On a bright, early June day, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States would exit the Paris climate accord. “We’re getting out,” he said. This means the United States, the world’s second largest emitter of CO2, will walk away from climate targets agreed in Paris.
Or, does it? A closer look at the work of planners and local communities across the US provides some reason for optimism. There are three good reasons to believe that the reality of addressing climate change in the US will be decidedly different than the rhetoric from the White House.
The reality is that, regardless of the Paris agreement and President Trump’s policies, the US Congress was always unlikely to adopt any sort of comprehensive national approach to climate change.
First, action is already happening at the state and local level. This work will continue and is likely to accelerate. Second, the economic interests are moving decisively toward private sector action and incentive to address climate change. Lastly, the facts on the ground in many places are prompting action. You don’t have to believe the cause to be concerned about the implications.
Many local leaders made their position clear in the days and hours after the President’s announcement. By the end of June, at least 22 states and 340 cities had formally pledged to press ahead with meeting their own climate targets in support of the Paris agreement. These communities represent 40% of the US population, at least 1/3 of US GDP, and more than a quarter of total US carbon emissions.
The reality is that, regardless of the Paris agreement and President Trump’s policies, the US Congress was always unlikely to adopt any sort of comprehensive national approach to climate change. Partisan gridlock kept national climate action at bay throughout the Obama years and no resolution is in sight.
It is, of course, concerning that the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan has been shelved. But, even that regulatory scheme would have relied on state and local action, many of which will go forward without guidance from Washington.
We (Amercian planners) are in this fight, working to innovate locally, and anxious to work together and across borders to meet our common climate challenge in ways that protect people and promote prosperity.
Individual state policies are underscored by economic reality and the actions of the private sector. Before the Trump announcement, two of the largest US investment companies, Vanguard and BlackRock, had forced oil giant ExxonMobil to incorporate climate considerations and analyses into future business plans. The message was clear: investors are worried about climate change impacts on capital assets and are willing to hold companies accountable.
Global capital does not see climate change as an ideological issue. It’s about their bottom line. Insurance and real estate companies see trillions of dollars worth of endangered coastal assets. Even companies not typically associated with environmental stewardship are focused on the business impacts of climate change. The massive retailer WalMart’s own commitment to reduce global supply chain emissions is larger than the entirety of US automobile emissions.
The energy sector itself is transforming and the declining role of coal as an energy source is real, regardless of ideological debates. The decline is driven by market forces. Cheap natural gas and the growing availability and reliability of renewables have been driving energy companies to close or convert coal-fired energy plants. That momentum is unlikely to change. Rising sea levels and more frequent, more intense storms are problems here and now regardless of their cause. Increasingly, US planners are confronting these challenges. In Norfolk, Virginia, planners have adopted a new plan that refocuses development to safer area, addresses climate-related equity concerns, and embraces natural water flows and green infrastructure as a hedge against future climate change related risks. It’s an approach supported by the business community and neighborhood leaders.Climate and resiliency plans are going from niche to norm.
Of course, government engagement can still play a vital role. Among the most vocal states after the Trump announcement was California, the sixth largest economy by GDP in the world, ranking just ahead of France. Its actions have a major impact on global climate change. Its governor Jerry Brown immediately pledged to meet the Paris targets and recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk about mutual action on climate issues.
California has long been experimenting with using planning as a tool for combating climate change. In 2007, legislation was adopted that requires the state to set regional emission reduction targets and, in turn, regional planners are required to develop a “sustainable communities strategy” that links transportation, housing and land use policies that meets the overall emissions reduction goal. The program recognizes the critical role of planning in addressing climate change and may be a model for integrating development plans and emission impacts.
There’s no doubt that the politics of climate change continue to be messy and unpredictable in the United States. Proposed budget cuts would imperil a range of critical resources from coastal mapping to hazard mitigation planning. In spite of this, there are positive signs and opportunities to work across borders on planning solutions.
Immediately after the US withdrawal from the Paris accord, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg said, “Americans are not walking away from the Paris Climate Agreement. Just the opposite – we are forging ahead.” He also said, “Washington can’t stop Americans.”
That’s the commitment of American planners to colleagues in the UK and around the globe. We are in this fight, working to innovate locally, and anxious to work together and across borders to meet our common climate challenge in ways that protect people and promote prosperity.
Jason Jordan is the director of policy and government affairs for the American Planning Association. He is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jasonljordan.