President Donald Trump recently withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change, undoing a major part of President Barack Obama’s legacy while dealing a blow to the alternative energy industry and, uh, our entire planet. The move is massively unpopular, supported by only about a third of the country and strongly supported only in coal country, where the population views climate change science as a threat to the local industry. But outside of these limited areas, our own orange president finds himself with a pretty questionable public image (one that hasn’t been helped by a bunch of other missteps and scandals), and for good reason: the demise of the Paris Agreement is unquestionably bad for our planet.
But hold on. Deep breaths, now. The United States has withdrawn from a major climate change pact, but that doesn’t mean the Earth is going to burst into flames at any moment. In fact, there are a lot of factors that should lessen the impact of Trump’s seemingly momentous decision.
A nation of states
The United States has a federal system of government. The federal government has plenty of power (and that power has grown over time), but it doesn’t have nearly the same authority as the central governments in many other countries. The states still have plenty of muscle of their own to flex, and they can use it to adhere to the Paris Agreement unilaterally. In fact, several states have already said they intend to do just that. California, New York, Virginia, and other states will continue on as if Trump had done nothing at all, meaning some of our nation’s largest states will be combatting climate change. And regulatory measures from big states have big impacts – just look at California’s car emissions laws, which changed how cars are made (no car company wants to make one car for California and another for the rest of the country, so laws in big states can change cars nationwide).
The road to change
It’s not just government entities that are fighting climate change. Private companies are getting wise to the threat, too. Automakers are doing their part by trying to reduce emissions with electric cars – helped along, of course, by state regulations that aren’t going anywhere no matter what the federal government says. But even without heavy regulation, automakers and other companies reliant on fossil fuels are smart enough to be evolving with or without the Paris Agreement. The writing’s on the wall, here, and legacy companies aren’t going to sit still and let new companies destroy them – they’re going to join the revolution just as fervently as the newcomers.
Car companies know that fossil fuels are eventually going to be, uh, fossils in the industry. They’ll be replaced by new technologies, and nobody wants to be left behind. Besides, we can still do our best to be environmentally conscious on our own. More fuel-efficient cars mean less pollution, sure, but they also mean less cash at the gas pump for drivers. The trucking industry is responsible for a fair bit of pollution, but it’s not like truckers enjoy burning up expensive fuel – which is why things like diesel chips, which improve fuel efficiency in diesel vehicles, are popular with drivers of everything from big rigs to RVs.
There’s still time
So even with the United States out of the Paris Agreement, there are a lot of reasons to hope that U.S.-based manufacturers and consumers will be taking big steps to combat climate change. But here’s the other thing: we may not have heard the last of the Paris Agreement.
After all, the United States hold elections. President Trump is unlikely to change course on this, despite the massive unpopularity of the decision – even if the Republicans get walloped in the 2018 midterms, expect us to stay out of the Paris Agreement. But what about 2020? Donald Trump himself will be up for re-election then. A massively unpopular figure, he may face a primary challenge from within his own disgruntled party, and a moderate Republican could restore the Paris Agreement. And in the general election, a Democrat will challenge Trump (or another Republican), and Democrats support the Paris Agreement essentially unanimously.
And while four years is a long time to wait, the Paris Agreement kicks in in 2020 – just in time for our election. If a challenger defeats Trump, we’ll be swearing in a new president in early 2021, not long after the Paris Agreement takes effect. It wouldn’t be impossible to show up just a bit fashionably late and still fulfill our obligations under the agreement.
So, yes, Donald Trump has scored a victory for climate change deniers. But those of us who care about the Earth can still cheer for major progress from states and private parties – and can hold out hope that the country returns to the Paris Agreement under new leadership after the elections in 2020.