Over the past twelve months, the role of the federal government in climate policy has shifted dramatically. President Trump and his administration are offering a federal energy agenda that downplays climate risk and actively improves prospects for coal-fired electricity, natural gas trade, and petroleum exploration. As a result, today’s climate and renewable energy landscape is dominated by vocal companies and individuals outside of Washington, like the “We Are Still In” campaign, who recognize the climate risks and the tremendous economic opportunities associated with clean energy.
The pivotal moment was President Trump’s announcement of his intention to withdraw from and renegotiate the Paris Accord in favor of “terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers.” This was a major shift in international climate diplomacy and galvanized efforts by U.S. states, cities, and private companies to, “provide the leadership necessary to meet our Paris commitment” and pursue “aggressive climate action.” Research, advocacy, and philanthropic investments followed, emphasizing the role of and opportunity for state governments to address climate change.
States have a number of tools at their disposal to address greenhouse gas emissions. Many establish operating guidelines for utilities that can include specific standards for the amount of electricity derived from low- or no-carbon sources; all can add a carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme into the power markets without any permission from federal authorities. States already establish taxes on transportation fuels, an authority that can be adapted to carbon targets. They can alter building codes, requiring higher levels of efficiency from all new construction. States can offer incentives to companies that reduce or otherwise alter energy usage, directing tax revenue to private sector partners. All of these authorities give states the ability to make meaningful reductions now in pursuit of satisfying greenhouse gas reduction ambitions.
However, states particularly invested in greenhouse gas reductions - those that have signed the We Are Still In pledge or joined the U.S. Climate Alliance - represent less than 40 percent of domestic climate emissions. On their own, these states are incapable of achieving reductions meaningful to the Paris Agreement or capable of meeting the climate challenge.
Turning to American cities - like the nearly 400 that have joined the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, which adopts the Paris climate goals - doesn’t change the calculus. According to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, an organization of more than 90 global cities uniting to address the climate challenge, “if all U.S. cities with populations over 50,000 followed the ambitions of C40 cities” they would still achieve just 36 percent of the total needed to achieve U.S. 2025 emissions targets.
The climate challenge is created by and impacts every community, country, and continent in varying degrees. Solutions must be implemented at the same level: As a planet, we must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The global nature of the problem implies that the U.S. federal government must be involved for three reasons.
1. Every climate solution carries economic costs that have and will continue to have huge implications for the balance of global trade, development, and the success of regional economies.
Countries alone are capable of negotiating not just the international commitments to address this challenge, but also the trade agreements that will ensure that mitigation costs will not encourage some countries to shirk responsibilities and free ride on the mitigation efforts of others.
2. The federal government is charged with the responsibility to address environmental challenges at scale.
The Clean Air Act, state petitions, and the Supreme Court have all delegated the role of identifying environmental risks and enforcing mitigation pathways to the federal government and the federal government alone. While states and localities can set examples for optimal, economical greenhouse gas reduction strategies, only the federal system can compel adherence and provide the stability and clarity for interstate and international trade necessary for a mitigation pathway to have long-term efficacy.
3. The federal government simply has more effective tools at its disposal than the states.
The federal government has unique capabilities for research, data collection, and information exchange that will help identify the best routes for efficiency improvements and emissions reductions over the long-term. Thanks to the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, federal authorities are enshrined for any sector of the economy that hinges on interstate trade, like long-haul transportation, domestic electricity markets, minimum performance standards for industrial facilities, appliance standards, and the power to price carbon economy-wide through regulations or the tax code.
To achieve an effective global response to the climate challenge requires the exercise of federal authorities. Even those states eager to adopt the most ambitious climate mitigation strategies will serve primarily as a testing ground for emissions reductions efforts; they will not create the short-term emissions reductions necessary to attain U.S. goals as outlined in the Paris Accord or reclaim long-term U.S. leadership in international climate mitigation and diplomacy. There is no replacement for a strong, federal role in addressing greenhouse gas reductions. Fortunately, the window for bipartisan federal action is opening.
Catrina Rorke, Senior Fellow with DEPLOY/US, is a leader in the right-of-center field who is dedicated to clarifying a well-defined and limited role for government in shaping policies for a cleaner, more secure and more abundant energy future.