Don’t Worry About the Paris Climate Agreement

That’s a big thing for anyone to do, considering the U.S. State Department officially announced the U.S.’s attempt to abandon the Paris Agreement on climate. What gives? A lot of this has to do with how the U.S. government actually works.

Something I do tend to see from time to time in foreign reporting and commentary is a little bit of a misconception about this. While people get the technical terms right, they don’t fully translate to other countries. Even more, this is true for many U.S. citizens as well. A lot of mystery surrounds how people in my country govern ourselves, and it can be a scary mystery to unravel on its own. Add climate change into the mix, and things can get really frightening.

The President, Congress, and even the Supreme Court don’t have as much power as people might think.
My country’s power isn’t fully contained in the national government. This is very subtle, and it doesn’t get reported on too often. Many of the ways my national government tries to leverage state and local governments is through money. Practically, this means national people will threaten to withhold money from state people. States and local governments are free to accept this, and some localities even prepare for that eventuality.

A great example of this is how U.S. mayors will work to uphold the Paris Agreement – even without federal support. It’s already going to happen, for a bunch of reasons. Our national government can’t really interfere in the process without sacrificing political capital.

Importantly, these mayors represent the vast bulk of U.S. citizens. Even people who might write Facebook rants about fake climate change aren’t really against these mayors. The Paris Agreement is saving towns money, helping locals run things more efficiently. My national government couldn’t pay some of these cities to start wasting money again. Anyone not represented by these mayors (around 15% of the population) doesn’t affect the carbon footprint enough to fully matter.

This might seem a little weird to people with strong national governments.
In other parts of the world, power is located in one place, usually a parliament of sorts. The analog for that in the U.S. is Congress…and the White House…and some parts of state government. Our closest thing to a Prime Minister isn’t our President – it’s our Speaker of the House. Over the years, the latter office has become more quiet, letting the President and others take the hits for public policy disasters.

But I digress.

In some ways, President Trump is going to highlight where the U.S. President doesn’t have real power. The Paris Agreement is one of those places. He can’t force U.S. citizens to go back on their word, and that’s something important to remember at times like this.