America’s Paris Exit, California’s International Turn

Neon Tommy

July 10, 2017

In June, President Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in an address in the White House Rose Garden. Even the specter of withdrawal had done much to damage U.S. standing on the international stage. It motivated chief executives of the world’s largest companies, including the head of ExxonMobil, to lobby President Trump in hopes that he would stay in the deal. These businesses have argued, along with a growing chorus of Washington commentators, that exiting the accord would harm the United States not just diplomatically, but economically, by undermining U.S. competitiveness in global markets, and by destroying the stability required for long-term investment.

But in the broader context of a world that has largely committed itself to a clean energy future, President Trump’s decision may represent the opening for an alternative American climate leader—the state of California.

Last November, a week after Donald Trump’s election, I traveled to the UN Climate Conference in Marrakech. I was there to export and endorse California’s new climate policy model, which I had helped enact two months earlier. California’s new laws represented the most ambitious climate policy on the planet. Through legislation known as SB 32 and AB 197, we set a 2030 deadline for cutting our climate pollution levels to 40 percent below 1990 levels, and we bound the state to a set of climate justice guidelines that required much greater transparency, accountability, and social equity.

SB 32, the climate bill endorsed by the environmental establishment, and AB 197, authored by an emergent social justice community, were procedurally joined together, in a symbolic leap of faith. The respective constituencies behind each bill recognized that an agenda focused on climate could only succeed if it ultimately accrued to the benefit of everyday Californians.

This coalition did not come together overnight. It coalesced over many months of long nights and constant (and at times difficult) communication amongst a small working group including parties from both camps. Together, we outlined a set of broad policy principles prioritizing not just the environment, but also public health, social justice, and economic equity. From there, our working group ultimately spawned an alliance between coastal liberals and Central Valley moderates—an unconventional, Californian partnership that fastened an effort to improve health and economic outcomes in local communities to one aimed at preventing global warming.

After the announcement of a formal withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Accord, California’s leadership has never been so critical.

For the international audience gathered in Marrakech for the 2016 Climate Conference, long split by deep divisions between the "global north" and "global south," California’s state-level compromise, which had helped bridge fissures along lines of race and economic status, was powerfully on point. Telling this story in Marrakech was important because leaders at the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) had perennially struggled to bridge a similar gap. They had enticed poor, developing nations poised to emit more in the future, into a deal with rich, developed nations that had historically contributed more to global warming, by offering technical assistance and funding. But an outcomes-focused California model linking climate pollution reduction with local programs that deliver access to new technology and cleaner air could have sparked a new, and meaningful, alignment.

After Trump’s election, California’s success seemed quaint. The president had campaigned on a platform that included a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, which, in 2016, was widely viewed as the world’s last, best hope for surviving climate change. After the announcement of a formal withdrawal, however, California’s leadership has never been so critical.

Before Trump even announced a formal decision on the Paris Agreement, his administration had already achieved a constructive withdrawal through domestic policy. Under an "America First" banner, the administration has hit "undo" on just about every pillar of the Obama administration’s climate edifice. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt and Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao have announced that their agencies will revisit the historic "car deal" that integrated California’s greenhouse gas emissions standards with federal fuel economy standards, and promised to deliver more than $1.7 trillion in savings at the pump, as well as billions of barrels fewer in imported foreign oil.

Through other executive actions and other acts of Congress since Trump’s inauguration, a host of regulations that aimed to evaluate the impacts of carbon on our economy and public health have been withdrawn, revoked, rejected, reviewed, reopened, or delayed. And two weeks ago we learned that the EPA has circulated an early draft of a rule that will dismantle the Clean Power Plan (CPP), President Obama’s signature carbon policy designed to reduce emissions from the electricity sector.

Together, these rules constituted the lion’s share of the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement.

While the U.S. withdrawal has already diminished our diplomatic standing and ceded ground on the international economic front, it has had the inverse effect of motivating foreign actors to do more to reduce their emissions.

A consensus view had emerged that a formal U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would accomplish three additional things: first, it would demoralize, and then embolden major foreign emitters like India and China—already reticent to commit to a global reductions regime—to pare down their contributions; second, it would weaken our diplomatic standing in the world; and third, it would position our economic competitors to win the race for domination of the clean energy economy.

This consensus is undoubtedly accurate, with the following revision: While the U.S. withdrawal has already diminished our diplomatic standing (for example, Angela Merkel’s recent comments about Europe and American leadership) and ceded ground on the international economic front, it has had the inverse effect of motivating foreign actors to do more to reduce their emissions.

President Trump’s decision on climate opens the door for California to chart a new global leadership, as it has for other nation-states. This year alone, California is considering action in the following areas: a 100 percent renewable energy portfolio; a statewide energy-storage initiative that would catalyze the nascent industry; and a renewed zeal for zero-emission transportation in the state. Governor Jerry Brown recently traveled to China to discuss progress on a series of climate partnerships, as well as his Under 2 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), effectively a Paris Agreement for sub-national governments, which has garnered climate policy commitments from 170 jurisdictions in 33 countries.

As the state moves forward on these initiatives, it is worth remembering that U.S. climate policy actually found its first footing in California. Dating back to the 1960s, Congress expressly granted California the authority—through the "California Waiver"—to implement automobile pollution standards that exceeded federal rules. The Waiver has done a lot of good: In the 1970s, it bred technology-forcing regulations like the one that produced the catalytic converter, which transforms dangerous smog-forming pollutants into innocuous gases; later, these regulations accelerated the development of electric vehicles; and, in 2002, it allowed for California’s "Pavley Standards," the nation’s first-ever tailpipe standards for climate pollution.

By 2009, because enough states had adopted California’s vehicle standards—representing more than 40 percent of the U.S. population—President Obama was able to broker a deal with automakers to harmonize federal and California standards into one uniform, national rule, which, for the first time ever, regulated climate pollution from cars and trucks.

California’s clean energy economy is already around the bend, at escape velocity.

But it was when greenhouse gases (GHGs) became "regulated pollutants" under the Clean Air Act that things got interesting. As soon as the EPA sets binding standards for a pollutant under one section of the Act, that pollutant becomes ripe for regulation under other parts of the Act. This meant that the "car deal," which set GHG emissions standards, triggered the EPA’s ability to do so from stationary sources, like power plants and refineries. The president now had before him a legal case for regulating climate pollution from across the U.S. economy. And, voilà: the Clean Power Plan. The reach of the California Waiver had gone national.

Administrator Pruitt is now scrambling, retroactively, to unravel each of these authorities. It may be too late to matter because California’s clean energy economy is already around the bend, at escape velocity.

California is building the grid of the future. In recent years, solar and wind power have become at least competitive with—and in some cases less expensive than—natural gas and coal. A futurist vision of free energy seems increasingly possible.

More advanced, clean cars are also making their way into the mainstream. California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle regulations have resulted in more than two dozen different models of electric or low-emission vehicles coming on the market in the state.

Utility companies are getting into the game, too. The state’s three investor-owned utilities have allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to build vehicle-charging stations throughout the state. California’s electric transportation market also represents a rare business opportunity for the utilities industry, which has been struggling to create revenues in an industry plagued by stagnant growth.

Last year, with California leading the pack, the solar industry employed more workers than coal and natural gas combined.

Despite the important advances the state has made, the conditions that initially gave rise to California’s exceptional status under the Clean Air Act, while much improved, remain stubbornly pervasive. California is still home to eight of the ten most polluted cities in America. The California Air Resources Board blames thousands of premature deaths, sick days, and school absences on the emissions of smog-forming gases, and particulate matter associated with the transportation of goods. One corner of Los Angeles is now referred to by locals as "cancer alley," sitting at the intersection of a congested highway, the nation’s busiest port, and a rail depot. And this is to say nothing of the record drought and debilitating heat that has become commonplace in our agricultural heartland, from Coachella to Chowchilla, or of the wildfires, floods, and creeping seashores.

Yet the people of California understand that a cleaner grid and less polluting cars and trucks help turn the tide of both climate pollution and local air contaminants. They see their neighbors employed in new jobs that are part of this growing economy. (Last year, with California leading the pack, the solar industry employed more workers than coal and natural gas combined.) And organizing around this issue has only grown stronger as a consequence. It’s no wonder that addressing climate change perennially registers as one of the most popular matters for voters in the state—including a majority of voters who believe the state should tackle global warming, even if doing so means increased costs.

So while many of us mourn President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord, let us not forget that California continues to present an opportunity the international climate community can relish. When I traveled with President Obama to the same UN Climate Conference in 2009, I remember feeling struck by the audacity of California’s leadership there. What was California doing there, scheduling press conferences, and making various state policy announcements?

We need to follow the leadership of those who are proving that economic dynamism and carbon emissions are not inextricably linked.

But I had missed the point. The parties to the conference were only as good as their subordinate regional governments. Which meant we were only as good as California. Right now, the world could use more of California’s innovation, and more of its pluck. We need to follow the leadership of those who are proving that economic dynamism and carbon emissions are not inextricably linked. We need a little of California’s courage to rub off on the rest of the world, so that the international community can finally bridge its divides and shine a light on historic and long-ignored environmental and economic injustices.

During President Trump’s announcement, he returned to a familiar campaign-style trope: "I represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris." But the people of Pittsburgh have benefited from California’s environmental ingenuity, too. When Pennsylvania adopted California’s auto emissions standards in 2008—long before they became part of a national rule, or an international accord—it did so because scientific studies had shown that California’s program provided significantly higher levels of pollution reduction than the existing federal standard. Ironically, the truly populist policy option was California’s, which ensured healthier lungs and safer communities than any amount of presidential bluster can pretend to deliver.

There is work to be done on climate action, and it is time to follow California’s lead.


Jake Levine is a policy advisor and attorney in the Los Angeles office of Covington & Burling. He served as an aide to President Obama in the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, and as Senior Counsel and Principal Consultant to California State Senator Fran Pavley. He was previously Chief of Staff at Opower, a technology company focused on helping people take control of their energy use.

A version of this article was originally published in Democracy Journal.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.

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