The Emergence of U.S. Nonfederal Climate Diplomacy

California Wildfires

The announcement that the current U.S. administration intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement precipitated a flourishing nonfederal climate movement. Thousands of nonfederal actors across the country—including cities, states, companies, tribes, and nongovernmental groups—have configured themselves into an array of coalitions that are committed to supporting the pact.

Although these coalitions are not a substitute for national climate leadership, they demonstrate that the current U.S. administration is not representative of the country at large. Indeed, the cities and states that support the agreement now account for nearly half of the U.S. population and more than half of the U.S. economy. If they were a country, they would be the third largest in terms of GDP and the fourth largest in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. nonfederal climate movement

A number of nonfederal coalitions and initiatives have emerged to counteract the recent absence of national climate action in the United States.

U.S. Climate Alliance

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition of states and Puerto Rico that have pledged to reduce their collective emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The coalition currently has 15 members.

We Are Still In

We Are Still In is a cross-sectoral coalition of more than 2,700 U.S. states, cities, tribes, universities, and businesses that have pledged to support climate action and the Paris Agreement.

America’s Pledge

America’s Pledge is an initiative to quantify, aggregate, and communicate how nonfederal actors in the United States are pressing forward on climate action.

Global Climate Action Summit

The Global Climate Action Summit—which will take place in San Francisco in September 2018—will showcase nonfederal climate leadership. It is serving as a target date for nonfederal climate initiatives and announcements.

With these coalitions in place, the U.S. nonfederal climate movement has an opportunity to evolve into an effective force in the global effort to support the Paris Agreement. Domestically, the movement can work to identify and implement the policies that would allow it to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, it can engage in the diplomacy with other countries that would allow it to credibly claim that it has taken up the mantle of U.S. climate leadership.

There is evidence from both the 2017 U.N. climate summit in Bonn, Germany (COP 23) and the One Planet Summit in Paris that the U.S. nonfederal climate movement is, in fact, becoming a diplomatic power. During COP 23, the U.S. Climate Alliance joined Mexico and Canada to create a North American Climate Leadership Dialogue, which aims to advance continent-wide clean electricity, clean transportation, and carbon pricing. Meanwhile, Oregon and Washington were among the first governments to join Canada and the United Kingdom in the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which aims to phase out coal-fired electricity.

During the One Planet Summit, California and Washington joined Mexico, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, and five Canadian provinces to create the Paris Declaration on Carbon Pricing in the Americas, which aims to implement and align carbon pricing systems. Meanwhile, California was among the second wave of governments to join the Powering Past Coal Alliance. The Gates Foundation, for its part, joined the European Commission and individual countries, including France, to invest a collective $650 million to help smallholder farmers adapt to the effects of climate change.

One element of U.S. climate leadership that is still missing from the nonfederal movement is a set of initiatives to help offset the withdrawal of federal support for multilateral climate funds. Mobilizing finance for a range of clean energy and resilience projects in low-income and climate-vulnerable countries—the kinds of projects financed by the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund, and the Least Developed Countries Fund—is necessary for any coalition that purports to support the Paris Agreement.

The coming year will determine whether the U.S. nonfederal climate movement has the will and capacity to develop its diplomatic power in addition to its domestic priorities. As it looks toward the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September and the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland (COP 24) in December, the movement needs to ensure that its new international partnerships have tangible benefits. It also needs to engage in further international cooperation, particularly on finance for the most climate-vulnerable populations.

Gwynne Taraska is the associate director of Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress.

The Center for American Progress thanks the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., for its support. The Center for American Progress produces independent research and policy ideas driven by solutions that we believe will create a more equitable and just world.

The author thanks Michael Werz at the Center for American Progress for comments on an earlier version of this column.