If Trump won’t address climate changes, states, cities and companies will

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

If the Trump administration weakens the rules governing pollution and fuel-efficiency for automobiles—as it has indicated it may—California will pay no mind. It has its own set of rules for cars that could end up much tougher than Washington’s, and the market clout to force automakers to comply.

Environmentalists dismayed with President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord are now pinning their hopes on states like California, and the ability of state and municipal governments to impose their own aggressive climate policies when the federal government declines to do so. “Donald Trump has absolutely chosen the wrong course,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement after Trump announced his decision on the Paris agreement. “California will resist this misguided and insane course of action. Trump is AWOL but California is on the field, ready for battle.”

California’s not alone. At least 10 governors and 82 mayors have said they’ll pursue the aims of the Paris agreement—which aims to stabilize worldwide carbon emissions and slow the rate at which the planet’s temperature is rising—even without leadership from Washington. That includes the governors of New York, Massachusetts, Colorado and Washington, along with the mayors of Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia. After Trump quipped during his remarks on the withdrawal that “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, said, “This city does not support the initiatives that he is doing. This city is adamantly opposed to them.”

So is this just hopeful chatter? Or can states and cities really join the international movement on climate change when the federal government declines to do so? It turns out there’s a lot state and local governments can do on their own, short of signing treaties and negotiating on behalf of all Americans. “They can send a signal that says we’re going to be looking at these new, innovative solutions,” says Kim Reuben of the Urban Institute. “Pulling out is backward looking. Places can move forward and help mitigate what the federal government has done.”

[Related: Green energy has a bright future, even without Trump]

Many states and cities are already pursuing aggressive efforts to wean their economies off carbon and capture a lucrative chunk of the green-energy business of the future. California aims to cut carbon emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. That’s much more aggressive than the national target for the United States under the Paris agreement, which would have been roughly 12% to 19% below 1990 levels.

Carbon emissions come from a few major sources, and a bunch of smaller ones. Perhaps the biggest single source of emissions is power plants, and the news there is pretty good. The falling cost of natural gas has led many utilities to replace coal-powered plants with gas ones, which are much cleaner. And the fracking revolution, which has unleashed much of that gas, shows no signs of abating, so gas prices ought to stay low.

Vehicles are another big source of emissions, and on this matter, a big fight is brewing between California and Washington. California is the one state that has a waiver from the federal government allowing it to set its own targets, which at the moment are the same as those set under President Obama. But Trump may very well lower the federal targets, leaving California’s higher. And Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has said he wants to revoke California’s waiver, which would undoubtedly trigger a lengthy legal battle.

If Washington does loosen vehicle-emission requirements, leaving California’s higher, all the other states would have to choose which of the two regimes to follow. California’s standards were higher before Obama raised the federal standards to meet them—and more than a dozen states, including heavily populated ones in the northeast and west, chose to follow California’s tougher rules. “You could see something that looks like a Paris compliance program, if California continues to have the authority through to do what it wants,” says Michael Wara, a law professor at Stanford University. “Like-minded states may not have majority of votes in the Senate, but a significant fraction of the automotive fleet will be governed by these standards.”

Authority to impose regulations

States wouldn’t adopt tougher rules on carbon just to do the right thing, but to limit pollution where it’s harmful and, perhaps more important, to signal they’re open for business when it comes to the development of renewables and other forms of non-carbon energy. Great Lakes states including Michigan, Illinois and Ohio have already formed such a coalition as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. “They had an epiphany that clean energy was important generally to the US economy, and made a pivot so the Great Lakes states would be at the cutting edge of the clean economy,” says the Urban Institute’s Erika Poethig. “They now have some nodes of clean energy expertise.” Those include research centers at universities, real-world projects involving automakers and other big firms, big wind farms and other clean-power initiatives.

States and cities frequently seek out deals with businesses in other countries. Governors and mayors may have to get even more aggressive about becoming their own green-power ambassadors, since Washington isn’t likely to do it for them. “I can see governors increasingly trying to attract foreign leaders to their states, to see what they have to offer,” Poethig says.

In general, states and cities have the authority to impose regulations that are tougher than federal ones, and to regulate anything the federal purview simply doesn’t cover, such as building standards and business licensing. In the past, states have used their authority to bring about nationwide action on issues such as acid rain, tobacco liability and financial abuses. “Other states often key off of one big state that’s an early mover,” says Reuben.

Big companies also play a role, because they’re increasingly seeking out climate-friendly sources of power, whether local utility offers it or not. “There’s a lot of corporate momentum toward moving toward clean energy solutions,” says Wara. “Big corporations are going around the utilities and exercising retail choice. The utilities have been waking up and realizing we might lose our biggest customers if we don’t change.”

No matter how frenetic state and local activity on the climate may be, however, it’s still not as effective as one national standard everybody, everywhere, must abide by. “The places where it will be most expensive to meet the standards will probably opt out totally,” says Reuben. “Some of the coordination you would have with a federal mandate will be missing.” There will be another presidential election in 2020, however, and if there’s a new president who wants to reinstate national emission standards, the plans will be sitting on the shelf, only lightly dusted.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman