You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The New Nation-States

How Trump’s rejection of the Paris accord is reshaping the political landscape.

Illustration by Joe Darrow; Photos: Getty

When Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, he may have achieved something few presidents ever manage: changing the way the world works.

Actually, he may have done it twice.

The first way is both deceptively simple and monumentally damaging. By slowing the global momentum toward renewable energy, Trump has guaranteed that the Earth will become a hotter place to live—which means less ice and coral, more drought and flood. The last presidential decision to show up on the geologic record was the atom bomb: Testing the giant weapons has left a layer of cesium and plutonium on the planet’s crust that will last for millions of years. Assuming Trump refrains from dropping a nuke himself, it’s his climate policy that will leave a permanent mark.

But the Paris decision may also reshape the world for the better, or at least the very different. Consider: A few days after Trump’s Rose Garden reveal, California Governor Jerry Brown was in China, conducting what looked a lot like an official state visit. He posed with pandas, attended banquets—and sat down for a one-on-one meeting with President Xi Jinping, which produced a series of agreements on climate cooperation between China and California. (Trump’s secretary of energy, Rick Perry, was in Beijing the same week: no pandas, no sit-down with Xi.) It was almost as if California were another country. Call it a nation-state—a nation-state that has talked about launching its own satellites to monitor melting polar ice. A nation-state that has joined New York and a dozen others in a climate alliance to announce they will meet the targets set in the Paris accord on their own. A nation-state that already holds joint auctions with Quebec in its carbon cap-and-trade program. A nation-state that is convening hundreds of other “subnational actors” from around the world next year to pledge to keep the rise in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius.

I remember, as a college newspaper reporter, sitting next to Jerry Brown on his campaign bus in 1980, a few days before the New Hampshire primary. He spent 45 minutes explaining to me that it wouldn’t be long before we had wristwatch telephones à la Dick Tracy. That kind of time allocation may explain why Brown got just under 10 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, forcing him to drop out of the race. Still, calling the Apple Watch more than three decades out is a pretty good trick. It’s worth asking whether he’s ahead of the curve once more.

I’ve long been interested in political decentralization, on the general principle that small is beautiful, or at least marginally beautifuler. Years ago, I started work on a seriocomic novel about the secession of my home state, Vermont. (I dusted off the manuscript after Trump’s election; it will be published this fall.) Though no one can tell what a few more months of Trumpism will bring, true secession still seems far-fetched. Vermont’s actual, tiny effort turned into a rancid, racist farce, while a nascent push for Calexit collapsed when its leader decamped to Russia. But the idea of simply bypassing national capitols when necessary seems less absurd all the time.

It’s ironic that global warming might be the wedge issue for the rise of “subnationalism.” After all, if you ever wanted an argument for world government, climate change provides it. But the United Nations has been trying to stop global warming since the days when we called it the greenhouse effect. And national governments, hijacked by the fossil fuel industry, have intervened again and again to obstruct any progress: The Kyoto treaty more or less collapsed, as did the Copenhagen talks. Paris “succeeded,” but only if you squint: The world’s nations vowed to keep the planet’s temperature increase to under 2 degrees Celsius, but their promises actually add up to a world that will grow 3.5 degrees hotter. The real hope was that the accord would spur private investment in renewable energy: And as the price of solar panels plummeted, in fact, China and India started to exceed their pledges.

Even that modest progress alarmed what energy expert Michael Klare calls the Big Three carbon powers: the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. (Trump’s foreign policy looks more coherent, by the way, when viewed through this prism.) The United States has now pulled out of Paris, and an aide to Vladimir Putin has said the withdrawal makes it “perfectly evident” the pact is now “unworkable.”

So what’s a state like California to do? It can’t ignore climate change, which threatens its very existence. An epic five-year drought wreaked havoc on its farming; now record flooding is pushing its infrastructure to the limit. (The state evacuated nearly 200,000 people when the Oroville Dam threatened to collapse, and all the bridges to Big Sur remain washed out.) In April, a new study showed that if sea levels keep rising, 67 percent of Southern California’s beaches may be gone before the century is out.

Pulling back on renewable energy also creates a dire economic challenge for the state: Ten times more people work in clean energy in California than mine coal in the entire country. Google and Apple are clearly making clean tech their next big conquest; Elon Musk is emerging as the Henry Ford of the new millennium. It’s not that Governor Brown is perfect—he’s been unwilling to stand up to the frackers exploiting Kern County—but he can tell where the future lies.

And he’s not alone. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has also set his sights on clean tech: A Tesla gigafactory should be up and running in Buffalo this year, and his ambitious utility-reform plan has produced a new generation of startups eager to monetize energy conservation. Sacramento and Albany, not Washington, are emerging as the capitals most important to our energy future. Others are starting to place their own bets: Days after Trump’s Paris announcement, Hawaii Governor David Ige signed a law that calls on the state to implement portions of the accord on its own. “Hawaii is seeing the impacts firsthand,” Ige declared. “Tides are getting higher, biodiversity is shrinking, coral is bleaching. We must acknowledge these realities at home.”

If you want to know who is serious about forging a new path on global warming, ignore all the airy proclamations about meeting the Paris targets—and instead pay attention to the cities and states making the very real and measurable pledge to go 100 percent renewable. California’s senate just passed such a commitment by a 2–1 margin. More dramatically, the day after Trump said he had been elected to serve “Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Mayor Bill Peduto announced that Pittsburgh will run entirely on clean energy by 2035. “If you are a mayor and not preparing for the impacts of climate change,” Peduto said, “you aren’t doing your job.” All told, 27 cities in 17 states have pledged to go 100 percent renewable—a move that puts them at direct odds with federal policy. Call them “climate sanctuaries.” San Francisco, Boulder, and Burlington won’t surprise you—but Atlanta and Salt Lake City and San Diego have done the same.

The real test will come in September next year, when “subnational” governments from around the world gather in California to sign the “Under2 MOU,” an agreement committing them to uphold the Paris targets. Launched in 2015 by California and the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the movement now includes everyone from Alsace to Abruzzo to the Australian Capital Territory; from Sichuan to Scotland to South Sumatra; from Manchester City to Madeira to Michoacán. Altogether: a billion people, responsible for more than a third of the world’s economic output. And every promise they make, sincere or not, provides climate activists with ammunition to hold each government accountable.

It’s true that California can’t force Texas or Ohio to act, the way Congress can—but if California gets richer from renewable energy, you can be sure that Texas and Ohio will feel pressure to follow suit. Under existing law, in fact, California can set its own standards for things like automobile mileage—which in turn forces Detroit to produce cleaner cars, since they don’t want to churn out different models for different regions. Big business doesn’t like a state like California dictating how much American industry can pollute—which is why Trump wants to end California’s powers under the Clean Air Act. (States, it appears, should not be allowed to experiment with anything as dangerous as breathable air.) And what if Washington does outlaw clean cars in California? Well, as I said, secession is still far-fetched. But it’s worth remembering that Jerry Brown oversees the fifth-largest economy on the planet. If it chooses to, California could probably go it alone.

Thanks to Trump, new political powers are emerging from unexpected places. In North America, for instance, Native Americans sit astride big hydrocarbon reserves and pipeline routes, and their sovereignty is making it harder for the fossil fuel companies to proceed. Big corporations are feeling public pressure to go green, and in turn they’re pushing back hard on recalcitrant states: Google recently used its plans to build a data center in North Carolina to pressure Duke Energy, a notorious polluter, into providing the company with vast amounts of solar power. For years, whenever we’ve thought about politics and public policy, our heads have swiveled automatically in the direction of Washington. Now, as with so much else, Trumpism is changing that tropism in unpredictable ways.