In the Climate Fight, Every Little Bit Helps, but Federal Policy Is Still Needed

A phalanx of would-be white knights have stepped up on climate change in the wake of President Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord, but the smattering of cities, states and corporations vowing to tackle such a global issue are likely to fall short.

Where science and policy collide

There’s a limit to how much of the country’s emissions weight these stalwarts can actually take on. That means the U.S. can’t nickel-and-dime its way to the emissions reductions — 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 — that former President Barack Obama promised.

There have been plenty of feel-good stories about states and companies linking up to forge ahead, but they’re the usual suspects: All but two of the 12 states joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, which vows to uphold the Paris goals, both border an ocean and are led by a Democratic governor. To make real inroads, states outside the U.S. Climate Alliance that account for the other 81 percent of U.S. emissions will have to play a role in a bottom-up approach.

“You can’t just have the New Yorks and the Californias doing it. You do need broad action across the country and sectors of the economy,” Kevin Kennedy, deputy director of the U.S. Climate Initiative with the World Resources Institute, said in an interview.

Some of that action may be coming. ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, on Tuesday joined BP, General Motors, Royal Dutch Shell, PepsiCo., and environmental groups The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International as some of the founding members of the Climate Leadership Council to advocate for a carbon tax.

Greg Bertelsen, senior vice president with the organization, said that local and state-level commitments are important, “but to have a meaningful impact on reducing emissions and addressing climate change we need a federal policy in the U.S.” he said. “And ultimately we need policies across the globe that do the same.”

Spearheaded by GOP elder statesmen and thought leaders and formed in February, the council members want to tax carbon at $40 per ton in exchange for removing environmental regulations. Revenues from the tax would be returned to residents to offset higher energy costs. The tax would be adjustable for trade to penalize imports from countries without a carbon tax.

Bertelsen said there’s no timetable to get the proposal sponsored in Congress, noting they’re more in the education phase. But they’ve already made some progress, having presented the plan to Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, in February.

Of course, Congress is under Republican control, so the odds are long for any climate legislation — particularly a tax, which conservative, Tea Party-affiliated groups like Americans for Tax Reform vehemently oppose. On the other side of the political spectrum, environmental groups and their Democratic allies have been loathe to forfeit regulations for a carbon tax. But Ashley Lawson, a senior solutions fellow for policy and resilience at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, noted that while “there’s no question that achieving the deeper cuts we need over the longer term will require federal action,” the pacts and pledges from cities, states and business at least point the U.S. “in the right direction.”

That last part is key. Even all the planned cuts that countries announced at Paris weren’t going to be enough to avoid a 2-degree Celsius uptick in global average temperatures by century’s end. The point was to generate buy-in, and then work to ratchet-up commitments at meetings every five years (which the U.S. will now, presumably, sit out). But if a broad cross-section of American society remains engaged — and the membership of the Climate Leadership Council suggests it might — there’s at least an outside chance for a late federal policy intervention in the post-Trump years.

“By itself is it going to be enough? Probably not,” the World Resources Institute’s Kennedy said of the bottom-up approach. But the real question, he added, is whether “the momentum that it brings keep the goal in reach while the federal government is drifting away.”

“That’s the important context,” Kennedy said.

Zack Colman, a former fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written about energy and environment for a variety of publications, including The Atlantic, High Country News, and The Washington Examiner. Most recently he was deputy energy and environment editor with The Christian Science Monitor.