States' Climate Change Efforts Stall During Pandemic

·6 min read

For Americans concerned about climate change, statehouses have served as beacons during a dark three years.

As the federal government pulled back from international agreements, pressured climate scientists and promoted oil drilling, a clutch of states pushed initiatives aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The winter of 2019 saw state after state roll out plans putting them on track to curb carbon pollution while preparing for climate change's pains.

[READ: Oregon Farmers Face Dual Struggles With Pandemic, Wildfires]

Then came coronavirus. Now the future of efforts much lauded in environmental circles has been thrown into question as cash-strapped state governments look to cut spending. Pricey initiatives may prove a tough sell as legislators slash their way to balanced budgets this fall, even as weather-related disasters -- Atlantic and Gulf Coast hurricanes, Midwest flooding, explosive forest fires across the West -- hammer the country from coast to coast.

"State budgets are busted," says Matt Rogers, a senior partner with McKinsey & Co. researching the pandemic's impacts on responses to climate change.

But, Rogers and others are quick to point out, there is ample reason to believe the pandemic won't reverse the decarbonizing trend. It may not set it back at all.

Much of the good news comes from the private sector. The fuel-saving shift to remote work has taken a bite out of the transportation sector's carbon emissions, which currently account for about 28% of the 6,677 million metric tons of carbon dioxide released in the United States annually.

Rogers says the abundance of low-interest capital makes it "much easier and much cheaper" to install rooftop solar panels and clean up larger power systems. As he describes it, the pandemic also forced the closure of high-pollution, low-return industrial assets, including oil wells in west Texas and New Mexico that "created little economic wealth and created a lot of pollution."

At the state level, states unable to pay for expensive improvements to public infrastructure or fund grants to property owners can still turn to policy shifts that don't require much investment, Rogers says. That appears to be the case in Washington state, led by Gov. Jay Inslee, who centered his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination on climate change.

While Washington faces an $8.5 billion revenue shortfall, most of the state's recent attempts to cut its carbon footprint haven't been particularly expensive, says Reed Schuler, a senior policy adviser on climate change to Inslee.

"There are many climate solutions that do not require large expenditures of state revenues," Schuler says. "The budget crisis will certainly tip the scales ... in favor of solutions that do not have significant budget impacts."

Schuler points to legislation in the state that would reduce the carbon load in gasoline sold there. The cost to state coffers would amount to $385,900 annually during the first seven years of the program, which is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributable to cars and trucks by about 10% during that time.

Wildfires that have charred millions of acres in California, Washington and Oregon in recent weeks illustrate the need for climate action to continue despite the pandemic, Schuler says.

"Residents along the West Coast are waking up with conditions that are apocalyptic," he says. "People are realizing that these outcomes are not natural, and that they're not predetermined."

[MORE: How Cities Can Alleviate Poverty While Bracing for Climate Change]

In Illinois, the disaster was the August derecho, a storm similar in power to a Category 4 hurricane that swept through the Midwest. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker put forward a suite of utility reforms aimed at combating climate change (and corruption) days after the storm abated.

Michigan's push toward clean energy, announced in late 2019 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, appears to be expanding as the state budget stabilizes. A spokesperson for the Office of Climate and Energy says funding hasn't been cut to the newly created office, but that the coming year's budget has not yet been finalized.

Elsewhere, concerns over the economy are impacting state moves to address climate change that interrupt commerce or carry significant costs.

In California, a bill that would've pushed oil and gas drilling back from communities stalled due to opposition from labor and industry representatives who cited economic concerns, says Annie Notthoff, a senior adviser with the National Resource Defense Council Action Fund. A bill that would fund energy efficiency improvements to state schools and expand the state's electric vehicle charging infrastructure passed the state assembly in August but has not yet been signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The late summer fires across the West, Notthoff says, made plain "the urgency for real climate action." California's experience, she says, demonstrates that carbon pollution can be cut while an economy grows.

"Placing limits on carbon pollution ... and moving away from fossil fuel production will help our country rebound from this economic recession and become healthier and cleaner while doing it," she says.

Describing states as "on the frontline of the climate crisis," Notthoff notes that Oregon, Colorado, Nevada and New York have recently enacted legislation to address it. The federal government has been absent, or adversarial.

California's efforts to set higher fuel efficiency standards for cars have been stymied by the Trump administration. Washington and other states have enacted laws that would adopt California's rules when litigation sparked by White House opposition is resolved. The lead lawsuit on the federal policy change is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C.

Schuler, the Washington state policy adviser, says Capitol Hill has also moved to block states from enacting rules more stringent than federal standards on greenhouse gas-producing products that cross state lines. The rationale is that a patchwork of regulations would hurt business, Schuler says, but the restrictions prevent states from going further than D.C.

"The first instinct of some (in Congress) is to work to ensure that states cannot do more," he says.

Some conservatives have cheered the Trump administration's actions targeting state climate initiatives as deregulatory wins. Adam Brandon, president of the FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy organization, argued that the Constitution's 10th Amendment does not "empower individual states to set policy for the entire nation."

"The California emissions regulations would impact Americans in other states who have no ability to vote those state legislators out of office," Brandon said in a statement released in September 2019, shortly after the Environmental Protection Agency moved to block California's fuel efficiency rules. "It is regulation without representation at its worst."

Going forward, lessons learned during the pandemic may also inform how states respond to the changing climate.

Rogers, the McKinsey researcher, notes that the pandemic and climate change are "physical shocks." They progress nonlinearly, in that the severity of their impact increases wildly when tipping points are reached. Neither, he says, can be considered "black swan" events that can't be anticipated; warnings about both have abounded for years.

"In climate change as in pandemics, the costs of a crisis are bound to vastly exceed those of its prevention," he says. "Prevention is much cheaper than the cure."

Levi Pulkkinen is a Seattle journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, High Country News, Next City and The San Francisco Chronicle, as well as SeattlePI, where he served as senior editor.