How U.S. States and Cities Can Take on Climate Change in Spite of Trump’s Denialism
Daphne Wysham warns that a carbon tax plan proposed by Republican elder statesmen would roll back critically important environmental regulations
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.
As President Trump fills his cabinet with fossil fuel industry darlings, and Congress cuts environmental regulations. And threatens even to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, how might cities and states in the United States continue the battle against climate change?
Our next guest spoke on this very subject, during the press conference this week, held at the Canadian Parliament, with Green Party of Canada leader, Elizabeth May. Let’s take a listen to some of what Elizabeth May had to say, during this press conference.
ELIZABETH MAY: There are separations of power within the U.S. In the last number of weeks, since the inauguration, it’s been described as a shock and awe campaign of President Trump, signing executive orders and leaving people reeling. And as we’ve been reeling from the immigration ban, and from various other executive orders that are breath taking, the attack, and the assault, on U.S. climate policy hasn’t seen quite as much attention.
Nor has the fact that Donald Trump can’t get his way on climate as easily as he thinks he can. Just as he has discovered he can’t get his way on immigration as easily as he thinks he can. But there are real threats; there are tricky waters, and we hope to shine a light on what we hope Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, can do for Canada, and for the world. And the big question, how does one approach a Trump presidency, and meet the targets of the Paris agreement?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now joining us from Portland, Oregon, is Daphne Wysham. Daphne is an associate Fellow at the Institute Policy Studies, and the Director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Centre for Sustainable Economy.
Thanks very much for joining us, Daphne.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, during your press conference with Elizabeth May, there was significant discussion about a concept known as, the Separation of Powers. Broadly speaking, those are the powers that are allocated to the federal government, and to lower levels of government, the states and the municipalities, and so forth.
What powers do states and cities in the United States possess, that would enable them to take serious action, in response to the climate crisis, even in the face of the Trump administration’s hostility to those types of actions?
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Well, fortunately, prior to Donald Trump rising to be President of the United States, there was quite a strong movement at the city and state level, for elected officials to lead on climate change, regardless of what happens at the federal level. For example, California started a group called the Under Two MOU, which commits signatories to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to no more than two tons per person, by 2050. And committing everything possible, to keep the temperatures from rising more than two degrees centigrade, past the beginning of the Industrial Age.
The Under Two MOU now has upwards of 165 signatories, including quite a few cities, and provinces in Canada, and representing over a billion people. There’s also the Compact of Mayors, which has a 129 American cities on board, committing to take very vigorous action on climate change. And my city, the city of Portland, Oregon, recently passed a binding ordinance opposing the construction of new fossil fuel export infrastructure.
I wrote about this for The Nation recently. We’ve also managed to get over 30 elected officials in the U.S. and Canada, including Elizabeth May, to endorse this resolution, and to pledge to do the same in their areas of jurisdiction. Locally elected officials are unique, in the sense that they do have authority over the health and safety, of their constituents.
And what we found, in the case of Portland, Oregon, was that fossil fuel infrastructure, in particular a propane terminal, posed grave health and safety dangers to the citizens of Portland. And, therefore, it was within the regulatory authority of our city council, to ensure that citizens were protected from this infrastructure that was planned for an earthquake seduction zone. And we feel that locally elected officials, all over the country, have similar authority, and should pursue it.
DIMNITRI LASCARIS: The federal government, nonetheless, benefits from a constitutional doctrine in the United States, known as pre-emption, and sort of, in very simple terms, what that means is that a federal law which conflicts with a state law prevails, at least to the extent of the inconsistency. And you have states like Maryland; you’ve mentioned a number of measures being taken at the state and local level.
Maryland, I understand, just voted to ban fracking, and we know how the Republican Party feels about fracking. It feels quite positively about fracking. Are you and others who are advocating for action at the municipal and state level, concerned that the Trump administration will exploit the doctrine of pre-emption, to override the types of measure you’re seeing in Maryland, the ban on fracking, for example?
DAPHNE WYSHAM: We anticipate legal challenges; in fact we are facing a legal challenge for the Portland ordinance — it is being filed by the Western States Petroleum Association, in alliance with the Portland Business Alliance, and some other groups, including the local building trades.
However, we feel that we’re on solid ground. I’m not an attorney, but we do have pro bono attorneys working with us. And I think what Donald Trump needs to understand, is that we are a nation of laws. And, you know, regardless of what one party or the other feels about those laws, ultimately these arguments will take place in the courts, and we feel that we will be victorious.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And, just more broadly speaking about the Paris Agreement, which is now at least, in terms of the U.S. participation, at serious risk. How would the states and cities and municipalities use their constitutional powers? How could they do that, in order to fill the void that would be created by the U.S. federal government’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord?
How could they help to achieve meaningful reduction in emissions, along the lines of the commitments that have been made by the United States, under that accord?
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Yeah, well, in addition to the Compact of Mayors, there’s a group called the C-40 Cities. And since 2011, U.S. C-40 cities, these are climate, sort of champion cities, that include Portland, New York, Chicago and others, they’ve increased their climate action almost seven-fold. And in essence, these citywide actions reported by C-40 cities in 2016, resulted in an 18% investment in climate action across all C-40 cities, thus far. And accounts for, essentially, a vast majority of the climate action that is taking place in the U.S., as well as internationally. It’s taking place at the city level.
Thirty-six U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta, have set emissions reductions targets of 80% reductions, or higher, by 2050. Sixty-two cities are on track to meet, or exceed, federal climate targets under President Obama’s Paris Agreement. In addition, regardless of what happens at the federal level, we have cities like Burlington, Vermont, and Columbia, Maryland, and others, pledging to achieve 100% clean energy. A dozen cities have made commitments to reach 100% clean energy in the next 15 to 20 years.
The other thing to keep in mind is just the economics of the issue. A recent study produced by a group called Carbon Tracker, found that due to the falling price of solar, and the increasing uptake of electric cars, and the low-price of oil, the economics of oil and gas and tar sands extraction, are not looking good in the long term.
They expect that oil and gas use will plateau by 2020, and begin to decline rapidly thereafter. So, my suspicion is, that one of the reasons that the oil industry and the gas industry is so eager to maintain their control in the U.S. government, and in various agencies, is because they see the writing on the wall. And it looks like the end of the oil and gas industry, within the next several decades.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And to conclude, I’d like to talk to you about a very interesting plan that’s come forward from some stalwarts within the Republican party, including James Baker, Hank Paulson, George Shultz, I mean really by any rational measure, heavyweights, within the Republican party, for the imposition of a carbon tax.
And they are calling for, as I understand it, a $40 per ton carbon tax, to be reviewed within a period of approximately five years, with a view to possible increases in the tax. And in the face of the very clear, and aggressive climate change denialism of the Trump administration, and, you know, the presence of many denialists within the Republican party, in the Senate and the Congress, do you think that this plan has any significant prospect for implementation under the Trump administration?
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Well, first of all, one of the key components of that proposal being put forward by these Republican leaders, is the elimination of all of the regulations that are in place under the Clean Power Plan. And that alone is very frightening, because the Clean Power Plan is essentially setting a science-based target, and moving from that target to reduce emissions nationally. There’s no guarantee that a price on carbon would achieve the desired results, in terms of an actual goal of emissions reductions overall.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a price on carbon, but we shouldn’t be bartering away the regulatory authority that has been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, because of the dangers posed by increasing C02 in the earth’s atmosphere. The only thing is, that by putting the price of carbon at $40 a ton — we have a study that’s going to be coming out in a few weeks that shows that, if you account for the cost of ocean acidification, the true cost of carbon should be closer to $200 a ton.
So, unless we are willing to begin to actually internalize the real costs, or at least pledge to phase them in rapidly, I don’t see how this would significantly affect the consumption of fossil fuels.
The other thing is, that they’re proposing a fee and dividend, the conservatives are, but my understanding is that members of the House and Senate, are more interested in reducing corporate taxes, and replacing them with a carbon tax. There would be no dividend, unless I’m mistaken.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right. Well, as a Canadian, what’s interesting about your commentary, amongst other things, is that here, Justin Trudeau, has proposed a carbon tax of $10 a ton, to be implemented beginning in 2018. So, it’s remarkable that people within the Republican Party are proposing a carbon tax that is four times, or more, after the exchange rate, of that being proposed here in Canada, under a Prime Minister who’s characterizing himself as a champion, in the fight against climate change.
But it’ll certainly be interesting going forward, to see whether the Trump administration responds positively to any kind of a proposal involving a carbon tax.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: I just wanted to point out that it’s also important to talk about removing fossil fuel subsidies, on both sides of the border. We have extraordinary subsidies for fossil fuels in this country, and they are at a significant advantage to renewables and battery storage, that is in need of the kind of subsidies to help us leap into a clean energy economy.
But, yes, a price on carbon is important. But as you know, in Canada, you’re not putting in place the price, in exchange for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, or reducing the regulatory authority of the government, on the fossil fuel industry, at least, not as far as I understand.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: That’s correct. Yeah.
Well, thank you very much for joining us Daphne. And I hope to continue to the conversation with you as we see the climate policies, or lack thereof, as the Trump administration unfolds.
DAPHNE WYSHAM: Thank you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.