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Experts: Predictable parties working to meet Paris goals, but will it be enough?

As supporters of the Paris Agreement on climate change across the U.S. spoke out to show the world they are still committed to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, reaction was mixed from energy industry observers who saw mostly predictable parties ready to pledge allegiance to the global climate deal.

Philip Wallach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told a panel at the think tank's Washington, D.C., headquarters June 6 that while the support was notable, "it's not really news." That's because many of the states with governors offering support — New York, California, Washington and Connecticut among them — already have aggressive greenhouse gas emissions programs.

Two new coalitions have been formed in the days following President Donald Trump's announcement that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. We Are Still In, which originated with a Twitter hashtag, quickly grew to include more than 1,200 governors, mayors, businesses, and college and university leaders. The movement gained international visibility on June 5, as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered "America's Pledge" to the United Nations, promising the parties would continue to strive toward reducing greenhouse gases and meeting U.S. commitments under the Paris accord.

The second coalition, the U.S. Climate Alliance, was formed by the governors of California, Washington and New York in the immediate aftermath of Trump's announcement and has been collecting members since.

Denise Grab, a senior attorney with the New York University School of Law's Institute for Policy Integrity, said in an interview that the alliance is an opportunity for the states to come together and share best practices and ensure that their various greenhouse gas programs coordinate seamlessly. Grab was encouraged to see Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe join, because "Virginia is not really a traditional climate change actor you'd think of."

Responding to Trump's exit announcement, McAuliffe cited the state's recently announced plan to develop a greenhouse gas reduction program and said, "If President Trump refuses to lead the response, Virginia will."

Dan Kreeger, executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers, cannot remember climate change receiving so much buzz and attention from the mainstream news.

"His pullout of Paris actually made climate change the biggest news item it has ever been, probably," Kreeger told S&P Global Market Intelligence. Typically, public interest in climate change follows a major weather event such as Hurricane Katrina or Super Storm Sandy. "In a very weird way, he is creating some of the animosity and public will and energy that's been missing from climate change," Kreeger maintained. As a result, leaders of more conservative states might have an opportunity to begin work on climate change or clean energy regulation.

Colorado, another "purple" state where voters support both Democrats and Republicans, could take this opportunity to more aggressively address its carbon footprint, Kreeger said. And now that Minnesota has joined the alliance, Kreeger thinks other states in the Midwest might follow suit. But Kreeger is cautious about the coalitions' potential impact on climate policy. After all, states joined similar carbon trading coalitions around the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen, only to back out of plans later on.

"I think the real question is going to be, are they going to step up to the plate in a meaningful way, or is it hot air?" Kreeger said.

David Hart, a professor of public policy at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government and a senior fellow at Brookings, was more blunt at the Brookings event.

"The president's announcement, particularly the way that he made it, I think has led a lot of people to become saints around the country, to declare their sainthood, and to declare themselves in opposition to the sinner in the White House," Hart said.

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'A Swiss cheese regulatory environment'

The U.S. committed under the nonbinding Paris Agreement to lower economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 26% to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. Experts are split on whether that goal is still feasible. Wallach noted that President Barack Obama committed to the goal confident that his successor, presumably Hillary Clinton, would ratchet up efforts to cut greenhouse gases in the U.S.

Instead, Trump has made deregulation a focus of his administration. He has moved to repeal the Clean Power Plan, and submitted a budget request that would defund crucial climate programs and research.

"Trump's decision as to whether or not to stay in Paris has almost no bearing on whether or not we can meet that 26% goal," Kreeger said. But repealing the Clean Power Plan and defunding climate science would certainly impede efforts to reach the goal.

As a result, states, local governments and the private sector — the actors that have already been driving emissions reductions — must step up their carbon emissions reductions activity. "I don't think we can do without the federal government," said Hart, "but we can get by without them for a while."

For instance, state-level policies, such as carbon taxes and trading programs, could help the U.S. reach its Paris targets. And states could also join existing programs, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or California's cap-and-trade program. Kreeger explained that RGGI runs under an "adoption model," which means the parties developed a framework rule that any state can adopt by ratifying it in their legislature.

Anthony Paul, a center fellow at Resources for the Future, said in an interview that before the Clean Power Plan was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2016 it forced even nonsupporting states to start thinking about carbon-reduction policies. Yet for many states regulating CO2 is uncharted territory.

"It's a very different type of pollutant than what state enviro regulators are used to dealing with," Paul said. "So they learned a lot in the process of preparing for the Clean Power Plan, and that sets them up going forward to be able to do their own thing even in the absence of any federal action."

Other potential state policies include enhanced renewable portfolio standards, expanded investment in energy efficiency programs, and renewable production tax credits similar to those issued by the federal government, Paul noted. All of those programs, however, are much less effective than a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, he added. And states must be careful to avoid creating what Kreeger calls "a Swiss cheese regulatory environment," or a patchwork of different policies across the country that could hinder the energy industry.

Despite the policies that states might adopt, Kreeger maintained that the U.S. lacks a work force capable of scaling up climate change efforts.

"Our entire civilization, two-thirds of which, by the way, is within 10 feet of sea level, is designed for a different planet than the one we're entering into over the next few decades," Kreeger said. "The only way we can possibly stay ahead of this thing, slow it down and adapt to it, is by having a work force that understands where the planet's going to be."

That understanding will not be improved in the absence of White House leadership. "It doesn't look great right now, honestly," acknowledged Grab, "but there is some potential to get there, and there's certainly the potential to make a bigger dent than we would in the absence of the state action."