Senior U.S. climate officials arrived Monday in Bonn, Germany, a week into the latest meeting of the United Nations-sponsored climate change project known as the Conference of Parties-23 (COP-23).

To no one’s surprise, the “rest of the world” (which is to say, Europe and the American political left, mostly) remains unhappy about the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord in June. Nonetheless, they are committed to find a way to persuade the country (which is to say, the red states) to see the error of its ways.

Over the weekend, four Democratic governors from states with active environmental movements—Jay Inslee of Washington, Jerry Brown of California, Kate Brown of Oregon and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia—verbally thrashed the Trump administration, although Brown was taken aback when even he was booed and heckled by “climate justice” protestors.

But to no avail.

On Monday, as several of Trump’s most senior climate negotiators took part in a panel talk on “clean fossil fuels,” attendees started singing a clever protest song to the tune of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”

But the Trump administration still plans to exit the Paris Agreement. What gives?

Suffice it to say, taking moral umbrage at the United States doesn’t have the same coercive power over American policy as the Pentagon’s nuclear umbrella over Europe or the U.S. Navy and its 11 aircraft carriers keeping the world’s trade routes has had on global policy.  Hence, the distinction between “hard power” and “soft power” made many years ago by Harvard’s Joseph Nye.

The top-down approach to climate change the United Nations prefers was never going to work. Major climate meetings have been taking place for 23 years—hence the name COP23—but have never succeeded in creating a workable international scheme. On two separate occasions, the United States has signed up and then removed itself from a global climate agreement, first in 2001 under George W. Bush and now in 2017 under Trump.

Thankfully, a more decentralized approach to carbon policy is quietly gaining steam, as states and cities band together to pursue their own goals. Speaking during a panel discussion in Bonn, McAuliffe celebrated the recent election wins in Virginia, which ushered in a new swath of Democrats who will enjoy something like parity with Republicans in the Legislature’s lower house, not to mention a new Democratic governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

This means Virginia will likely become a member of the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has had some success cutting emissions from the power sector. Carbon markets are less economically efficient than a carbon price, but since its creation in 2005, RGGI state carbon emissions have fallen 40 percent, thanks in large part to the development of natural gas reserves from hydraulic fracturing. While RGGI is not an ideal vehicle to place a market price on carbon, this type of compulsory, cost-sharing system is the longest-lasting successful carbon market still in existence.

Along with Virginia, the election of a Democrat to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey also means that state may rejoin RGGI, after leaving the group in 2011.

In other words, the growth of regional carbon markets is still a going concern. It even could force real U.S. emissions reductions in the coming years, even as the sound and fury of U.N. meetings along the Rhine continue to signify nothing.

Image by r.classen

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