The hope for climate change policy: in the age of Trump, look beyond diplomacy

By Kristin Rounds | February 20, 2019

Credit: Cornell CSE

Last year, David Victor and Bruce Jones of the Brookings Institute published Undiplomatic Action, offering comprehensive insight into the emerging geopolitics of climate change. They began with a consoling thesis: President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accords, be it disappointing and politically troubling, was not the definitive end to US action on climate change. Quite the converse is true when looking at what is actually required to reduce both national and global emissions. The necessary changes fall under the realms of technological innovation that allow for energy system transitions, which are minimally dictated by diplomacy.

This is not to say that passivism in either international or domestic policy should be accepted or forgiven. Rather, as Victor and Jones emphasize, when such institutions fail to aid in climate progress, we must turn to non-state actors and political niches that are critical to motivating and sustaining policy change. In the United States, examples of such groups are the coastal states of California and New York, and green cities such as Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colorado. California itself is a valuable standard; its policies and investment for the electrification of its energy system demonstrate the successful integration of sustainable technologies through the political process, all while making impressively sound economic sense.

The reality of energy policy and decarbonization initiatives, specifically in the context of the developed world, is that they are heavily dictated by the private sector. The world’s biggest oil companies know where the market is heading, whether politicians decide to keep up or not. The number of project investments and venture capital stakes in clean energy doubled in 2016 from the year before, with the venture capital deals focusing mainly on power storage and digital technologies. Batteries, the critical technology behind grid electrification, are expected to have a 67 percent price drop by 2030. The economic trends of the industry demonstrate a shift towards a greener future, despite Mr. Trump’s ramblings of revitalizing the coal industry (which has been steadily declining since 2008).

In coordination with the market forces pushing towards a greener energy system, the work to be done by policy makers should be focused on creating state-level incentives for the transformation of power grids and public lands. The decentralized nature of energy infrastructure calls for regionally specific contracting decisions, market regulations and interventions, and taxation. In California, this took form through the government mandated Renewables Portfolio Standard, which requires load-serving entities of retail electricity to increase their acquisition of renewable energy resources. Retailers must source 60% of their energy through renewables for retail sales by 2030. Such government activity can be employed entirely separate from the federal level, as we’ve seen in the aforementioned states and cities.

The actions of these private and sub-state actors, though contextually drops in the bucket, should provide some consolation about the future of climate policy. Though there is great merit for global governance on the issue of climate change, the erratic nature of state governments leads me to believe that our energy as constituents should be focused on more localized solutions. When looking towards the future of a green society, we no longer have time to entertain those in denial. In the United States, that means looking beyond the capacities or misguided intentions of the current administration. Whether through local government or private sector, there is hope for progress beyond Trump.

Kristin Rounds is a first-year MIA student at GPS, specializing in energy and environmental policy and Latin American studies. She is passionate about conservation and sustainability and hopes to pursue a career as a policy analyst to help navigate the market policies and institutional reforms necessary for sustainable development.