July 25, 2022

An Effective Strategy on Climate Change Requires State Action

Posted on July 25, 2022 by Steven Chester

Fans of Jeopardy will remember Contestant James Holzhauer and his “all-in” strategy to winning games. He remains the second highest money winner in regular Jeopardy, and while his opponents were cautious in their play, James was bold. To borrow a page from his playbook, let’s consider a bold, “all-in” strategy to combat climate change – one that includes aggressive and timely actions by the states to abate greenhouse gas emissions.   

Without question, the Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA is a significant setback for the Biden Administration and its efforts to address climate change. Without federal leadership on climate matters, the nation’s ability to timely meet U.S. commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement is in doubt. Yet all is not lost. I remain confident that the Biden Administration will identify and pursue multiple pathways to address the climate crisis, including other regulatory options under the Clean Air Act (our colleague Bob McKinstry recently suggested alternative Clean Air Act approaches), reliance on other federal laws to regulate CO2 (some have suggested the Toxics Substance Control Act), and actions by other federal agencies to preserve natural resources and promote development of clean energy (e.g.; the Departments of Interior and Energy).  

But the federal government needs help, and I believe we should look to the states to provide such assistance. In the first decade-plus of this Century, about half of the states actively sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote clean energy alternatives to coal. By 2012, 20 to 25 states had developed state climate plans. The states also formed regional climate initiatives to explore potential collaborative approaches to fighting climate change. These regional groups included the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the Western Regional Climate Initiative, the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord.

After this initial period of state activism on climate issues, however, state leadership changes in a number of states resulted in shifts on climate policy, with climate plans being shelved and action to abate carbon pollution halted. With one exception, RGGI, the regional climate initiatives largely became inactive. RGGI continues to administer a cap-and-tradeable allowance program for the benefit of its member states.

Recently, states have begun to reengage, or engage for the first time, on climate change. They have done so by either revising and updating existing plans or by developing new climate plans. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), about 34 states now have final or draft climate plans. These plans typically include greenhouse gas reduction goals and myriad policy options for achieving those goals. Some plans also include adaptation policies and measures. And importantly, the state plans are not limited to reducing carbon emissions from power plants but are economy-wide in scope, evaluating greenhouse gas reduction and clean energy opportunities in the electric supply, transportation, commercial and industrial, land use, and agricultural sectors.  

Given the lack of progress we’ve made as a nation in combating climate change, the time seems right to encourage the states to adopt climate-related measures. I concede there will likely be challenges to state action on climate change.  For some states, bipartisan state legislation on climate policy may be a non-starter. But legislation isn’t the only tool available to state decisionmakers. Other tools include executive orders, administrative orders, and rulemaking. For instance, executive orders could be issued to set goals for achieving economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050, to establish targets for renewable energy use in state owned facilities, and to require the purchase of electric vehicles for state auto fleets. In states with public utility commissions, rulemaking and order authority might be applied to mandate renewable portfolio standards and waste reduction and efficiency targets for utilities. And states may have rulemaking authority to adopt energy efficiency building codes like the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), as well as appliance codes comparable to California’s requirements – and much more.  With its broad legal authorities and extensive funding resources, the federal government is best positioned to lead the nation’s collective response to climate change. That said, state action on climate matters could contribute significantly to the country’s overall efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet U.S. commitments under the Paris Agreement. With an “all-in” strategy that includes timely, aggressive action by the states, the path to a healthier, cooler planet becomes much more attainable.