“Still in”? American climate policy after Paris

The US government may want to leave the Paris agreement, but an overwhelming number of Americans are continuing to push for state and local action on climate policy. As Trump aims to revitalize the domestic coal industry, it’s crucial to stay focused on what’s possible for renewables and energy efficiency. Silvia Weko takes a look at the US climate resistance.

People's Climate March 2017 in Washington DC. Marchers with sign, "There are no jobs on a dead planet."

People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington DC. Marchers with sign, “There are no jobs on a dead planet.”(Photo by Dcpeopleandeventsof2017, edited, CC BY-SA 4.0)

It happened: Donald Trump made good on his campaign promise to “cancel“ the Paris agreement, despite outcry at home and abroad. His explanation that he had been elected to represent “Pittsburgh, not Paris“ was quickly refuted by the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, whose city has claimed to continue pushing for climate action.

The US has broken with the rest of the world, including North Korea, in this massive step backwards. Although there have been many comments about “joining Syria and Nicaragua” (the only two other countries not to be part of the Paris agreement), it should be clear that the US is completely alone in its anti-Paris stance. Syria’s civil war made it impossible to participate meaningfully in the international climate agreement, and Nicaragua did not join because it wanted stricter regulations and punishments for countries who missed their targets.

Theoretically, Trump’s announcement doesn’t mean that the US is out of the Paris agreement for good. The earliest date at which the US could officially withdraw is November 2020, just after the next presidential election. But given the president’s track record (slashing the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding, reducing grants to states, denying climate change and more), it’s unlikely that the US would meet its climate goals as set out in the agreement.

The international community, already highly skeptical of Trump and his convictions, has decided to forge ahead with or without the US. The European Union and China will be taking the opportunity to invest in renewables and play a leading role in the fight against climate change. French President Macron has recently invited American scientists to come work in France on climate change, saying that “We want people working on climate change, energy, renewables and new technologies,” in order to “make our planet great again.”

For Americans who believe in climate change, the administration’s actions have been frustrating and worrying. Solar and wind are now cheaper than coal, so it makes no economic sense to dump renewables for a more expensive and dirty energy source. But the idea that the transition to renewables is unstoppable – one that former President Obama, and many other progressives believed – has been disproved. Americans are learning (as we saw during the last election) that there’s no such thing as inevitable progress. It must be fought for every step of the way. Especially today.

Many people are doing just that. States, mayors, companies and universities are pledging to align themselves with the rules laid out in the Paris agreement in what they’ve termed the “We are still in” declaration. The signatories represent 120 million Americans (1/3 of the US population) and $6.76 trillion of the American economy (again, around 1/3).

Hawaii’s governor Iye just signed a bill promising to reduce emissions in accordance with the agreement; eight other states have pledged to do the same including California, New York, and Virginia. All in all, 13 Governors (both Democrats and Republicans) have joined the United States Climate Alliance, a group whose governing officials have all pledged to support the Paris agreement.

Cities have also joined the call to action, with more joining every day. Last week, the city of Baltimore resolved to uphold Paris agreement standards. Best of all, the mayor of Washington DC, Trump’s neighbor Muriel Bowser has announced her intent to stay in as well.

Large companies like Microsoft, Apple, Walmart, Twitter and more have also declared themselves still in. Microsoft President Brad Smith praised the movement on the We Are Still in website, stating that the company is “steadfastly committed to the sustainability, carbon and energy goals that we have set as a company and to the Paris agreement’s ultimate success.”

Activists have been encouraged (and surprised) by the momentum. Climate change central spoke to Carl Pope, the former head of the Sierra Club, who credits Donald Trump with creating a new American climate movement – because Americans have realized that it’s all up to them while their government won’t act. Bill McKibben from 350.org took a similar stance:

The idea that the “We are still in” signatories will “sign on” to the Paris agreement isn’t totally accurate (the power of signing treaties lies with the President). Most will probably just set goals to limit emissions and stick to the 2 degree reduction target. Nevertheless, the UN has expressed its support: the head of the climate change secretariat, Patricia Espinosa, said she intends to “open the door” for smaller players such as cities and companies to join the talks. Whether or not these representatives can participate in official capacity is unclear, but they may at least have a voice and the support of the UN.

As companies, states and cities represent a large amount of general society, they can still make a difference. Some of the least sexy parts of the energy transition are still crucial: energy-efficient renovations and building standards, making cities more walkable and bikeable, and improving public transit. Mayors, city councils and local initiatives can understand and improve their infrastructure in a way that the federal government (or state) won’t. And the benefits of succeeding would include a cleaner, better lifestyle and the chance to prove President Trump wrong – a reward in and of itself.

So, can the “Still In” campaign and the US Climate Alliance keep the US to its climate goals as set out in the Paris agreement? Not by themselves. The US originally pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 26-28% below its 2005 level by 2025 (see below for their submission to the UN).

Source: UNFCCC

The states in the Climate Alliance are responsible for 18% of US emissions. Other states have who have expressed their support but aren’t part of the Climate Alliance represent an additional 21% – put together, that’s still less than half of US emissions. Even in the best case scenario, the states who have joined the Climate Alliance and Still In campaign won’t be able to keep the US to its climate goals.

At the end of the day, “We are still in” is a good start, but it’s crucial that people keep lobbying the government and the private sector to join the Climate Alliance. Only 13 states have pledged to stay in so far – despite the fact that in every state in the US, a majority of Americans support the Paris agreement. It’s up the rest of the US to put pressure on politicians and business, as the world watches.

Silvia Weko is a student of European Sociology, and project assistant to the Global Energy Transition.


Silvia Weko is a sociology student writing about attitudes towards climate change, and an expert on the global and German energy transitions.


  1. The US NDC commitments, and Obama’s Clean Power Plan regulations to get there, only represented a modest nudge beyond the BAU scenario based on previous market trends and policy. Trump and Pruitt will also weaken fuel efficiency standards for cars, but this will have little effect on the growth of electric vehicles, which are an order of magnitude more carbon-efficient. So quite modest additional efforts by states and cities (especially those in red states) could quite probably secure overall US compliance.

    What these efforts will not do is (a) lead the way to higher ambition and stricter targets, (b) provide the US share of the climate finance promised for poor countries. Seattle has acknowledged the finance issue, but it’s an exception. City-to-city and state-level programmes can only do so much anyway. Fortunately, renewables are now so cheap and reliable that enough finance may be available on market terms, as with India. The big finance problem may lie on the adaptation side: giant Dutch sea walls cannot be built as commercial investments.

  2. PS: the lamentable self-immolation of the Green Climate Fund on a pyre of its own red tape also argues for more direct citizen and community funding models. The sort of big projects that can afford the standard mountain of paperwork can already get funding from the existing multilateral development banks like the World Bank, who are at least experienced in the business.

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