How Greenlash is Triggering the Next Advanced Energy Wave

Earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown drew cheers from the crowd at the Global Citizens Festival in Hamburg, Germany, when he announced he would assemble world leaders next year for a climate change summit.

“I know President Trump is trying to get out of the Paris agreement,” Brown said. “But he doesn’t speak for the rest of America… it’s up to you and it’s up to me and tens of millions of other people to get it together to roll back the forces of carbonization and join together to combat the existential threat of climate change…we in California and in states all across America believe it’s time to act.”

The Climate Action Summit will take place in San Francisco in September 2018. It is just one in a series of actions by Governor Brown to fight federal inertia with local action on climate change. Brown also recently signed Assembly Bill 398, which extends California’s greenhouse gas emission reduction program, and announced a collaboration with Chinese clean energy researchers.

Brown has a pointed message: we’re doing this because states must lead on the climate issue. We’re doing this because Washington has dropped the ball.

Indeed, “greenlash” is leaving a mark from coast to coast, as commentator and entrepreneur Van Jones first predicted it would after the Paris Agreement withdrawal decision. With federal policy seemingly at odds with the priorities of Americans — a Yale survey found that nearly 70 percent of voters supported staying in the Paris Agreement — politicians, business leaders and donors have been galvanized in their efforts to address climate change.

Just days after President Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent a letter to the United Nations, signed by more than 1,200 mayors, business executives and university presidents, expressing a commitment to the Paris Agreement goals. Not only that, but more than a dozen states have agreed to increase their emission reduction efforts since the U.S. withdrawal decision.

Further evidence of greenlash is showing up in venues around the country, including:

  • Public awareness, measured by media searches — according to Google Trends, “Paris Climate Agreement” was searched 63 times more during the week of the withdrawal than it had been over the past 18 months. Searches for “climate change” have tripled since the withdrawal, compared with searches for the term over the past five years.
  • Corporate actions, from tech to oil and gas to utilities — Google, IBM and Salesforce are among the many companies that have publically criticized the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, voicing disapproval through statements over social media and other channels. Oil giants like Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and Shell have shared their support for the Paris Agreement, with Shell pledging to “continue to do our part providing more and cleaner energy.” In Kansas City, the local utility is rolling ahead with its investment in one of the nation’s fastest-growing networks of electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Bipartisan policies, adopted and implemented — beyond the California headlines, a host of other states have taken steps to keep their momentum. North Carolina passed a Republican-sponsored bill that would open solar markets and require utility purchases of renewable energy. Hawaii enacted a law to align state energy policy with the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, while Washington state has adopted a cap on carbon pollution, invested in growing clean energy jobs and subsidized electric vehicle purchases and charging stations.
  • Charitable donations, supporting clean energy policies — nonprofit organizations focused on energy and environmental issues have reported increases in donations. Member engagement is rising as people look to civil society for solutions.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported a drop in U.S. clean energy investment in 2016. Their survey counts generation projects like solar and wind energy. In that same year, the market for advanced energy technologies reached the $200 billion mark. The broader advanced energy sector — up and down the value chain — is about much more than solar and wind, and continues to expand as efficient, low-carbon alternatives become embedded throughout our economy and society.

This economic growth may explain all of the greenlash. Trump’s Paris decision was an affront to large swaths of the economy, the people who work in them and the cities and towns that count them among their tax base.

Nothing is more American than buckling down in the face of adversity. Ironically, short of full-blown support for climate action, the best federal policy to spur the advanced energy economy may be to tell its entrepreneurs and foot soldiers that their mission is over.

Lead image: DC-Climate-March-2017 | Mark Dixon | CC BY 2.0 | Wikimedia Commons

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Austin Whitman is Vice President of Energy Markets at  FirstFuel Software , where he oversees the company's strategic vision and works closely with utility clients on new product innovation efforts. He has worked in energy consulting, finance, and technology and holds an MBA and MEM from Yale.      

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