City officials from the United States and around the world met in Chicago this week to outline a collective plan to combat climate change at the local level, an effort they say is “more ambitious” than their respective national governments.
The North American Climate Summit brought together city and other local leaders who have signed onto a plan to combat climate change, known as the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.
Nearly 7,500 localities, representing more than 680 million people around the world, have committed to the plan, according to organisers.
Among other goals, the covenant aims to reduce carbon emissions to meet the aims of the Paris Agreement, the international accord that seeks to reduce global carbon emissions and keep the world’s temperature below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The deal entered into force in November of last year and 170 states have ratified it to date.
“Across the world, cities have made voluntary commitments to take significant action on climate change that are in line with, and in many cases more ambitious than, their respective national government baselines,” the Global Covenant said in a statement.
But as local leaders move forward in their fight against climate change, many climate experts and analysts say the US president is taking steps to reverse any progress.
|Many countries are working to reduce emissions to curb the impact of climate change [AFP]|
President Donald Trump has attempted to roll back environmental protection measures and commitments to fight climate change that were made under previous US administrations
Al Jazeera examines the Trump administration’s environmental policies, what appointments the president has made on the environmental file and how local and state-level governments across the US have responded.
Since taking office, Trump has systematically undone many existing climate and environmental safeguards, as well as policies pursued by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Trump has moved to repeal a plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Passed under the Obama administration, the Clean Power Plan (CPP) sought to reduce emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.
The Trump EPA has argued the CPP “is not consistent with the Clean Air Act” – a federal law to protect air quality and reduce air pollution across the country – but that claim has been challenged by environmental experts.
The government also says a repeal would take “another step to advance President Trump’s America First strategy”.
The administration justified the decision by saying it is working to fulfill a campaign promise to bring coal mining jobs back to struggling communities across the country.
|Trump has promised to bring jobs back to the US coal mining industry [Branden Camp/AP]|
The move was welcomed by coal mining companies and some coal miners themselves, who attended a public hearing on the proposed repeal late last month in West Virginia.
Robert Murray, the CEO of private coal mining company Murray Energy, referred to the rules as the “no power plan”, Reuters news agency reported. Murray, whose company had filed a lawsuit against the CPP, was accompanied by 20 miners from Pennsylvania and West Virginia at the hearing.
Reuters also reported that Scott Segal, head of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said the CPP is expensive and illegal because it requires some utilities to reduce emissions far away from the power plants themselves.
But many analysts and climate activists believe the Trump’s position on CPP moves the US in the wrong direction .
It’s an “attack on the very air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land on which we stand”, Nanette Diaz Barragan, a Democratic representative from California, said in a statement in March.
Meanwhile the Trump administration dropped a proposal to limit the number of endangered whales, dolphins and sea turtles that can be killed by fishing nets off the West Coast. Its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dismissed several members of an advisory board that is tasked with verifying its scientists’ research, and it has proposed cutting the EPA’s overall budget by about 30 percent.
In March, Trump signed a presidential permit to begin construction on the Keystone XL pipeline, reversing a decision made by the Obama administration to abandon the multi-billion-dollar project after an environmental assessment.
Despite major concerns from environmental groups and indigenous and other local communities about the potential of a devastating oil spill, Trump said the pipeline – which will pump tar sands oil from Canada through several US states – would create jobs and stimulate the US economy.
|An oil spill in South Dakota in November shut down the Keystone pipeline [Reuters]|
In October, the president announced he would open up bids to lease almost 77 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling.
The sale, which is expected in March, would be the largest offering in US history and “open an area the size of New Mexico to drilling”, according to Fortune magazine.
Earlier this month, the Trump EPA also dropped a requirement that forced mining companies to prove they have the financial means to clean up their pollution, the Associated Press reported. The decision came amid pushback from mining groups and Republicans in the western United States, the news agency said.
The National Mining Association, a mining advocacy group, welcomed the decision.
“When litigation is used as a tool to attempt to force the government into unnecessary action against an industry, the result is bad policy,” said Hal Quinn, the group’s president and CEO, in a statement.
“Today’s action shows that reason can prevail,” Quinn said.
The EPA justified the decision by saying the requirement was “unnecessary” and imposed an undue burden on the US economy and rural parts of the country where most mining jobs are located.
But among Trump’s many policy changes his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement earlier this year may be the most controversial – and most widely condemned both in the US and internationally.
In line with his administration’s “America First” mantra, Trump has argued the agreement undermines the US economy and the country’s sovereignty. But the president has said he would be open to renegotiating “a deal that’s fair” to US interests.
The withdrawal process will take until November 2020 to complete.
When he announced the withdrawal, Trump said “the same nations asking us to stay in the agreement are the countries that have collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices and, in many cases, lax contributions to our critical military alliance”.
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said.
However the mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, said his city would continue to follow the guidelines set out by the accord.
As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future. https://t.co/3znXGTcd8C
— bill peduto (@billpeduto) June 1, 2017
Experts have warned as the world’s second-largest carbon emitter behind only China, the US’ decision to withdraw from the agreement may weaken global efforts to control climate change. US emission cuts alone accounted for 20 percent of the deal, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The United States’ European allies have lobbied hard against a US exit from the deal, arguing that it would weaken its enforcement measures and undermine the resolve of other countries to make their own tough cuts,” the report stated.
The president appointed Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA, the organisation that is tasked with protecting the health of US citizens and the environment.
Pruitt is a longtime recipient of donations from oil and gas companies and as the former attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the agency he now heads 14 times, according to EDF Action, an advocacy group allied with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Among those lawsuits, Pruitt challenged an EPA measure that would have curbed mercury and toxic air pollution from power plants and another EPA guideline that sought to limit pollution from new, modified or reconstructed oil and gas facilities, EDF Action outlined.
|Pruitt has questioned whether human actions affect climate change [Jeenah Moon/Reuters]|
Pruitt is also a climate change denier who has repeatedly questioned whether human activity is responsible for climate change.
“Science tell us that the climate is changing and that human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue. And well it should be,” Pruitt said, before his appointment as the new EPA Administrator.
But 97 percent of climate scientists agree that “climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities” and experts have slammed Pruitt’s comments.
Mr Pruitt has claimed that carbon dioxide caused by human activity is not ‘the primary contributor to the global warming that we see.’ Mr Pruitt is wrong.
– Ben Santer, climate researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
“The scientific community has studied this issue for decades. The consensus message from many national and international assessments of the science is pretty simple: Natural factors can’t explain the size or patterns of observed warming,” Ben Santer, climate researcher at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, said in a statement.
“A large human influence on global climate is the best explanation for the warming we’ve measured and monitored,” Santer said.
Dr Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, added in a statement that, “Pruitt has demonstrated that he is unqualified to run the EPA or any agency.”
“There is no doubt whatsoever that the planet is warming and it is primarily due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from burning of fossil fuels,” he said.
Nearly 70 percent of people across every US state said the country should participate in the Paris Agreement, according to a study released by the Program on Climate Change Communication at Yale University in May.
Nearly half of all Trump voters (47 percent) said the US should stay in the agreement, the same study found, compared to only 28 percent of Trump voters who said the US should not participate.
Another survey published in October by the same Yale University programme found that a majority of US citizens would be willing to pay a carbon tax on fossil fuels and would support investing that tax revenue into renewable energy.
The Trump administration has claimed its policies have broad support in Appalachia, the central part of the country that is home to most coal mining and other traditional industries that leave a larger carbon footprint.
Mining industry lobby groups and companies have welcomed some of the president’s recent actions, including the repeal of regulations on the coal industry.
“A strong energy industry is a goal that will benefit all Americans and is achievable without diminishing the significant environmental protections that Americans rightfully expect,” said Quinn of the National Mining Association in a recent statement.
|The city hall in Paris was lit green after Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]|
However Bill Price, an organiser with the Sierra Club in West Virginia, recently told Al Jazeera that local communities were ready to move away from coal and other dirty industries. Many people are realising the economic benefits of moving away from coal and towards more sustainable sources of energy, he said.
“The coal miners that I talk to in the community are more and more understanding that they need to be looking at a transition,” Price said.
“They need investment from the federal government and the state government in that transition and they understand that their industry is dying and not much can be done to revive it.”
According to May 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, coal mining accounted for 53,420 total jobs in the US. That figure includes managerial and human resource jobs, as well as engineers, extraction workers and mining machine operators.
Since the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement, 385 US mayors – from cities across the country, including Albany, New York, Houston, Texas, and Sacramento, California – have committed to the climate plan.
More than 2,500 city, state, business and university leaders from all 50 states have also signed on to the “We Are Still In” pledge to demonstrate an “enduring commitment to tackling climate change, ensuring a clean energy future, and upholding the Paris Agreement”.
Additionally, dozens of governors, members of the US Congress and other officials from across the US have and continue to speak out against the administration’s environmental policies.
Christiana Figueres, vice-chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors, said this week’s summit in Chicago is an opportunity to continue acting on the political will to tackle environmental issues and show “that local action is being taken to fulfill commitments”.
This week, Rahm Emmanuel, mayor of Chicago, was among 50 mayors from 10 countries to sign a Chicago Climate Charter, which outlines ways to implement the Paris Agreement objectives at the city level, according to local media.
|Obama encouraged cities to fight climate change on their own [Scott Olson/AFP]|
Barack Obama also addressed the meeting, saying it was “an unusual time where the United States is now the only nation on Earth that does not belong to the Paris agreement, and that’s a difficult position to defend”.
“Now, the good news is that the Paris agreement was never going to solve the climate crisis on its own. It was going to be all of us. Cities and states and businesses and universities and nonprofits have emerged as the new face of American leadership on climate change,” the former president said.
The Attorney General for New York, Eric Schneiderman, is leading a coalition of his counterparts and other legal officers from 23 US states, cities and counties against the repeal of the Clean Power Plan.
“We won’t hesitate to protect those we serve,” Schneiderman said in a statement, “including by aggressively opposing in court President Trump’s actions that ignore both the law and the critical importance of confronting the very real threat of climate change.”
Additional reporting by Vittoria Elliott