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State rebellion against Trump over climate change is different

  • States have begun to take matters of climate change into their own hands since President Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.
  • These states are not just acting for themselves — they are essentially brokering treaties with foreign governments.
  • More than a dozen states have formed an alliance with pledges from Mexico and Canada to collaborate.
  • California Governor Jerry Brown, the co-founder of that alliance, recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with California Gov. Jerry Brown at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 6, 2017
Li Xueren | Xinhua | AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with California Gov. Jerry Brown at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 6, 2017

Having recently enjoyed the "rockets' red glare" on July 4, our Declaration of Independence came to mind as a way to understand the evolving, and distinctly different, approaches to addressing climate change that are emerging in the United States.

As several states take climate-change matters into their own hands, firmly believing their environment, public health and economies will be much better off by addressing the problem head-on, it's easy to imagine them sending a letter to a president whose administration has been openly hostile to any attempts to limit greenhouse gases. It begins, "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them ..."

Of course, states' rights have long been contentious on many issues — slavery and the Civil War being the most obvious break between our levels of government in America. Since then, people have taken to the streets, and it was their state leaders who subsequently took the first action, on issues as diverse as marriage equality and clean air. But the climate debate is different in two fundamental ways.

Climate is a new kind of states' rights issue

First, state governments are not just acting for, and among, themselves, but they are essentially brokering international treaties with foreign governments. Just since early June, when President Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, a dozen states representing a third of our population created the U.S. Climate Alliance, which has pledges from Mexico and Canada to collaborate. Co-founder of the Alliance, California Gov. Jerry Brown, wasted no time raising climate issues with China's President Xi Jinping when he visited Beijing last month, laying the groundwork for state-to-nation agreements and mutual assistance to achieve shared goals.

States are partnering with cities and other stakeholders, too. Nine states have joined together with thousands of cities, companies, and educational institutions to form "We Are Still In" (referring to members' intentions to fulfill the commitments made in the Paris agreement) and a recent meeting of mayors in Miami was highlighted by more than 300 cities representing 65 million people pledging to be "Climate Mayors" and setting out ways they will help the U.S. comply with the Paris deal in local fact, if not in federal policy.

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The second way in which this declaration of states' independence is different from other breaks with the federal government is that their leaders are acting on solid science and economics, while our federal government is basing its policies on shortsighted politics and benefits for the few. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered two compelling arguments along these lines at a recent climate change policy forum.

"There are around seven million people dying from air pollution every year [world-wide]," said Schwarzenegger. "It is government's responsibility to protect the people. It doesn't make any
 sense to be all worried about, 'When is ISIS going to come to America?' or all those kind of things, when in fact you are killing in America over 200,000 people every year, when you think about the health care [related to air pollution]. No one talks about that."

"State governments are not just acting for and among themselves, but they are essentially brokering international treaties with foreign governments."

Schwarzenegger went on to talk about the economic reasons that states and cities are bucking the feds on climate policies. "California has the strictest environmental laws, but at the same time we are number one in economic growth in America," he said.

The numbers bear him out. One recent study showed the economically depressed (and largely conservative, Trump-voting) Central Valley of California has reaped over $13 billion of economic benefits from state climate policies, including renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, the cap-and-trade market on carbon emissions, and climate-friendly agricultural practices.

By contrast, President Trump rolled back the Clean Power Plan and regulations that prevented coal mine waste from being dumped into streams and rivers that supply drinking water to the miners he has so often claimed to "love," moves that only serve to protect the profits of major energy companies.

He continues to be a vocal supporter of burning more coal, despite overwhelming evidence against the economics — a Harvard study estimates the cost of coal to the U.S. economy at up to $500 billion/year and many of those costs burden states that are not taking climate change seriously (in conservative Trump-voting regions of the south and east) with things like public health costs and crop damage.

Noted physicist Stephen Hawking recently concluded that "Trump's action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of
 250 degrees and raining sulfuric acid. Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it's one we can prevent if we act now."

Our founders based policy on science and facts and would have called Mr. Hawking's statements "self-evident." Other such truths that the founders valued were "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." States and cities with progressive climate policies, ignoring their myopic federal government, are more likely to deliver those values to their citizens, while communities that fail to heed the growing alarm bells are likely to suffer the exact opposite.

Commentary by Terry Tamminen, Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency in the Schwarzenegger administration. He is president of Seventh Generation Advisors, a strategic advisor to Pegasus Capital Advisors and the CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. He is also the author of "Cracking the Carbon Code: The Key to Sustainable Profits in the New Economy." Follow him on Twitter @terrytamminen.

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