Trump’s Paris retreat: What the climate accord actually does, and how Minnesota might move forward anyway

REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Negotiated over the course of six years, and completed in December 2015, the Paris climate pact brings together 197 nations in a voluntary agreement to combat climate change.

When President Trump announced that the U.S. would be leaving the Paris Accord, the 200-nation agreement on fighting climate change, it set off shockwaves around the country and the world.

Trump’s Democratic foes blasted his decision as irresponsible and short-sighted; DFL Rep. Betty McCollum went so far as to say that it makes America “an environmental rogue nation” and “condemn[s] the next generation to the hell of an overheated planet.”

This rhetoric is fueled by a belief that the withdrawal of the U.S. — the world’s second-biggest emitter of carbon — from the landmark climate accord holds serious consequences for efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

But while Trump may have dragged the federal government to the sidelines of the climate change effort, some U.S. states and cities — Minnesota, Minneapolis and St. Paul — are determined to remain with the rest of the world. In the wake of Trump’s announcement, governors and mayors around the U.S. moved quickly to denounce Trump’s decision, and pledged to remain committed to complying with the goals outlined in the Paris agreement.

In Minnesota, environmental policymakers and advocates may not be happy with the exit from Paris, but they remain confident that the state’s agenda to reduce carbon emissions will proceed as planned. If anything, the White House’s defiance has strengthened their will to act.

Judgment of Paris

So, what obligations exactly did Trump get the U.S. out of? Technically, none, because the Paris agreement is voluntary, but that doesn’t capture the whole, nuanced story.

Negotiated over the course of six years, and completed in December 2015, the Paris climate pact brings together 197 nations in a voluntary agreement to combat climate change, with the top-line goal of preventing the global rise in temperature from exceeding two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

That two-degree mark is not necessarily a tipping point for the climate, but many scientists forecast significant environmental consequences if the global rise in temperature were to pass that threshold. (According to some estimates, the status quo could result in a temperature rise well beyond three degrees celsius by 2100.)

Under the framework of the agreement, each participating country is meant to submit its own carbon-reduction goals, but because it’s voluntary, the agreement doesn’t include any punishment for not meeting those goals. (If the goals were compulsory, the agreement would be a treaty — and thus subject to ratification in Congress, where it’d be dead-on-arrival with the GOP majority.)

Instead, the pact’s architects relied on a simple, but powerful factor to encourage compliance: peer pressure. Under the agreement, countries committed to releasing accurate data to the international community so that it can assess nations’ progress — or lack thereof — toward meeting their climate goals.

The U.S. had set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. Similar developed economies, like Australia, had roughly the same target, while Canada aimed for a 30 percent reduction by 2030.

China, meanwhile, aims to cut emissions by two-thirds, while the European Union aims to do so by at least 40 percent.

[newsletter_embed:dc]Because climate change is expected to affect poorer countries more than wealthier ones — and because industrializing countries face barriers to using the fossil fuels that the U.S. and others exploited to develop rapidly — Paris also stipulates that wealthier nations should provide $100 billion in annual aid by 2020.

Though Trump’s decision was accompanied by a few months of will-he-or-won’t-he, few observers were surprised that the president broke from the Paris agreement. Trump has criticized climate science, once calling it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. (His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Trump believes climate change is real, but the president has never said it himself.)

Still, Trump has cast efforts to stop climate change as deleterious for the economy, even as major business interests — including Minnesota companies like 3M and Cargill — lobbied him to stay in the agreement.

In his remarks on Thursday, Trump framed the Paris pact as a bad deal for the U.S. that would hamstring certain domestic industries, such as coal, while advantaging foreign competitors like China and India.

“This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States,” Trump proclaimed. “ The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement… for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.”

Progress in Minnesota

With Trump’s announcement, the U.S. is on a four-year timeline to exit the Paris agreement, meaning its withdrawal will be final on November 4, 2020 — a day after the next presidential election.

Until then, U.S. participation in the pact will be nominal, explains J. Drake Hamilton, a delegate to the 2015 Paris talks and the science policy director at Fresh Energy, a Minnesota clean energy advocacy group.

The U.S. might still send “token delegations” to annual climate talks, she says, but the U.S. will have no say in how the pact’s signatories develop and adjust the agreement’s language, as they are expected to.

Minnesota advocates for a strong response to climate change are disappointed that the U.S., for now, no longer has a seat at the global table. But they sounded confident in the wake of Trump’s decision, arguing that climate progress in Minnesota will happen whether Washington is on board or not.

According to Anne Hunt, a longtime environmental policy adviser for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Trump’s action was “not unexpected” but added that “subnational governments have been leading on this issue for more than a decade.”

Indeed, advocates say much progress has been made already: they point to the decade-old Next Generation Energy Act, approved by the state legislature, as a major reason why. Hamilton says the law, which aimed to have Minnesota get a quarter of its power from renewable sources by 2025, brought the share of renewable energy in Minnesota from two percent in 2004 to 23 percent last year.

The expected closing of two Xcel Energy-operated coal plants in Sherburne County — which would reduce the company’s Minnesota emissions by 60 percent — would help the state hit more ambitious goals. 

Minnesota, then, was on track to meet its goals under the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s sweeping climate policy designed to ensure the U.S. met its obligations under the Paris accord. Trump has since revoked the Clean Power Plan.

‘We’ll be doubling down’

If Minnesota was already on a fairly proactive carbon-reduction path before Trump’s election, advocates say the exit from Paris underscores the need for states and cities to take increased action to pick up Washington’s slack.

Gov. Mark Dayton joined other governors in May to urge Trump not to withdraw from the Paris accord; California’s governor, Jerry Brown, is taking on an aggressive role as a U.S. voice for climate change action in the world — the Los Angeles Times called him the “unofficial ambassador” on the issue.

While California might be at the vanguard of state climate action, Minnesota advocates expect the North Star State to play a significant role too, perhaps more so than its midwestern neighbors.

“The rest of the world understands we have leadership states that differ from national policy,” Hamilton says. “But they’re looking to see if we’re amping up our ambitions. That’s why Minnesota needs to set a higher bar, double our renewable energy standards.”

Cities are looking to set a higher bar, too. On Thursday, a group of mayors calling themselves the Climate Mayors denounced the withdrawal from Paris, and affirmed they will “adopt, honor, and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement. We will intensify efforts to meet each of our cities’ current climate goals, push for new action to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.”

Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, along with the mayors of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and dozens of other cities, signed on to the letter.

According to Anu Ramaswami, an expert on sustainable cities at the University of Minnesota, urban areas are on the front lines of climate change and are committed to taking action. “The cities I work with say, when climate extremes come, we have to deal with extreme heat, flooding, and cold events. They feel they’re at the forefront.”

In St. Paul, Hunt says, the goal is to make city operations carbon-neutral by 2030, and to make the entire city carbon-neutral by 2050. The state of Minnesota, she points out, only aims for 80 percent carbon reductions by that year. Up the river, Minneapolis is aiming for a 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

“St. Paul, as the capital city, we want to be a leader on this and be able to set the standard for the state,” Hunt says. In the commercial and residential building sector, which accounts for over half of energy use in St.Paul, Hunt says the city will aim to work with them to reduce energy costs. Elsewhere, she says the city is aiming to bring down transportation emissions — and the 5.5. Million miles driven in the city every day — by adding transit and bike options.

“We’ll be doubling down,” she said, “making sure we’re doing everything that we can.”

Washington still matters

These efforts are likely to find support in Minnesota’s business community. Minnesota companies, particularly agribusiness interests like Cargill and General Mills, have voiced their disappointment with the U.S. exit from Paris.

These kinds of companies thrive on stability, says Jessica Hellmann, a participant in the Paris conference and a climate adaptation expert at the University of Minnesota.

“If you’re a food company, your business involves the real world,” she says. “Profound climate change is not good for business. You want the world to address this problem because you see the science and know it’s a problem.”

“I don’t see much reason, except for maybe partisan politics, for why Minnesota state legislators, or anyone in the state of Minnesota, should align itself strongly with the Trump administration on this,” Hellmann added. “It doesn’t match the interests of our big industries here.”

Washington may not entirely disengage from climate, however. According to Rep. McCollum, who is the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee subpanel for the environment, there are still things that Democrats can do in Congress, even with a majority that does not see climate change as a priority.

Democrats, she said, can work with the power of the purse to help cities that want to move forward. “We can play a role in tax policy, or funding, that we’re there trying to make sure that our companies and our municipalities can compete globally.”

Policymakers on the state and municipal levels in Minnesota will continue to debate and consider climate initiatives regardless of Washington’s involvement. And, as experts point out, the Paris pact was voluntary — Trump could have easily remained in the agreement while avoiding any measures to comply with it.

Instead, Trump sent a strong message that the U.S. will not have anything to do with serious climate negotiations on the world stage. (His call to renegotiate the pact to get better terms for the U.S. was swiftly brushed off by European authorities.)

“Essentially, the U.S. as a country is no longer engaged in the shared global mission to ratchet down emissions,” Hamilton says. “The U.S. is losing an opportunity to negotiate the key parts of the Paris rulebook.”

And, the U of M’s Ramaswami says, that makes state and local action less powerful than it could be. “If you have opposing policies at different levels, your effect is reduced,” she said. “Even if California did so many things, you might have federal policies that either oppose it, or by absence of support dilute it. That’s the situation people were hoping to avoid.”

Correction: This article previously misstated the extent of statewide carbon reduction by closing Xcel’s Sherburne County coal plants.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/05/2017 - 12:19 pm.

    Leadership

    Trump faced a basic choice, whether to take a leadership role or not to take a leadership role. In a decision reminiscent of our decision not to join the League of Nations, he chose not to be a leader. creating a vacuum, which will inevitably be filled by others. For me, a basic question to ask and answer is, will the leadership vacuum created by the absence the the world’s richest and most powerful nation be adequately and successfully filled by others? Mr. Trump has offered no insights about this, oddly enough, but the question is out there and it is extremely important.

    What I like about the article above is that it makes the point that leadership won’t just be offered by foreign leaders, it will also come from within the United States. Mr. Trump’s deliberate and considered choice to absent himself from leadership on environmental issues has created an opportunity for others to step up and address these matters. Given Mr. Trump’s demonstrated incompetence on a whole host of issues, is ceding leadership on this most important of issues really a bad thing?

    • Submitted by Peter Stark on 06/05/2017 - 03:03 pm.

      China

      Yes, China will step into the void, just as they did in SE Asia after Trumpy yielded the region to them by axing TPP. China’s One Belt One Road initiative is their gamble on capturing that trade and more. China is already working with Germany to lead the world on Climate Change related matters.

      Trump, ultimately, will come to represent the apex and decline of American hegemony. TPP, NAFTA, NATO, Paris, WTO, and who knows what other US-led institutions and agreements will fall apart.

      • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/05/2017 - 03:25 pm.

        void

        A lot of different people and entities will step into the void. State governors, local politicians, a number of industry leaders. And from an American perspective, why not? After all, Mr. Trump seems careful to avoid taking a stand on the merits of the underlying issue; his objections to the Paris, were mostly political.

        The American electorate chose to embark on a fascinating historical experiment by electing Donald Trump. What happens when the world’s most powerful and wealthy nation chooses to abandon any sort of credible or moral leadership. We seem to be asking history, “Are presidents necessary?”

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/05/2017 - 02:54 pm.

    State and local government can do some things to counteract Trump’s withdrawal of the USA as a leader–even a player–in fighting global warming.

    But let’s push the private sector, too! If you own stock in an American company, question its executives and board about what they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint. Or, even if you’re just a consumer, write and ask for information about what that company thinks it can do to help. And never let anyone forget, that Trump ignored what were supposed to be some of the most visible and powerful Big Business CEOs by withdrawing from the Paris accords. He went against their pleas to stay in, and their claims that sustainability brings good jobs.

    He did this for an ignorant, short-sighted Trump base, not for any ideological reason and certainly, not for any knowledge of what he’s dealing with on climate and human-generated carbon in the atmosphere.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 06/05/2017 - 03:02 pm.

    Fantastic, move forward without Big Govt,

    now we are getting somewhere. I have planted thousands of trees since the 1970’s not because the Government told me to but because a good friend, who was a logger, educated me on how a forest works. Learned more from a High School grad who worked for his Dad (he took over the business) than all the experts with degrees in forestry… You don’t need a terrible deal like the Paris Accord to do what you believe is right!!

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/05/2017 - 03:41 pm.

    Unfortunately, we can’t plant enough trees up here to counter the slaughter of forests in Indonesia and the Amazon region.

    And one of the reasons that Xcel Energy is a leader in alternative energy uses (less dependence on coal) is the grass-roots campaign in Minneapolis more than fifteen years ago, called “Clean energy Now!” Xcel gets praised today for eliminating several gigantic old coal plants that spewed carbon dioxide and other poisons over the Twin Cities. They’re also now a leader in wind-generated clean energy, not just using natural gas instead of coal. They’ve had to be pushed by the state to invest more in photovoltaic (solar energy), but with the consumer pushing, they are leaders in their industry.

    I will say too: state and federal regulations matter! Smart companies study the science and try to get the PR value of getting out in front of a good energy plan that government requires. And anyone who says that regulations had nothing to do with cleaning up automobile emissions has simply not lived long enough to know better (I heard the EPA’s Pruitt actually say something to that effect last week!).

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 06/06/2017 - 07:02 am.

    Works out nicely

    How nice: those who want to follow Paris accord – will, and those who don’t – won’t… Isn’t it what the freedom is about? On the other hand, who said that America as a whole will not meet its goals?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/06/2017 - 09:50 pm.

      Except

      Of course, when the actions of those who “won’t” affect the well being of those who “will”. So it sounds like you’d be all for state like ours pursuing legal action against a state like say, N. Dakota if its lack of environmental safeguards causes a problem downwind. That sounds like tons of fun. But then, this, like all things objectivist doesn’t ever work when brought from the shadows of theory into the daylight of reality.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 06/08/2017 - 07:16 am.

        Just life

        “Of course, when the actions of those who “won’t” affect the well being of those who “will.” Unfortunately, this is called “life.” If China doesn’t do what it promised, it may affect us but what can we do? On the other hand, how about cases when actions of those who “want” are imposed on those who “don’t want?” What is worse in your mind?

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/07/2017 - 05:34 am.

    The Paris Accords are non binding, that’s why they would be so difficult to renegotiate. How do you change a commitment you haven’t made?

    For Trump, the objection seems to be that the Paris Accords respects and responds to the concerns he most complains about. The non binding nature of the provisions is there to respect the sovereignty of all nations, and particularly the concerns of the American political community.It recognizes that foreign leaders don’t work for “The Paris Accords” or the United States, they work for the people who put them in office. That same recognition, by the way, informs Trump’s relationship to NATO. Trump simply doesn’t come anywhere close to understanding that the foreign leaders he meets aren’t employed at one of his hotels. Their commitments such as they are, aren’t to him, aren’t to NATO, they are to their own citizens.

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