Rethinking America

California Yes, United States No

How Trump matters less in a world of sub-country level governance.

Credit: Christopher Penler Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Global governance is no longer the exclusive province of nation states. Although they will continue to be crucial.
  • The majority of US coal mining jobs were lost in the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of technological advances.
  • Trump may discover that the White House, although it matters, does so less than before.

Some years ago, the late humorist Art Buchwald (1925-2007) wondered out loud whether California would continue being part of NATO. He did so on the eve of a visit to Washington by Jerry Brown, then and now the governor of California.

After Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, the question can be turned on its head.

California leads the way

California has emerged as the vanguard of a series of U.S. states, cities and companies vowing to continue respecting the commitments that have been adopted in Paris in 2016. It remains in, while the U.S. leaves. That move is more than symbolic.

The Paris Agreement – together with the decision on the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 – is the best example of what I call inductive global governance, bringing about progress from the bottom up.

California is a powerful player on the world stage. It has 39 million inhabitants (more than Canada, and slightly less than Spain) – and a GDP that makes it the fifth-largest economy in the world (not counting the United States itself).

Leading by example

Beyond just California, New York, Washington and a dozen other states – including two with Republican governors – plus cities, including the U.S.’s 10 largest (New York City, Los Angeles as well as the capital, Washington, D.C.), and some large companies, have signed up to a coalition called the United States Climate Alliance.

These states and cities alone account for 30% of the U.S. economy and more than 52 million inhabitants. In terms of carbon emissions, however, these states account for only 18% of the U.S. total, because the most polluting (headed by Texas) are with Trump.

The California-China axis

California’s dynamism goes beyond its influence within the United States. Governor Brown is the driving force behind a joint plan with Canada and Mexico to create a pact, albeit a voluntary one, honoring the Paris goals.

Of note as well, last week Brown went to see the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, who met him in Beijing and endorsed his initiative.

Xi, no doubt, remembered that he and Obama were decisive in pulling off the Paris Agreement. So it is now California and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology that are signing an agreement to cooperate on green energy technologies.

Trump diminishes the U.S.

Trump, for his part, has scrapped the U.S. national plan – national plans being a requirement – that was drawn up by the Obama administration. It committed the U.S. for a 26% cut in 2005 emission levels by 2025, something that will now be difficult to achieve.

As it stands, California may be becoming the de facto international negotiator for the United States on environmental issues.

We may, in other words, be witnessing something that is not entirely without historical precedent: global governance that is not limited to nation states, but also includes sub-state and private entities, NGOs (many sectors are regulated by them worldwide) and companies.

Strategic opposition to Trump

Many in the United States have declared their opposition to Trump’s environmental plans (among other reasons because they have invested in alternative energies and natural gas).

With this, the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other developments, Trump must be discovering that politics, both domestic and foreign, is a more complex business than he had been expecting. His bullying will only get him so far.

Trump may also discover that the White House, although it matters, does so less than before, in a more complex world where power is more diffuse. For better and for worse.

The entire world on notice

With Trump as a (partial) roadblock, everybody else in the world not only has to pitch in, but try harder. This is especially true for Europe. EU emissions increased 0.5% in 2015, while they fell in the U.S. by 3% last year.

This positive trend in the U.S. is due to the transition from coal and oil to natural gas, the new manna from heaven deriving from North American shale.

Whatever Trump may think, as far as U.S. coal mining jobs are concerned, the majority were lost in the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of technological advances. They are unlikely to return, however much the current occupant of the White House would like them to.

A welcome development

Inductive governance such as this is not only applicable to environmental matters: States are also starting to demand that it be applied, for example, to the fight against jihadist terrorism, which uses the Internet as a forum for recruiting and training its militants.

It is essential that platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook, to mention only the most well-known, cooperate in this fight, as the British Prime Minister requested in the wake of the attacks in Manchester and London.

Twitter claims that between July and December last year, it used algorithms to delete 376,000 accounts suspected of promoting terrorism.

Facebook takes similar measures, combining automation and human intervention. Its founder and president Mark Zuckerberg has said that artificial intelligence may play a significant role in such work in the near future.

In any event, Silicon Valley will be key to this type of fight against terrorism.

Global governance is no longer the exclusive province of nation states. Although they will continue to be crucial, they need the help of other actors. And such actors may sometimes turn against national governments if they do not see eye to eye.

Editors note: This article first appeared on and is adapted from the Global Spectator Blog of the Elcano Royal Institute. You can read it here.

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About Andrés Ortega

Andrés Ortega is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank.

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