Image: NASA
Tags: What Now

Can Anyone Save Us From Climate Change?

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord, against the wishes of most states, cities, and even U.S companies, who are now taking environmental matters into their own hands.
Written by

The Republican Party can deny its existence till the polar ice caps melt and drown us all, but the realities of climate change—human-caused global warming—does not and will not discriminate in any way, as sea levels rise, decimating the permafrost, potentially awakening slumbering bacteria and viruses that should stay under wraps, worsens drought, increases ravaging wildfires, flooding, and will have other catastrophic impact on food, water and health. Yet not only has Trump, the most anti-science president in this nation’s history, given the middle finger to climate science through his appointment of Scott Pruitt and his proposed cuts to the EPA and other major research institutions, as well as having set his sights on overturning other key aspects of Obama’s clean energy strides, now he’s pulling this country out of the carbon-emissions reducing Paris Accord, which was signed by 197 countries. That leaves the U.S. as a lone wolf alongside just Nicaragua and Syria. America First? Try America last, drowned and devastated by its ignorance if we don’t wake up. World and U.S. leaders vocalized their shock and dismay by the decision to trade the future of our planet for the right to deregulate industries and slide more billions to his cronies.

However, since the Paris Accord was written in such a way that it can take up to four years for a country to pull out, many feel that Trump’s action may be more symbolic than a real shift in policy, a play to his ever-shrinking base that appears to believe he has some magic way to bring back coal jobs rather than take coal country into the future with green jobs like solar and wind power. “Thanks to fracking, which has made natural gas so cheap, those coal jobs are gone and they aren’t coming back,” says Natalie Mahowald, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University. It very well could be his pandering to those who hold him to his crappy campaign promises and a way of sticking it to all those “elites” and “tree huggers” who happen to enjoy breathing clean air.

However, if our federal government can’t be trusted to lead the charge toward a greener, cleaner future, can anyone within the U.S.? The answer may lie within the private sector, where companies with vision continue to push forward green energy plans, and invest in the booming renewable energy industries.

Not only are businesses with existing clean energy plans refusing to abandon them now, and even more companies are getting into the booming clean energy business, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is devoting $200 million of his philanthropic organization’s money to the cause. He recently announced the American Cities Initiative, “a suite of new and expanded investments that will empower cities to generate innovation and advance policy that moves the nation forward.”

This money will be invested in grants for cities that step up to create and share “technical expertise … and opportunities for city leaders to share insights and best practices with each other.”

While the pullout underscores Trump’s philosophy of nationalism and isolationism, proving him to be dangerously ignorant and stubbornly stuck in the past, that attitude appears to be relegated to the White House alone. In this void of federal leadership which, let’s be honest, began on November 9, 2016, states and cities are also stepping up. California, Washington, and New York’s governors have formed The United States Climate Alliance under the guidance of California Governor Jerry Brown, a way for states that want to pursue climate change solutions to coordinate together, to which the EU has given the thumbs up and reported it will work with willing states directly. “State and local government and corporations are still acting, and we have a system of federalism that permits those entities to aggregate the value of their actions and show the world that America is still committed to the Paris Agreement,” insists Jeff Gracer, an environmental attorney at the nation’s first environmental law firm, Sive, Paget & Riesel. With Bloomberg’s investment on board, cities may have an even stronger shot.

“Local governments, those very governments that Trump is pushing to empower, are sending a loud and clear message to their citizens and the companies that do business in their cities that they will continue to regulate environmental protection and carbon reduction,” says Rachel Sowards, Executive Director at Paladino and Company, a sustainability consulting firm for architects and real estate developers.

Corporate Heroes?

However, the private sector is also stepping up. Sustainability is not only good for the planet, but for the bottom line,” Sowards says. “It pays huge dividends in employee happiness and productivity, energy savings, customer respect and more.”

Indeed, a major investment research institute, Black Rock, recently published a report making clear that businesses that optimize and mitigate climate change through comprehensive plans are more profitable both in bottom line, and in their market value.  The report speaks the language of the corporate sector to drive home the hard realities: “The damage from climate change could shave 5 percent to 20 percent off global GDP annually by 2100” and offers promise of increased profits if businesses make changes that benefit the environment. “The demand for new infrastructure could top $90 trillion over 2015-2030…”

Despite a long history of tension between environmentalism and corporate culture, more and more companies are facing the reality of climate change and rising to meet the challenges. In fact, according to Mahowald, as the Paris Agreement was coming into being, many corporations were actually pushing for it. They saw the future and wanted to be on the right side of it.

“The corporate sector has discovered there is money to be saved, millions even, when you scale it up across several corporations,” says Gracer.

That’s why you’ll find Walmart, Google, GM and other major corporations instituting clean energy plans, and the car company Toyota rolling out a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle whose only emission is water. Sowards also mentions a list of companies that are making huge strides in sustainability including: Domino’s Pizza, H&M, Hertz, Starbucks, Marriot International, Royal Carribean Cruises, and Verizon.

The New York Times reported that Exxon Mobil shareholders, of all people, voted 62.3 percent in favor of greater transparency and better analyses of the risks of climate change to the business this year. That is in contrast to just a year ago when a similar resolution only got 38 percent of their vote.

The Data Doesn’t Lie

While corporations and even smaller private companies are undoubtedly rising to fight climate change because of its profitability, they also have actual scientific data on their side, something Trump eschews and seeks to cut, erase, and deny at every turn. As lovable astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson memorably said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” It’s science that made clear to the 197 countries that signed the Paris Accord (148 ratified) that an increase of global warming of just a mere two degrees Celsius can move us into a new realm of catastrophic weather patterns from which there will be no turning back. Tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, life-stopping East Coast blizzards, and the raging mega wildfires of California could become the norm, not the exception.

“The companies that show leadership in the market don’t need the government to tell them that sustainable practices are good for business, and they won’t let this misstep on the Paris Accord slow their progress,” Sowards says.

If anything, Trump may have inadvertently inspired a boom in the green energy sector. “Sustainable practices are fueled by innovation, and innovation is born from the convergence of frustration and limitation,” Sowards says.

Gracer agrees that green energy is the only sensible direction and one with a huge promise of jobs and profits. He cites a recent issue of The Financial Times titled “The Big Green Bang,” in which, he says, “Their conclusion is [green energy] is an unstoppable movement at this point.” Moreover, the Paris Agreement was built to be resilient, a veritable “potluck” “in which “everybody brings something, and when you add it all up there’s enough,” he says.

Of course, while it’s easy to applaud states and businesses for stepping up to fill the gap of federal government, it might be playing right into Republican’s hands—they’d like nothing better than to leave policy making they find inconvenient up to states and reduce the federal government’s financial and political investment in just such causes.

If this election has reminded U.S. citizens of one common message over and over again, it’s that we can’t count on the federal government to save us, but we should be able to. In the meantime we’ll do what Americans have always done best: be creative, innovative, and look local. Now, more than ever it’s time for every American household to do its part in reducing our carbon footprint, throw our money behind companies that commit to do the same, and continue to pressure our representatives to keep the federal government accountable.

 

Jordan E. Rosenfeld has written for: The Atlantic, the New York Times, New York Magazine, Ozy, Pacific Standard, The Rumpus, Salon, Scientific American, The Washington Post, Stir Journal, and more. She lives in California with her husband and son. Find more of her writing at www.Jordanrosenfeld.net, and follow her: @JordanRosenfeld