) or Friends of the Earth (set up in 1969). Cities and states are reaching out to the world to combat erosion of US leadership over the climate change agenda and promote a « green » global image that they see as a key driver of their competitiveness.

3-Opposition from the business world

Business leaders from across the United States private sector have also publicly distanced themselves from the White House’s stance on climate change. The high tech sector’s opposition to Trump’s climate skepticism had been very vocal during the 2016 presidential campaign and tech chief executives reacted instantly to the June 1st announcement, with those of Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Apple or Google positioning themselves as leaders of the counterattack. So did Amazon and Microsoft’s top executives, and even Tesla’s founder Elon Musk—who had earlier on joined the Manufacturing Council and the Strategic and Policy Forum set up by Trump—announced that he would depart from them in protest.

Opposition was also voiced across many other industries, as exemplified by the public statements released by the CEOs of General Electric, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Gap, Disney, WalMart, Target or Goldman Sachs. In response to the turmoil raised by Trump’s decision, over 1,080 corporations have joined We’re Still In.

Billions of dollars of investment in research on new energy technologies have also been pledged by tycoons such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg who have formed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition which will work with Mission Innovation, a consortium of 22 countries plus the European Union. No doubt some corporate statements and the policies they implement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may not be much more than public relations moves, as in the case of General Motors—which has a long history of combating federal proposals to tighten fuel emission standards, or Exxon—which is currently under investigation in New York on climate change-related matters.

But fighting climate change also makes economic sense for many companies, as stressed by the members of the We Mean Business coalition (www.wemeanbusinesscoalition.org). For these addressing climate change is a source of opportunities to enhance or extend their competitiveness by creating products or processes that tap climate-induced demand. This explains why they have made it part of their corporate strategies.

4. Discussion: how this mobilization (cities, states, and the business world) illustrates the emergence of polycentric systems in the climate change regime as well as an opposition to the Federal government’s decision

U.S. cities, states, and businesses have joined forces with other international actors in an attempt to reverse the negative impact of the Trump administration’s policy and (re-)assert U.S. leadership over climate change. As underlined by America’s Pledge Report Phase 1, published by Bloomberg Philanthropies on the eve of the COP23 in November 2017:

“In response [to Donald Trump’s announcement of its intent to put the United States out of the Paris Agreement], U.S. non-federal actors (sometimes referred to internationally as “non-state” or “sub-national” actors) such as states, cities, and businesses have emerged as the new face of American leadership on climate change, and are stepping up with commitments to reduce GHG emissions.”

The decision made by the United States Federal government to withdraw from the Paris Agreement reflects the choice made by President Trump but also underlines the capacity of local political leaders to mobilize against it. Cities and States insist that they have been working on environmental change for years and that they are not ready to stop their programs. They have also organized through different networks and make clear to a world audience that they are not ready to follow the Federal government.

Thus coping with climate change no longer seems a national issue. It transcends national barriers and as some social scientists have argued (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2006; Orstrom, 2010; Keohane & Victor, 2011; Abbott, 2012), it relies more and more on a form of global governance which is more complex and diverse than the 19-20th international system.

In the context of global governance, the role of the presidential power is limited: it is undermined by multilevel, transnational networks of new actors —subnational governments, civil society organizations (NGOs), and private companies (See “Gouvernance” » in Dictionnaire critique de la mondialisation).

More specifically, global climate governance extends far beyond the United Nations treaty regime and has been “rescaled” as cities and local governments have bypassed national governments and mobilized with foreign partners “with a shared long-term vision of promoting and supporting voluntary action to combat climate change and move to a low emission, resilient society” (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2006). Transnational networks facilitate exchanges of information and best practices in which cities, states, and businesses can publicize their own experience and success stories.

We may conclude that American cities and businesses have not only organized against the Federal decision, they have also understood the new contours of global environmental governance and the necessity of polycentric systems for engaging in collective action in an era of global environmental change.

Some bibliographical references

Abbott K.W., “The Transnational Regime Complex for Climate Change,” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 2012, Vol. 30, No. 4, pp .571-590.

Betsill, M.M. and Bulkeley, H.A., “Cities and the Multilevel Governance of Global Climate Change,” Global Governance, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 141-159.

Keohane, R. O. and Victor, D.G., “The Regime Complex for Climate Change,” Perspectives on Politics, 2011, Vol. 9, No.1, pp. 7-23.

Ostrom E., “Polycentric Systems for Coping with Collective Action and Global Environmental Change”, Global Environmental Change, 2010, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 550-557.

“A Shadow Delegation Stalks the Official U.S. Team at Climate Talks,” New York Times, Nov. 11, 2017.

Dictionnaire critique de la mondialisation, Armand Colin, 2012.

Pour citer ce billet: Martine Azuelos, Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin. The mobilization of American cities against the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change agreement: A sign of the changing regime for climate change?, 23 janvier 2018, [En ligne]  https://skyscraper.hypotheses.org/269.

  1. The ‘Treaty’ Clause of the United States Constitution (Article 2, Section 2, and Clause 2) gives the President authority to negotiate and conclude international treaties, but provides that he should have them ratified by the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is requited []
  2. The Paris agreement promoted a “bottom-up” approach whereby each country determined the measures it will implement to fight against global warming []

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