About two months after what is believed to be the most important summit on climate change in history, many states are taking new steps to attempt to slow global warming.
Since the U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26, was held last fall in Scotland, states such as Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico and Washington have announced “high impact” actions that are being celebrated by the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of governors formed in 2017 after former President Donald Trump pulled the country out of the landmark Paris Agreement. But only about half of all states – 25 governors, including Puerto Rico’s – are part of the alliance, which touts its members’ progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to the relevant policies, state leaders are hardly on the same page, with some taking an aggressive stance on combating climate change and others defending oil and gas production. While the Biden administration is pushing for progress at the federal level – advocating for a net-zero economy by 2050 and to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – some experts wonder how much can be expected from America without across-the-board cooperation from state leaders.
“There absolutely needs to be federal leadership on national and international goals and commitments,” says Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s environment secretary and the president of the Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of state and territorial environmental agency leaders. “But for the nation to meet its national commitments, it’s truly up to the states to implement them.”
Many states have already been aggressive with that sort of implementation. California signed a COP26 declaration on achieving 100% zero-emissions vehicle sales by 2040 globally, and separately became the first state to sign Scotland’s Edinburgh Declaration, which carries a commitment to “protect nature and halt biodiversity loss around the globe.” Hawaii previously became the first state to enact a law that implemented portions of the Paris Agreement itself.
“While not all states are on board, a lot of states are on board and those states are actually making some pretty significant progress,” says Matt Casale, the director of environment campaigns at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “And when you think about some of the states that are the ones that are making that progress – California, states in the Northeast, New York New York – these bigger states that are large parts of not only the nation’s economy, but the world economy … having some of these bigger states, these leadership states, starting to really move is really significant.”
The U.S. Climate Alliance says that over the past year it collectively has made the kind of progress Casale describes. It represents 62% of U.S. gross domestic product and 56% of the country’s total population, stretches to the Gulf Coast and has collectively outpaced the rest of the nation when it comes to emissions reductions, adds Evan Westrup, the alliance’s communications director, in an email.
One state’s actions can also have an impact across state lines. Jeff Mauk, the executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, notes the example of Washington implementing standards for the energy the state imports, which can affect fossil fuel plants in Montana.
“No state is an island,” says Leah Stokes, an associate professor at the University of California – Santa Barbara and senior policy adviser at Evergreen Action, a climate change advocacy group. “When one state acts, whether that is bringing down the cost of technology through deployment or coming up with new policy ideas, that can spill over into other states’ actions too.”
Regardless of how many governors are making bold pledges related to climate change, whether or not they are holding true on those promises with action is what really matters. Westrup notes that the U.S. Climate Alliance will be launching a new, more comprehensive tracker and database of state actions later in 2022.
“States are the ones that are in a position to really track just how much progress their states are making on greenhouse gas reduction,” Grumbles adds. “In order to achieve the ambition, you have to be measuring the greenhouse gas emissions, the leakage, the progress when you’re electrifying and also tracking how many electric vehicles, trucks and buses are now in the state.”
One issue, however, is the makeup of the states that are taking action. The coalition represents 43% of total U.S. emissions, its annual report also notes – meaning that a large majority of emissions come from the remaining non-involved states.
“You have kind of a half a loaf,” says Barry Rabe, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School. “And it’s no secret that a good many of those climate alliance states are ones that don’t produce fossil fuels and many don’t have large industrial sectors. It doesn’t mean that their emissions are trivial, but some of the real, real challenges are in the states that are least likely to sign up for that agreement.”
The partisan divide on climate – the “biggest change in this area in the last 15 years” – is a key element of the issue for the U.S., adds Rabe, who is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The U.S. Climate Alliance includes just three Republican governors: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, all of whom are considered more moderate. Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, is a member of the alliance, too, but it’s unclear if his soon-to-be Republican replacement, Glenn Youngkin, will keep the state involved.
“If we were having this conversation around 2005 or 2008, you saw far more states with split party control or Republican leadership much more willing to engage on climate than they are now,” Rabe says. “So we talk about this all the time – the hyperpartisanship at the federal level. But we’ve also seen that statewide to the point where the best single predictor of a state’s commitment on climate is which party controls the government.”
States do have the ability to set an example and lead the way toward broader actions, Rabe adds. But this hasn’t played out much in the U.S., especially compared to a country like Canada. He notes the actions of Colorado, which has “pushed the envelope” on methane policies, and its standards in that area are “way out ahead of the rest of the country.”
“Until about 2015, I would say both are global laggards,” Rabe says, referring to Canada and the United States. “Canada has shifted and moved ahead, but they’ve found a way for the federal government to work with provinces, despite differences. And the U.S. has not.”
There are ways for the U.S. federal government to encourage more states to get on board and the “most powerful one would be money,” says Casale, with U.S. Public Interest Research Group. He notes the fact that every state is getting funding for electric vehicle charging stations through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. There is also power when it comes to “administrative rulemaking,” where, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency could tighten emissions controls on power plants, Casale adds.
“The federal government is basically like the bank,” says Stokes, with Evergreen Action. “They can provide huge investment dollars into the clean energy transition that will make it cheaper for states to make progress faster.”
Stokes says the spending plan is “absolutely essential to climate progress.” Casale adds that it’s a “big deal for a lot of reasons,” especially due to the clean energy tax credits included in the bill.
“If they pass Build Back Better, I think we’re a lot of steps farther along than we are right now,” he says. “If they don’t pass Build Back Better, it’s gonna be a disappointment, and it sort of hamstrings what the federal government is able to do to tackle climate change this year.”
The future, then, is murky. A lot of states are in a “wait and see mode,” Rabe says, referring to the pending climate actions from Congress and the Biden administration and the fact that a lot of state legislatures only meet on a part-time basis. But Grumbles, of the Environmental Council of the States, is optimistic.
“You’re tapping into what Greta Thunberg summed up as ‘blah, blah, blah’ – the talk and making the ambitious pledges and commitments,” he says. “I see states taking concrete, sustainable steps to fulfill the climate ambition, and that’s absolutely what’s necessary.”