Commentary: It’s time for America’s own Paris Agreement

Just as the countries of the world got together in Paris, France, in 2016 to negotiate an agreement to reduce the pollution that is driving climate change, it’s time for the states of the United States to negotiate their own agreement with the same goal. Why not host the kickoff meeting for these negotiations in Paris, Texas? It would be the right place to send a powerful signal to the world that America is still serious about doing its part to save the planet, even if President Trump refuses to take the lead.

The landmark Paris Agreement was signed by 175 countries on Earth Day 2016. It reflects a new approach to a very difficult problem. Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that human activity is changing the climate to the detriment of our civilization and the natural environment. But the nations of the world have had difficulty agreeing about how to respond to this global challenge. Under the agreement, each signatory offers its own plan for cutting pollution. The agreement cut through the prevailing pessimism and produced a new burst of hope around the world.

This new enthusiasm came on the heels of pushback in the international community against the Paris Agreement’s ill-fated predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, which many viewed as top-down and inflexible.

Many Americans had the same response to the Obama administration’s actions on climate change. The former president’s use of his executive authority to tighten emissions standards for power plants, cars and trucks was perceived to be heavy-handed and inflexible. The election of President Trump reflected the national reaction against top-down policymaking.

But that doesn’t mean that Americans are indifferent to the threat posed by climate change. The vast majority of Americans accept the scientific consensus that human activity causes it. More than 60 percent of Trump voters who expressed an opinion on the matter want the United States to stay involved in the Paris Agreement. And while they may disagree with policies emanating from Washington, Americans are already taking action closer to home.

Twenty states and over a thousand U.S. cities have already adopted targets to cap emissions of pollutants that cause climate change, according to figures from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Texas is leading the way, replacing dirty coal plants with cleaner natural gas plants, like Paris’ Lamar Energy Center, and installing more wind power than any other state.

If all the states that have adopted such targets were to hit them in 2050, while the remaining states continued with business as usual, national emissions would decrease by 43 percent compared to 2005 — more than halfway to the Paris goal of 80 percent.

Controlling this kind of pollution does not mean that states and localities must sacrifice their economies. In fact, 33 states have grown their economies while shrinking their emissions since 2000.

It’s not surprising, then, that the private sector is also a core part of the bottom-up movement to battle climate change. A group of more than 600 companies have stated their support for hitting the nation’s commitment under the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, 84 large firms, including venerable companies like General Motors and newer giants like Google and Texas’s own Rackspace, have promised to shift their operations to 100 percent renewable energy.

The time is ripe for this movement to come together. In the spirit of Paris, each U.S. state might step forward with its own state-determined plan to reduce emissions to the degree and in the manner that best suits it.

Where states are unwilling to do so, delegations made up of localities and private leaders might fill in. The Paris, Texas, meeting — should the community choose to play host — might be the first step in an increasingly ambitious long-term, bottom-up process, just as the global meeting in Paris, France, was intended to be.

Although President Trump has denied that climate change is even a problem, his ostrich-like position might ultimately be a blessing in disguise. The bottom-up approach, which thrives on buy-in close to home, may be more politically sustainable than the one-size-fits-all top-down approach, however well-intentioned it may have been. After all, we are going to have to be in this fight for several decades or more if are going to preserve our habitats, health and livelihoods. A four-year hiatus in federal policy is not the end of the world — as long as we use the time wisely.

Hart is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and professor of public policy and director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University.

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