On Localism and the Persistent Power of the State
American Journal of International Law Unbound 2018
6 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2018
Date Written: November 1, 2018
On June 1, 2017, President Trump declared that the United States would “cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”1 The United States’ de facto withdrawal from the Paris Agreement represented an important inflection point for conceptualizing the role of nonstate actors in addressing climate change. President Trump’s announcement was met with an outpouring of resistance and widespread and concerted efforts to mobilize substate, nonprofit, and private actors to step into the void created by his announcement and to help keep the United States on track to pursue domestic and international commitments to address climate change despite federal recalcitrance. Within the leadership void created by the Trump Administration and amidst the increasingly extensive body of sub- and nonstate climate efforts, it is tempting to decenter the role of the state or to underestimate the persistent power of the state to shape the approach and effectiveness of nonstate actions. Failing to recognize that the state retains significant power in this field undermines efforts to understand the realities within which nonstate actors operate. This creates a set of heightened expectations for these actors that defies the reality of the political, economic, and social resources available to them and masks the challenges inherent in relying upon a fragmented, shifting, and differently accountable set of actors to effect pervasive change. This essay situates the current up-swelling of nonstate climate actions in the United States within the context of state power and presidential leadership. It first identifies the implications of the shift from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration on international and domestic efforts to address climate change. It then offers a perspective on the implications of this shift for the evolving interplay between the state and nonstate actors in the United States. The Trump Administration’s approach to climate change demonstrates simultaneously the continuing, emphatic power of the state to enable or to cripple large-scale change, and the increasingly diverse and sophisticated range of nonstate actors that operate individually and collectively in interstitial spaces to effect change in response to perceived deficiencies of the state. Ultimately, while the state remains a dominant and indispensable actor within this arena, nonstate actors are finding new and creative ways to push the boundaries of the interstitial spaces within which they operate in such a way as to influence the state’s willingness and ability to respond to climate change in the long term.
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