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Duke, Durham react to U.S. withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement

In response to President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the city of Durham and Duke University have reaffirmed their commitment to combating climate change.

The day of Trump's public withdrawal from the agreement in June, 298 U.S. mayors—including Durham Mayor Bill Bell—signed a commitment on Medium to "adopt, honor and uphold Paris Climate Agreement goals." Several days after Trump's announcement, Duke—alongside peer universities such as Harvard University and Yale University—reaffirmed its commitment to adopting more environmentally friendly practices, according to a Duke Today release.

"Today, we reaffirm that commitment, which is consistent with the Paris Agreement and recognizes the concerted action that is needed at every level to slow, and ultimately prevent, the rise in the global average temperature and to facilitate the transition to a clean energy economy," the statement read. "Universities have a critical role to play in reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions, continuing to advance evidence-based understanding of the causes and effects of climate change on the environment, the economy and public health, and developing solutions."

However, Duke faculty have mixed views on the impact that university and city pledges could have on reductions in greenhouse gas production and national level policy.

Billy Pizer, a faculty fellow at the Nicholas School and professor at the Sanford School, expressed his belief that the largest influence from sub-national actors such as cities, states and universities was symbolic, though he also acknowledged the possible emissions reductions they could individually create. When national government is less polarized, Pizer predicted, the signaling of sub-national actors would be enough momentum for substantial policy.

“At the end of the day, my feeling is that the problem will only be tackled successfully when there is either national level policy or a large enough number of state level actors who take action like California and New York," Pizer said.

letter in opposition to Trump's decision was also released and signed by Nicholas School Dean Jeffrey Vincent; Brian Murray, director of the Duke University Energy Initiative; Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy; and Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. 

Murray agreed that the opinion of universities matters, even if they do not have direct influence on government policy. He noted the economic influence that cities could potentially exert.

“Most of the economic activity throughout the world happens in cities,” Murray said. "Individual cities can impose ordinances or have policies or create incentives for companies to act in more climate friendly ways, in addition to using their bully pulpit to say that we don't believe that what the president did is good policy.”

Pizer added that one of the limitations of state level policies is that—acting without federal coordination—states could simply shift emissions to each other without meaningfully reducing emissions. 

But Bell was optimistic about the practical impacts of the mayors’ pledge.

"I don't know what impact it'll have politically, but if each city does its share, then collectively we can have an impact on what the United States emits,” he said.


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