Vive la Paris

The Fight Against Climate Change Will Continue Without Trump

When Donald Trump announced earlier this month that he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, it felt – to those of us of a certain age – a little like history repeating itself.

In 2001, the George W. Bush administration announced that we were withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, which had been negotiated by the Clinton administration, and was intended to guide implementation of the landmark 1992 climate treaty (originally signed by the younger Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, and ratified by a Senate vote of 98-0).

On the surface, the circumstances then were similar to now: a new president in the first months of his tenure, overturning a signature environmental policy achievement of his predecessor, and offering an almost verbatim justification as to why—Bush said that implementing the Kyoto Protocol would “cause serious harm to the U.S. economy,” and Trump said, “The Paris agreement handicaps the United States economy.” So, ostensibly, it looks like “déjà vu all over again” – and make no mistake: Trump’s Paris withdrawal, combined with his other recent actions, will make it more difficult for the world to avoid a climate catastrophe. But 2017 is not 2001, and there are a lot more reasons to be hopeful even in the face of this terrible decision.

The 2001 decision to withdraw from Kyoto came at a time when our greenhouse gas emissions were increasing every year, with no end in sight. In the eight years following the 1992 ratification of the climate treaty, our emissions had increased by a whopping 14 percent and we didn’t even have a plan for leveling off emissions, let alone to meet the reductions goal of 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. U.S. emissions continued climbing for the next seven years, peaking in 2007. But then a funny thing happened: our emissions started falling.

Initially, the drop was due to the Great Recession, which put a damper on travel and consumption. But even as the economy rebounded, they kept dropping. By 2015, emissions had dropped to below 1994’s levels. Part of the drop can be attributed to the policies of the Obama administration that President Trump has been busy undoing—like the Climate Action Plan. But despite the current policy and budgetary vacuum, those policies were in place long enough to generate momentum and a clean energy future that won’t be so easy to sweep aside.

Renewing the Future

Take electricity generation, for example. From 1990 to 2005, electricity-related carbon dioxide emissions grew a whopping 25 percent, from 1,821 MMT (million metric tons) to 2,401 MMT, but then dropped to 1,901 MMT by 2015.  This is partly due to the displacement of coal by cleaner natural gas, and to the exponential increase in renewable energy that we’ve seen in the years since our country withdrew from Kyoto (see table).

All that investment in solar and wind power isn’t going away, and these sources are only expanding as prices have plummeted over the past five years.

Driving Innovation

When Bush exited the Kyoto Protocol, hybrid vehicles were new to the American market, with two choices available and about 15,000 total sales. By 2016, hybrids were fully mainstream: they are now available from nearly every manufacturer and have a cumulative four million vehicle sales, and fully electric cars – some supported by solar charging – are making major inroads into markets.

The Climate Reality

Even more important than technological advances over the past 16 years is the extent to which acceptance of climate change and the need to combat it has permeated American society. Several polls taken in 2001, found that 47-51 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Bush’s decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol; in 2017, nearly 70 percent of Americans approved of the Paris Agreement and 59 percent opposed Trump’s decision to leave it. And while the U.S. withdrawal from Kyoto was widely seen as a death knell for that treaty, Trump’s announcement on the Paris accord has appeared to galvanize the global community to continue their efforts.

Something else has happened over the past decade as well: Americans have come to the realization that Congress isn’t going to help the country solve the climate change problem. That fact is why the Obama administration produced so many executive actions (and why Trump is able to cancel them), but it also means that states, cities, businesses and individuals have begun to take matters into their own hands, setting renewable energy goals, funding innovation and making personal choices for a lower carbon future.

#WeAreStillIn

In the wake of our official withdrawal from Paris, hundreds of “mayors, governors, college and university leaders, businesses, and investors” launched the #WeAreStillIn campaign to tell the world that they are “joining forces for the first time to declare that we will continue to support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement.” And even if you don’t live in a city or state that has signed on, you can make a personal commitment to the Paris Agreement at #IAmStillIn.

When 195 nations agreed to the historic Paris Agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, I wrote a blog on the topic and titled it “We’ll Always Have Paris.” In retrospect, perhaps I was a little bit optimistic with the “Always” part. The road to securing a livable climate may yet be a rough one. But thanks to local governments, innovators and citizens like you, it might turn out that we’ll “Always” have Paris anyway. And wildlife, as well as people, will be better off as a result.

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