This week, Donald Trump decided (or by the tone of his speech, Steve Bannon decided) to withdraw the United States from the strictly voluntary Paris Accords. This decision was a tragic abdication of American leadership, and it is entirely possible that it marks the end of the American era. Why would any country ever enter a long term agreement with us again if our word is worthless? It was one of the most ridiculous self-inflicted wounds I have ever seen, and Trump’s prediction that the world would end up laughing at us has already become a reality. However, Trump’s destruction of American’ leadership may not actually destroy the planet. California, New York, and Washington have created the United States Climate Alliance, and intend to work with other countries, regions, and provinces to meet the Paris Accords. If they play it right, these states, and others that will hopefully join them, can use their constitutionally protected right to tell Trump to eat coal and enact laws that will keep the US to its Paris commitments.
States’ Rights Aren’t Just For Living Confederate Monuments Like Jeff Sessions
Those of us who take a dim view of America’s history of slavery and segregation tend to recoil at the term “States’ Rights,” because the concept has most often been invoked to promote institutionalized white supremacy. However, the Tenth Amendment, which says all powers not granted to the Federal Government belong to the States, is an essential check on federal power. It is there to protect California’s right to control carbon emissions just as much as it was ever there to help South Carolina persecute its black citizens. California already has a cap and trade system in place as well as other progressive environmental regulations. A State’s right to regulate internal carbon commerce has already been established.
The United States Climate Alliance may not be able to control all carbon emissions in the US, but they may just be able to offset the transgressions of the Koch brothers and other polluters in states they cannot reach, and curb some big polluters in the bargain. Most carbon emissions don’t come from the federal government (although the Tennessee Valley Authority accounts for quite a few); they come from people and corporations. Just imagine that Oregon, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, and Maryland join the Climate Alliance. About 100 million consumers live in those and existing Climate Alliance states. No business wants to voluntarily give up that many domestic customers over a few environmental regulations. A third of the American population uses a lot of power and a lot of cars and a lot of plastic, all of which come from fossil fuels (at least for the moment). Any business wanting to sell to consumers or do business in those states will have to adhere to whatever regulations the alliance may impose. The great news is that most big polluters are big companies, and big companies’ policies can be manipulated by a minority of states thanks to the power of capitalism.
Large Corporations have to set policies based on all states in which they do business
Big companies tend to develop internally consistent policies based on the most restrictive state law they have to obey. Let me give you an example: If 1/3 of American states pass a law mandating that all small SUVs must have 35 mpg as of 2020, American car manufacturers are not going to make a Ford Escape that gets 25 mpg for Alabama and one that gets 35 mpg for California. They are going to create a product (given the technology already exists) that they can sell in all states. Streamlining their products and policies to comply with all applicable regulations is a better and cheaper way for them to do business. There are also non-product related examples. Before marriage equality was decided by the Supreme Court, many large companies offered health benefits to same sex domestic partners. This was often because some states required it. It is easier for HR departments (or any other departments) in large organizations to have 1 policy to apply to all of its operations than different policies for every jurisdiction. Exxon, BP, and every other major oil company sell gas in California and every blue state. After all, that’s where most of the people are. Seems like a fair bet to me that they will be unwilling to forgo 100 million consumers – more than the entire population of Germany – just to avoid a little carbon cutting.
It’s time to use the tools we have to achieve the ends we want
With a petulant toddler at the head of the Federal Government, we need to look for alternative means to achieve our goals, and California has the right idea. For a hundred years, the South used their state laws to achieve the horribly discriminatory policies they wanted, and they succeeded, despite the existence of a constitutional amendment designed to prevent those policies. We have no such impediment! There’s no reason we can’t use our state laws to try to save the planet, or anyone else who needs saving, for that matter. One excellent aspect of federalism is that people in other states generally don’t kick up a fuss about what the state next door is up to, as long as it does not fundamentally offend human dignity, and it took almost two hundred years to nip that one in the bud. It’s time for us to support the United States Climate Alliance and any other state-level initiatives that can move our country forward. The more states sign on, the more consumers fall under a climate-protective umbrella, and the more polluters have to listen to us. Let the era of Blue States’ Rights begin.