Guest Blog: Still Taking Paris Seriously

Paris Main
Paris Main
The Paris Agreement was ratified by almost 200 countries in 2016 to address climate change. Credit: Felipe Dolce, Unsplash

Several social scientists explain why, despite the US exit from the Paris climate agreement, policy analysis reveals states and agencies continue to take climate change seriously.

In the White House Rose Garden last week, President Donald Trump kept his promise by announcing that the US would begin the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, an agreement addressing climate change that almost 200 countries ratified in 2016. What does this decision mean for the nation's ability to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? What does it mean for the country’s position on the world stage?

The consensus among natural resource scientists is that Trump’s decision sullies this country’s reputation on the world stage and jeopardizes our relationships with other countries, making assertions like, "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” The decision to withdraw can be read as America shirking its duty to take responsibility for its past destructive industrialization and withdrawing from the progressive path forward in finding alternative energy sources.

Density and Intensity

Despite this disheartening news, a more nuanced perspective reveals that existing efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through renewable energy programs and policies may prove to be a beacon of light during this period of environmental darkness. 

We have tracked negotiations and renewable energy policy development over a 17-year period in five federal Pan-American countries, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and the US. In our study, we are investigating the nature of 116 federal and state/provincial renewable energy policies across these countries. Both the number and the content of renewable energy policies a country uses towards an international target, like the Paris Agreement, tells an important part of the story about how well a country will be able to achieve these goals, with or without Trump.

Paris Figure
The US has dense, but not intense renewable energy policies, meaning there are many of them, but they are not strong.

The policy output we measured was policy ‘density’ (i.e. the number of existing policies relating to a particular goal) and policy ‘intensity’ (i.e. the strength the policy has toward meeting specific goals). The higher the policy score for a country, the more likely the country will be able to meet its intended goals.

Our results show that in terms of policy density, the US has the ‘densest’ renewable energy policy output, followed by Canada, Mexico then Argentina and finally, Brazil has the least-dense policy output. Overall, Brazil's and Canada’s renewable energy policies were the most intense, followed by Argentina and the US, with Mexico’s policies receiving the lowest intensity scores. The countries with higher scores on density and intensity scores (i.e. Canada) will be best able to meet their intended goals, which in this case is its Paris Agreement pledge. Most important, the figure here illustrates that the US has a legacy of renewable energy policies, something that an ill-conceived decision cannot reverse. The policies represented in the graph include research and development initiatives, educational programs, market incentives as well as regulatory policy.

Renewable Energy Policy

Our research findings confirm that Trump’s decision may be tempered by existing renewable energy policies because the majority are state-level undertakings. The US’ decentralized policy creation means that states can continue developing renewable policies with or without the federal government’s leadership or action. Additionally, there are efforts on the part of cities and municipalities to make stronger policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because of the federal government’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (see the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda). Just because the US has chosen to leave the Agreement, it does not mean that it will do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through less-politicized means such as policies that aim to achieve energy independence or save money for American households.

Furthermore, other federal agencies like the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Energy (DOE) are also working on developing programs that are not explicitly related to the Paris Agreement or climate change, but that will have a similar effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, only a week after Trump announced that he would withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, the USDA and DOE announced multi-million dollar funding specifically for a biomass research program under the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Although a majority of Americans think the federal government should take leadership addressing climate change, the current administration and the right-wing media have made it polarizing issue where there are really no winners. (Take Bret Stephen's comment in the New York Times that “‘Pittsburgh Over Paris’ is a better political slogan than ‘Save the Earth.’”) However, our research reveals that the climate change policy is a complex undertaking, one where the federal government is increasingly playing less and less of a role. Therefore, we can still take Paris seriously and let Trump enjoy his golf game. 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.