To many in other countries, the US is the land of climate change denial. Few were surprised when on June 1 President Donald Trump declared that the US would leave the Paris Agreement on climate change. After all, he had often described global warming as “mythical” and “non-existent”.
In doing so, Trump was simply copying others. Refusal to accept that climate change requires urgent action is a strong political current in America unlike in other developed democracies. The first big international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, was rejected in the US Senate by 95 votes to none.
But there is another, quite different, America. A mere four days after Trump’s speech, a movement sprang into action proclaiming the upbeat message: “We Are Still In”.
Co-ordinated by civil society groups, the initiative has amassed signatures from 2,300 state governors, CEOs, tribal and local government leaders and heads of universities, who are determined not to be turned aside from pursuing “ambitious climate goals”.
Organisations backing the drive include all the Pacific states (bar Alaska), New York, Virginia and North Carolina. All five of the FAANG tech giants — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google — are in, as are minnows like Mobile Madness Cell Phone Repair of Oregon.
“Many companies now feel more motivated to speak up and recognise that the Trump administration has presented a moral and practical challenge to the values of many companies in the US on environment, healthcare, immigration,” says Richard Eidlin, a co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council in Washington, one of the groups steering the campaign. “They feel they have a responsibility to challenge the administration and that if they don’t speak up the more conventional and conservative voices in US business tend to dominate.”
This kind of action, independent of the federal government, has been going a long time.
The US Conference of Mayors brings together the mayors of 1,250 cities. About a third are Republicans, two thirds Democrats.
In 2005, these mayors began signing up to a Climate Protection Agreement. It urged Congress to legislate for emissions cuts in line with the Kyoto treaty — but also committed the mayors themselves to “meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing global warming pollution by taking actions in our own operations and communities”.
Some 1,060 mayors, 85% of the Conference’s members, have now signed the pledge. “My city went into a long, comprehensive review that produced a white paper,” says Elizabeth Kautz, mayor of Burnsville, Minnesota. “We looked at experts on the issue and their testimony and we adopted a sustainability plan. The state of Minnesota wanted us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 to 2015 by 15% and we have exceeded that — we’ve reduced by 17%.”
Kautz recalls with pride standing with the local president of Xcel Energy, the power company, as the last coal train pulled into Burnsville’s Black Dog power plant before it converted to gas.
That opinion — and action — at city level should be so different from the national and even state scene is a conundrum.
“Mayors are closest to the people,” is the explanation offered by Jim Brainard, mayor of Carmel, a fast-growing city of 100,000 on the outskirts of Indianapolis. “We see them at the greengrocer, at the pharmacy. We are not stuck away in Washington or a state capital. I have yet to meet a Republican or a Democrat that doesn’t want to drink clean water and breathe clean air and leave the earth in a better condition for their grandchildren.”
This direct connection to people’s everyday concerns — and responsibility for their quality of life — is a big part of why local leaders feel that on the climate Trump’s way is the wrong way.
Many of them — like Kautz and Brainard — are Republicans, who see no contradiction, in fact an alignment, between conservatism and conservation. “Only recently we have had this relatively small group that denies the [climate change] science — only 15%-18% of the population or about a third of Republicans,” Brainard says.
Staying in business
Businesses, too, are umbilically linked with ordinary people and with the real world. Shona Quinn, sustainability leader at Eileen Fisher, the women’s clothing company, gives two reasons why pulling out of the Paris Agreement is bad for business.
“We use 90% natural fibres — we rely on agriculture, forestry, farms, ranches,” she says. “So when extreme weather patterns occur, whether floods or droughts, it has an impact on the yields and we have to scramble and find fibres some other place.”
Cotton suppliers in one part of India can be suffering drought while those in other parts are hit by flooding and insect infestation.
Quinn’s second example is closer to home. The company’s headquarters in Irvington, New York is right by the Hudson River so was at risk of flooding when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. Some of the company’s stores lost power and had to close.
One approach to these risks would be just to live with them or buy more insurance. But many firms see it as part of their remit to tackle the problems — not least, to ensure their own survival.
Eileen Fisher has been working for years on sourcing its materials sustainably, such as switching to organic cotton. “We’ve set carbon-based goals and are moving slowly towards them,” says Quinn. For a business that makes physical products with a global supply chain and distribution to online shoppers’ homes, there are not necessarily many low-hanging fruit to cut.
But the company has just signed up to the Science-Based Targets Initiative, which helps firms align their greening commitments with what is actually needed if the world is to avoid warming more than 2°C.
“We are in this for the long run,” says Kirsten Spalding, head of the San Francisco office of Ceres, the sustainability NGO, summing up the reaction of Ceres’ network of businesses to Trump’s decision. “We are looking forward to where business will be in 10 years’ time. It’s going to be a carbon-constrained economy and we are going to be the winners in it. We are going to be prepared for the future — it doesn’t matter if it’s voluntary or mandatory.”
Much to do
How much can individual actors actually achieve if the government in Washington and many states are actively weakening environmental protections?
Many businesses resent climate controls — the US Chamber of Commerce, which represents three million firms, together with 28 states, is suing to block President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Eidlin says Trump’s decision to pull out of Paris has “inspired companies that might have been standing by the side to engage — they know they need to do more”. But he acknowledges that “while private sector efforts are necessary, they are not sufficient.”
A carbon tax would help, but there is very little chance of federal legislation at the moment. Massachusetts might bring in a local one.
In the We Are Still In community there are moves afoot to bring together all the individual commitments made by companies and municipalities into one aggregated drive. But for the time being, it is only the determination of particular people and organisations that can make a difference.
The gains can be impressive. The city of Pittsburgh made its first Climate Action Plan in 2008 and has just drafted version 3.0. There is plenty to do: in 2005, the state of Pennsylvania treated as a country would have been the world’s 22nd largest carbon dioxide emitter. And scientists project that by the end of the 21st century parts of the state could have temperatures over 100°F for more than 100 days a year.
Grant Ervin, the city’s chief resilience officer, says this is not just about warding off disaster. “This is an investment in our future,” he says. “It’s about fostering economic transition” to new, greener technology that drives growth.
Pittsburgh’s third plan sets seven tough goals to achieve by 2030. They include 100% renewable electricity for municipal operations, no waste to landfill, halving the whole city’s emissions and water use and divesting the city’s pension funds of “fossil-based companies”.
On a much smaller scale, Carmel, Indiana has already made great strides. It is common for Americans to commute for two to four hours a day by car. Few suburbs have any public transport. “In the central part of the country you rarely see a building over one storey,” says Brainard. “We are trying in a suburban area to move to the way London or Paris were built, before structural steel, with five levels.”
Condensing the city cuts the need for car use. Carmel has become famous for traffic roundabouts — it has built 110. Brainard says they have cut injuries from junction accidents by 80% and saved about 25,000 gallons of fuel a year per roundabout.
Like Pittsburgh, Carmel is ambitious to do more. “My 100% Republican city council passed a resolution a few weeks ago that set a goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050 for the entire city economy,” says Brainard.
“I think the mayors of this country are moving the needle to make sure that this country has a big voice and big outcomes in this arena of taking care of the planet and energy efficiency, whether Congress makes a decision or not,” says Kautz. “This is the US of A. We do what’s right.”