Hundreds of U.S. cities representing tens of millions of American citizens read the news about their president deciding to pull out of the Paris Agreement last Thursday, June 1, and called it a day. U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Thursday the withdrawal of his country from the Paris climate accords – an agreement that unites 195 nations with the aim of decreasing greenhouse gas emission and shifting to renewable energy. The agreement outlines a plan for determining, planning and regularly reporting the contribution that each member country should make in order to mitigate global warming. The White House followed the decision with a statement “reassuring” leaders that America remains committed to the trans-Atlantic alliance and to robust efforts to protect the environment.

On the city level, 78 city and state government entities representing almost 28 million citizens are monitoring their emission reduction efforts through the carbonn Climate Registry. Together, they have made a global commitment similar to that of the Paris agreement: to reduce emissions equivalent to more than one gigatonne of carbon-dioxide by 2030.

In addition, more than 250 local U.S. governments are using ICLEI’s ClearPath tool to monitor emissions for a total of over 40,000 individual inventory records. ICLEI U.S.A. includes around 200 members at the city, county and state level, representing almost 60 million citizens who are part of projects and campaigns for local climate action and sustainability.

Even though the president has made his decision, cities are of another opinion. Denver, Colorado, home to around 680,000 citizens is one of these Paris-Agreement-loyal cities. “Denver has joined with over 200 other U.S. cities to pledge that we will work to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets of that Agreement within our own cities regardless of the U.S.’s withdrawal,” Chief Sustainability Officer at the Office of Denver’s Mayor Jerry Tinianow tells progrss. “If our President will not lead on climate change, then our cities will band together to provide that leadership.”

W. Douglas Smith, a retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Senior Compliance Investigator and environmental scientist, outlined some of the environmental impacts that quitting the Paris Agreement will have. He explains that coastal and lowland cities will be impacted by storm surges and rising seas; inland cities will receive stronger storms and more severe temperatures, with more heat waves – although cold events will continue; the southwest U.S. will be warmer and drier, while the western Pacific will be wetter and have stronger storms. However, nothing is set in stone, and even these patterns can change as the oceans warm and circulation patterns are altered by temperature and density.

Following the decision, pro-Paris Agreement protestors flocked towards the White House in a march organized ahead of the announcement by the environmentalist group 350 DCMayors and governors have been reacting with statements that they plan to uphold their commitment to the Paris Agreement and to combat global warming by migrating away from fossil fuel and towards renewable energy.

In his speech, President Trump singled out Pittsburgh as an example of why his administration has decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Through the statement “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh not Paris,” the President appealed to the city’s dwellers to back him on his visions for the once-polluted-now-clean city.

In 1975, Pittsburgh was a city plagued with air pollution. Streetlights had to be on during the day because the soot from steel mills hung so thick in the air. In 1948, the southern town of Donora lost 20 lives to a thick yellow smog that sickened half the town. Neither the people of Pittsburgh nor were its leaders convinced that withdrawing from the Paris Agreement would make their city more habitable.

Soon after the statement, Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto tweeted: “The United States joins Syria, Nicaragua & Russia in deciding not to participate with world’s Paris Agreement. It’s now up to cities to lead.” In proactive response, Peduto said he would issue an executive order on Friday vowing that Pittsburgh would continue to follow the established carbon reduction plan. “Pittsburgh is one of the best examples of what clean energy and low-carbon solutions like green building can do for a city’s health, vitality and economy,” President and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Mahesh Ramanujam tells progrss.

In Redmond, Washington, when student activist Anne Lee, 17, and a group of students at her school found out that their country was pulling out from the Paris Agreement, they were devastated. Nevertheless, they decided to take action. “We decided that we would reduce our school’s carbon footprint to meet standards stated by the Accord, regardless of whether or not our nation’s leaders chose to do so,” she tells progrss proudly. So far, the group has reduced their school’s monthly carbon footprint by over 2 tons. Lee is a junior at Tesla STEM High School and president of Schools Under 2°C, an organisation that unites over 100 students from 30 schools from different cities in the U.S. and around the world working together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as per the Paris Agreement. “Now, we’re challenging others across the nation to do the same in their schools and communities. Already, over 30 schools from all over the world have taken a pledge to take on the challenge – all the way from Texas to Australia!”

“Scientists have determined 2°C (35.6°F) as a turning point. If global temperatures rise above 2°C, positive feedback loops will occur and our climate will spiral out of control,” says Lee, adding that it’s important to stick to the Paris Agreement and prevent average temperatures from rising because climate change is one of the ‘biggest human rights violations in history.’ “Even though developed countries emit the most greenhouse gases, developing countries are the most severely affected,” she says. “I think a lot of people think of climate change as something “far off” that will impact their next next next generation, but in fact, climate change is affecting people around the world right now. The United States and other major polluters have the moral responsibility to reduce emissions.”

After seeing the local response in the U.S., Smith believes that there will be far more than 200 cities challenging the Trump withdrawal decision over the next months. “Cities are capable of more rapid adaptation and many have already experienced the consequences of global warming and resulting climate changes,” he tells progrss. In 2012, U.S. President Donald Trump – not yet a contender for the presidency – tweeted: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” In response, Smith says that exiting the Agreement removes the U.S. from a global innovation leadership role: “China is the enthusiastic heir apparent.” Indeed, China’s Premier Li Keqiang made statements prior to the announcement indicating that his country is keen to take up the torch on climate change.

Saying that he wants to negotiate a better deal for the country, President Trump’s side of the story belongs to the argument of economy versus the environment. Tinianow says that picking the economy over environment is a false choice, because each is entirely dependent on the other. “To have a strong and sustainable economy, it is essential that basic resources like energy, water, food, housing, mobility etc. are available and affordable to everyone both today and tomorrow,” he elaborates. “When these resources are not provided in a sustainable fashion, the economy will fail.”

On the other hand, he explains that people need to have a healthy economy in order for them to support sustainability efforts. “People are much more willing to support sustainability when they have a job, a home, food, water and other basic material goods and services, and a secure and sustainable future,” he adds.

“Leaving the Paris agreement is not an isolated event,” Smith starts, as he refutes the president’s economical reasoning. “It is closely tied to recalcitrance by this administration and those that fund it – Koch Bros. – to transition to sustainable energy and the burgeoning technology jobs that result. There are no federal agency studies that I know of that remotely suggest that returning to fossil fuels will provide more jobs then those appearing in the sustainable energy sector already – 750,000 thus far in 2017.”

Paris Agreement

From a protest in New York in 2014. / TTF Watershed.

Taking India, China and Europe as examples, Smith backs his argument that the Paris Agreement was never a barrier that impeded economical growth. “Withdrawal was unnecessary as it was possible to meet the projected goals, reduce them or ignore them as the U.S. economy required. If anything Obama’s “Clean Power Plan” was on track to steadily increase jobs and increase wages in the technical fields associated with it,” he elaborates, adding that the U.S. National Climate Assessment identified a clear need for a wide range of economic sectors from agriculture to forestry to manufacturing. That provided a basic outline of needs for both sustainable economic growth, projected energy needs, and security. “The Paris Agreement was not a barrier but a unique pathway completely adaptable to the needs of individual countries, including the U.S.,” he concludes.

Agreeing with Smith, Ramanujam finds that cities have seen 20 years of success regarding the green building movement and USGBC’s LEED green building rating program. “Therefore business leaders will continue to make sustainability choices  and invest in low-carbon fuels and technologies to stay on the cutting edge of the global economy and because it benefits their triple bottom line: people, planet and profit,” Ramanujam tells progrss.

According to Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), energy efficiency already accounts for more than 2.2 million U.S. jobs—10 times more than oil and gas drilling and 30 times more than coal mining. “Scaling up America’s energy efficiency efforts will create tens of thousands of additional well-paying local jobs. In addition, green construction specifically will continue to grow,” Ramanujam continues; adding that USGBC released an Economic Impact Study in 2015 that found that green construction alone is poised to create 3.3 million jobs and contribute $190 billion to U.S. Wages by 2018.

The President’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is in line with vows made during his 2016 presidential campaign. He previously stated that ending the ‘war on coal,’ sponsored by the Agreement, would open up job opportunities for thousands of U.S. citizens. Despite that, coal companies have advised him against pulling the country out of the Agreement.

“President Trump was elected on a platform of running the government like a business. No business can operate with ensuring a sustainable flow of raw materials and constantly improving the efficiency of the processes required to drive the economy,” Smith argues. “Unbridled consumption of resources and services provided by the planet is not only bad business but irresponsible stewardship. The result is the same for a test tube, terrarium, forest, biome or the planet. Once systems are disrupted, resources spent, species driven to extinction, and the bio-geochemical systems disrupted, there is no going back.”

Smith explains that every civilization in human history since the last ice age has moderated the climate by only + or – 1℃. “The Paris Accord is shooting for twice that because it is believed there is enough resilience to adapt. There were no civilizations prior to the Holocene because the climate was far too chaotic. The science is clear and irrefutable.”  

Immediately after President Trump’s announcement, tech industry advisor and Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that he would quit his role on the presidents councils over the decision. “Climate change is real. Leaving [the] Paris [Agreement] is not good for America or the world,” he tweeted.

As Smith watches cities form consortiums and experiments around the world, he observes that they are able nimble actors, quickly sharing what works and what doesn’t for them. “Cities and schools are where the action will take place first. Governments are cumbersome and slow to change… in some cases too slow,” he says, concluding that the connection between the citizen and leadership in cities is much more immediate and responsive than it is in federal governments.