California’s drought-stricken Folsom Lake. Public domain photo

No, California Can’t Join the Paris Climate Accord

But U.S. states can still do a lot to battle climate change

Defiant
Defiant
Dec 5, 2016 · 4 min read

by AJAI RAJ

Although he’s since said he has “an open mind” to keeping the United States involved in the Paris climate change agreement, given Donald Trump’s past comments that climate change is a hoax — and his selection of someone who claims to believe as much for his transition team — the prospect seems unlikely.

So, what then? If the United States as a whole were to withdraw from the agreement — arguably a pretty big deal, considering that we’re the number-two emitter of CO2 on the planet — could parts of the country still opt into the agreement?

Might California, which this year surpassed Britain to become the fifth-largest economy on the planet, and which also faces the threats of ever more severe droughts, wildfires and other dangers as climate change escalates, decide to ignore the denier-in-chief and compel industry to curb emissions?

How about Hawaii, which, along with other U.S. tropical islands, have also begun to feel the heat?

Unfortunately, the answer appears to be a clear-cut “no.” But that might not really matter.

As Vanessa Matarazzi, a legal officer at the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, explained the problem to us via email. “In accordance with Articles 20 and 22 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change … only [state] members of the United Nations … as defined in the preamble to the convention, can become parties to the convention.”

“In addition, in accordance with Articles 20 and 21 of the Paris agreement, only parties to the convention can become parties to the Paris agreement,” Matarazzi continued. “On this basis, individual U.S. states could not become parties to the convention nor to the Paris agreement.”

In other words, if a state entity doesn’t belong to the United Nations, said entity cannot ratify the Paris accord.

Of course, that’s not to say that individual states can’t take action to reduce carbon emissions, with or without a federal mandate. California has been fighting climate change in a meaningful way since at least 2006, when then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the first in a series of increasingly strict laws requiring the state to cut carbon emissions.

Sacramento’s current goal is to reduce the state’s emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. This is a big deal not only for California, but for the whole United States. At $2.5 trillion, the Golden State has the biggest economy of any U.S. state.

Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have received high marks from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy for “plan[ning] innovative strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency.”

The ACEEE has also praised Arizona, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Utah for their energy-efficiency measures.

Together, these states plus California account for most of the U.S. economy. They can’t join the Paris agreement. But they can still fight climate change. Even if the Trump administration chooses not to do so.

Regarding the Paris agreement, it’s also worth noting the very real questions about whether the prescribed limit of two degrees Celsius — 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — of average warming is achievable, even if all of the 197 countries potentially involved end up ratifying the agreement.

That is to say, it might not be particularly helpful to focus solely on the Paris accord as the best way of fighting climate change. More radical measures might be necessary, however the world chooses to pursue them.

Go here for an assessment of the climate actions of 32 member countries, together accounting for 80 percent of global emissions.

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