Even before President Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, it was clear that he intended to lead the US on a fossil fuel bender. He has made it crystal clear that the federal government has no interest in addressing climate change.
But every action has an equal and opposite reaction; his announcement on Paris has sparked an extraordinary amount of counter-organizing. In recoiling from Trump, states, cities, and institutions are entering into closer cooperation. A coalition is forming, a Blue America, and at least on climate change, it is going beyond mere resistance to a more proactive role, negotiating with the international community on its own behalf, like a separate nation.
It is, in foreign policy terms, a remarkable development — and while it seems to offer some near-term hope on climate change, it carries troubling implications for the ongoing stability of the country.
Blue America, the international negotiator, awakens
Since Trump gave the world the finger over Paris, more than 1,400 companies and institutions, 200 cities, and a dozen states have committed to meet the carbon targets the US originally pledged there.
There’s been so much activity that it can be difficult to track all the new initiatives and groups. There’s the US Climate Alliance, representing 12 states and about a third of the US population. There’s We Are Still In, representing nine states, hundreds of cities, and thousands of businesses and institutions of higher learning. There’s Climate Mayors, with 338 US mayors representing 65 million constituents. And probably more I’m missing.
InsideClimate News put together this great visual guide:
Just this week, at the US Conference of Mayors in Miami Beach, Florida, US mayors of over 1,000 cities signed a resolution calling on Trump to rejoin the Paris agreement, implement the Clean Power Plan, and help build electric vehicle infrastructure.
All of this action was more or less symbolic until earlier this month, when yet another coalition, as yet unnamed — consisting of three governors, 30 mayors, and more than 80 university presidents, led by ex-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg — began negotiating with the UNFCCC to have their contributions officially counted alongside other nations in the Paris agreement.
It’s not clear if that effort will come to anything. There is currently no formal mechanism in the Paris agreement to account for subnationally determined contributions (SNDCs, a spin on nationally determined contributions that I just made up). And the Paris agreement is nonbinding anyway, so even if this coalition’s SNDCs end up formally included and reported, it will still mostly be symbolic. There’s no legal authority holding states, cities, and institutions to these commitments.
Still, it’s notable that the US subnational climate diaspora — mostly Democrats, but more than a handful of Republicans too, especially at the city level — is spontaneously organizing itself.
Mmm ... doughnuts
Speaking of subnational actors engaging in foreign policy, Max Fisher recently had a piece in the New York Times about Canada’s efforts to circumvent Trump. He calls it Canada’s “donut strategy.”
Now that my phrase “donut strategy” has been put to a head of state, hoping it can enter canon of bullshit quasi-academic pundit coinages.— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) June 22, 2017
The long and short of it is that though Trump’s erratic behavior and inconsistent foreign policy have alienated all sorts of allies and potential allies, Canada cannot simply write off the US, or distance itself. Its economy is too implicated in America’s; trade with the US is too important. More than any other nation, Canada needs US stability and commitment to open trade. It cannot afford to simply hope for them. For its own sake, it must proactively seek to secure them.
And so Trudeau’s government is going around the US federal government to work directly with states and cities. Fisher’s column contains several examples, but of particular interest to me is climate change.
After Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued this very precisely worded tweet:
We are deeply disappointed that the United States federal government has decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) June 1, 2017
Note: “United States federal government.”
The approach since then, a former Trudeau foreign policy adviser told Fisher, “has been to maintain cordial relations with the White House while going to extraordinary lengths to activate American decision makers at all levels of the political system.” That means sending ministers and government officials fanning out across the US, taking the pitch for cooperation straight to governors, mayors, and local reps.
The beginnings of a parallel government
Canada is not alone in dealing directly with US subnational actors. California Gov. Jerry Brown, who represents the world’s seventh-largest economy, has been in China promising ongoing cooperation and support — acting, more or less, as a head of state.
My statement on @realDonaldTrump’s #ParisAgreement announcement #ActOnClimate https://t.co/XrIpW5d6k7 pic.twitter.com/TYiPIy5CaO— Jerry Brown (@JerryBrownGov) June 1, 2017
In the same vein, Ivo Daalder had a fantastic piece in Politico Magazine on the need for cities to organize themselves and engage in purposeful foreign policy. Urban areas, he notes, have more in common with one another across national boundaries than they do with rural areas in their own countries. They all face traffic, congestion, and pollution. They all depend on a steady influx of outsiders and thrive on innovation and higher education. Not one of them is interested in the Trumpian recipe of xenophobia and fossil fuels.
The question of our time is not whether cities will defend and promote their values and interests globally. They already do. Instead, the question is whether local leaders will do so pretty much as it has been done before, in a piecemeal, transactional manner, or whether they will instead develop meaningful, coordinated global strategies.
To my eye, the response of US cities to Trump’s Paris announcement looks like (at least the beginning of) a meaningful, coordinated strategy. Bloomberg says his coalition has offered a “parallel pledge,” but really it has formed the beginnings of a parallel government.
It is a parallel government with sharply limited powers, of course. Even under optimistic scenarios, it likely can’t achieve the carbon reductions the US would have achieved acting nationally. (The Sierra Club has a good analysis of the potential.)
And its legal status is murky. As Harvard’s Robert Stavins told Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell, “the Constitution of the United States prohibits subnational entities from carrying out meaningful international agreements.”
But that’s only if you take a somewhat legalistic view of “international agreements,” as agreements committing the US as a nation to particular actions. It’s worth remembering that the Paris agreement didn’t commit the US to anything either, not in a legal sense. The agreement contains no mechanism to punish countries that don’t meet their targets. It’s voluntary.
The commitments of the US subnational climate diaspora are voluntary as well. But by organizing and transparently sharing information about progress (assuming the coalition can pull itself together to do so), it could trigger a dynamic very much like the one Paris seeks to trigger at the international level: Pride and peer pressure, not the threat of legal penalties, will drive ambition.
Sweden passes #climate law to become carbon neutral by 2045 | @ClimateHome https://t.co/ETWQ2CpiIM #globalwarming #divest pic.twitter.com/laQiMgOigf— climatehawk1 (@climatehawk1) June 17, 2017
Insofar as the coalition can organize and deliver, it can establish an international reputation as a stable and predictable negotiating partner — certainly more stable than Trump’s lurching federal government.
As Blue America and Red America become self-aware, their competition becomes less symbolic
The instances described above, of the US federal government and US subnational actors taking on independent (and somewhat oppositional) roles, do not map perfectly onto the US partisan divide. Some of the entities that have committed to Paris targets are run by Republicans. Certainly some of the states Canada will be negotiating with are red states.
But the mapping is, let’s just say, a little too close for comfort.
Much has been made of the “big sort” that has divided the US into two polarized, partisan camps. That division has inscribed along various fault lines — minority versus white, educated versus not, rich versus poor, young versus old, ordinary versus elite — but the most salient, the one that does more explanatory work than any other, is urban versus rural and exurban. (Will Wilkinson has done stellar work on this; start here.)
Big cities tend blue; liberals tend to live in cities. The reason Democrats can get a popular vote majority and still lose the presidency is that they cluster in cities while Republicans spread out, covering more land and thus, based on America’s absurd and archaic system of government, accruing more power.
Red America now has the federal government, 33 governorships, and unified control over 32 legislatures. Republicans have a total of 68 state legislative chambers to Democrats’ 31.
Blue America has 16 governorships but total control over state government (governor and legislature) in just five states: Hawaii, California, Oregon, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. But Blue America has cities — almost all the big ones.
At least currently, Blue America has more people but less political power. That’s partly what the subnational organizing is responding to.
It is often said, metaphorically, that America is becoming two separate countries, with different values and visions, occupying the same territory. But what if that becomes less metaphorical?
What will happen when Red and Blue America starting thinking of themselves as separate countries, and acting that way, consolidating their power and negotiating independently? What happens when they really start fighting?
It’s a little dystopian, as it carries the whiff of a second Civil War. But as we’ve learned about dystopias this past decade, they need not happen all at once, dramatically. They can happen in creeping increments, each of which allows for enough of a pause that it comes to seem normal.
Right now it’s all fun and games. It’s only Canada. It’s only a voluntary climate treaty. Blue and Red America are not, as yet, wielding conflicting legal authorities, getting involved in internal economic or trade disputes, or seeking explicitly to fight or punish one another.
But how long will that last? How long before open (or at least more open) hostilities?
The federal government could deny California its waiver under the Clean Air Act, denying it the right to set its own fuel economy standards. Rick Perry could use his bogus grid study to declare emergency powers and override local decisions to close coal plants. Some blue town in a red state could build its own self-sustaining microgrid, form a municipal utility to run it, and declare itself independent of state and federal authority over electricity.
Rick Perry "defends" DOE's grid study by ... conceding it is exactly what critics say it is. https://t.co/OQlBXPVl0H— David Roberts (@drvox) June 29, 2017
And those are just energy disputes. If you want to get really freaky, imagine if Trump tries to start some ill-advised war or implement some police-state security measure and city governments band together to refuse to participate. What happens then?
I have no idea. I can spin fanciful scenarios all day, but I’ve given up on prognosticating.
Still, I can’t imagine that having two parallel governments operating in the world’s most powerful country is going to stay peaceful and symbolic for long. Red America — especially in its intemperate and vengeful current incarnation — is going to notice that Blue America is being hailed as an international hero for saving the US commitment to Paris. It’s going to notice that Canadian officials are spending an awful lot of time with mayors. It’s going to notice subnational climate and trade agreements forming under its nose.
Trump is going to notice that even though he won the presidency, the world keeps talking to the governors and mayors who oppose him. I worry it will not end well.