Foon Rhee

Where California is behind on climate change, and why Trump won’t help

Scientists protest the Trump administration’s stand on climate change during a rally at the American Geophysical Union’s meeting Dec. 13 in San Francisco.
Scientists protest the Trump administration’s stand on climate change during a rally at the American Geophysical Union’s meeting Dec. 13 in San Francisco. The Associated Press

California is leading the way on adapting to climate change, with sweeping laws and ambitious goals set by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to cut greenhouse gas emissions and increase clean energy.

But on one important measure, it’s behind some other states.

Between 2000 and 2014, 32 states besides California grew their economies while reducing their carbon emissions at the same time, according to a recent analysis from the Brookings Institution. And several recorded better numbers than California, which increased its GDP by 28 percent while cutting carbon by 6 percent. Oregon, for instance, grew its economy by 46 percent and reduced carbon by 8.5 percent. Washington state recorded 29 percent economic growth and 13 percent carbon reduction.

As a group, the 33 states expanded their economies by 22 percent while reducing emissions by nearly 12 percent, according to the Brookings study. Many are in the Northeast and South, where states have switched from dirty coal to natural gas to produce energy. The Midwest and West still depend more on coal and have fewer nuclear plants, the Brookings study says.

The trend is accelerating: As of 2007, only 14 states had delinked economic and carbon growth. It’s called “decoupling” by the experts, and it’s essential to real progress on global warming. It also corrects what skeptics say – that it’s impossible to address climate change without destroying jobs and hurting the economy. The U.S. is among at least 35 countries that have decoupled.

All that progress is in jeopardy even as scientists say Earth had its third consecutive hottest year on record in 2016.

America is entering a new era of uncertainty on climate change with President Donald Trump, who called global warming a Chinese hoax and who vows to remove the U.S. from the historic Paris accords.

Former President Barack Obama took steps to “Trump-proof” his legacy on climate change, but the new president can reverse course toward fossil fuels. He’s already started.

While Obama banned oil drilling in large areas of the Atlantic and Arctic, Trump this week revived the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. Though Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency tried to make it more difficult to change higher targets for gas mileage, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to lead the EPA, won’t commit to keeping waivers that allow California to impose stricter vehicle emission standards.

It’d be nice if the Trump administration doesn’t big-foot what states can do on their own. Then again, the White House is clamping down on news releases and social media posts that don’t follow the Trump line on climate change.

But what happens when Trump’s crusade collides with his promises to create millions of jobs?

There aren’t enough of them in coal mines or oil fields. To reach his goals, the president also needs to boost the clean energy industry.

Many major U.S. companies recognize this. Sooner or later, alternative facts or not, Trump will face that reality, too.

By the numbers

A key to addressing climate change is growing economies while still cutting carbon emissions. How selected states did from 2000 to 2014:


GDP change

Carbon change













New York












Source: Brookings Institution