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Leaving the Paris Agreement: What’s Next?

Mass Audubon Ipswich River wildlife sanctuary © Jared Leeds

Born from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 21st summit, the Paris Agreement pledges to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. This agreement was pivotal, demonstrating international dedication to collectively reducing and mitigating the effects of climate change. Since its inception in 2015, about 188 of the attending 197 countries have ratified the agreement

Last week, however, the United States officially became the first country to exit the Paris Agreement. While the withdrawal process began one year ago, the exit became finalized on November 4, 2020. 

Our Role in Greenhouse Gas Emissions 

The reason this withdrawal is so concerning is related to the United States’ enormous contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) – the root cause of climate change and its byproduct, global temperature rise. Between 1850 and 2011, our country was responsible for the largest portion of total greenhouse gas emissions compared to every other nation in the world. Even today, the United States continues to be the second largest GHG emitter worldwide. 

This global nature of GHGs is part of the reason why international collective action is so important. No matter where we are, our combined emissions contribute to the global phenomenon of climate change. Even more significant, just a few nations are responsible for a majority of these emissions, which then impact the entire planet. 

Collective Climate Action Isn’t Over 

Although the US has formally withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, much of the country is still committed to reaching these international targets. 

Including Massachusetts. 

We know that to fight climate change and protect the natural and human communities we love, we have to act boldly and urgently. Massachusetts is dedicated to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. This means that statewide, through a combination of reducing emissions and improving nature-based solutions, we, as a state, will not emit more GHGs than what we can soak back up and remove from the atmosphere. 

And here at Mass Audubon, we know when we work together, we can make an impact. 

Where We Go from Here 

There is still an opportunity for the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement as soon as February 2021. There are also steps that we can all take to keep the momentum going on climate action.  

You can write to your elected official, urging them to continue to support clean, equitable climate legislation. You can make sure your community and local organizations (like schools) are committed to the nation-wide pledge dedicated to achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals. You can support community programs, like green municipal aggregation, which “greens” community electricity supply. You can talk about climate change with your friends and family to inspire hope and dedication to climate action (here’s an upcoming webinar to learn more).  

Use your voice, get active in your community, and inspire the people around you to make change. Our collective climate fight is far from over. 

Unexpected Optimism on the Paris Agreement

Many that work on climate change issues, including myself, are finding themselves bizarrely optimistic after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement. Just to be clear, it’s a terrible decision. There’s no practical benefit. It will cost the U.S. jobs in the renewable energy sector, and it sends a horrible message to the world that the U.S. doesn’t care about responsibly managing our planet for future generations.

But that being said, the overwhelming, unified backlash has been incredibly encouraging. Representatives from both major political parties, including Governor Baker, have voiced support for the Paris Agreement, and every commercial sector you can think of, from oil companies to investment banks to coffee shops, is opting to follow the accord of their own initiative.

By getting out, we may have gotten farther in

The very day that Trump made his announcement, 12 states and Puerto Rico began joining the United States Climate Alliance, a group of states and territories vowing to uphold the Paris Agreement. Proudly, Massachusetts became a member of the Alliance after Governor Baker saw an undeniable surge of public interest. (Thanks to all who called his office!) Ten additional states and D.C. have pledged follow the Paris Agreement without formally joining the Alliance, and more than 300 U.S. cities representing more than 61 million Americans will honor the accord.

In parallel, the “We Are Still In” (#WeAreStillin) coalition of government officials, mayors, investors, universities, represents 120 million Americans and $6.2 trillion of the U.S. economy, all pledging to follow the agreement.

In some critical ways, this local, state, and public phalanx of support for the Paris Agreement is a far stronger, bolder step toward progress than what any U.S. President could recommend. We are witnessing an inspiring movement of local and state officials taking ownership of their own jurisdictions’ carbon emissions. These are people that have real agency to reduce emissions expeditiously for an enormous percentage of the U.S. population, and they have actively decided to make a difference. They’ll protect the planet of their own will, rather than let a president tell them to.

What’s more, people from all walks of life are discussing what we should do about climate change and why reducing emissions is so important to limit future warming. The science is clear and more people are now paying attention to the consequences of burning fossil fuels.

It’s up to us now

It is often said that climate change is a global problem with local solutions. That’s true, and President Trump’s move to surrender U.S. leadership has put the rest of us in the driver’s seat. We have the power to reduce our carbon emissions as individuals, as communities, as states, and as people on one planet. It’s up to us now. It’s more important than ever to protect nature for people and wildlife in face of climate change.

What we can do

There a few things we can do as individuals and active citizens that really make a difference and honor the spirit of the Paris Agreement.

As individuals, we can Make the Switch and choose to get our electricity from renewable sources.

As citizens we can tell our community leaders to get energy from sustainable sources at the municipal scale. The town of Arlington recently became a leader as other towns can, by taking advantage of Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). Essentially, CCA is a way for communities to source their own energy and lower electric bills at the same time.

There are many options for keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and keeping the places we live healthy. Talk to your own community leaders and see how you can help make your community a green community!