With climate change legislation stalled in Congress, states look to pick up the slack

With action to address climate change stalled in Congress, states across the country are ramping up efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In his State of the State speech on Jan. 11, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee asked state legislators to appropriate $626 million in 2022 for combating climate change, including $100 million in rebates for buying electric vehicles and $100 million in grants for institutions installing solar panels. Although passage is hardly guaranteed, the Washington state Legislature is controlled by Inslee's fellow Democrats, who have so far reacted positively to his proposal.

Jay Inslee
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. (John Moore/Getty Images)

“The world looks to our state as leaders in climate innovation,” Inslee said, noting that he led a group of 68 local governments in a delegation at the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Referring to a 2021 law that commits the state to reducing the pollution that causes global warming, he added, “It is our state’s legal obligation to reduce emissions — but it is also practical, and most importantly, it is a moral obligation.”

The day before, down the coast in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed spending $22 billion on the environment, including climate initiatives such as $6.1 billion over five years to subsidize electric vehicles and to create 100,000 new charging stations, $750 million to deal with drought, $1 billion in tax incentives for developing green energy technologies and $380 million for developing longer battery storage — which is key to developing an all-renewable energy portfolio.

The week before Newsom and Inslee rolled out their agendas, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled an ambitious climate plan of her own, including $500 billion for offshore wind energy generation and what would be the first ever statewide ban on gas hookups in new buildings.

Coming on the heels of an announcement by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in December that he would not provide his crucial vote for President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, which contains an unprecedented $555 billion in spending to address climate change over the next 10 years, environmental experts say state governments are now where the action is.

Sen. Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“There absolutely needs to be federal leadership on national and international goals and commitments,” Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles, who is president of the Environmental Council of the States, recently told US News. “But for the nation to meet its national commitments, it’s truly up to the states to implement them.”

States have considerable power to regulate electric utilities, for example. A majority of states have already made commitments to produce a larger proportion of power from clean energy sources, such as wind, solar and nuclear.

“There are lots of states that are already pointing toward 100 percent clean power in the coming decades,” Leah Stokes, an environmental policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Yahoo News. Many of those goals have been set for the middle of the century: In California it’s 2045, and in Colorado it’s 2050.

“What states could do to go farther is ratchet those targets up, bring those timetables forward, so target 100 percent clean power by 2035, which is President Biden’s goal,” Stokes said. “In California, for example, they could ratchet up the clean-electricity standard statewide, and I think that could be on the agenda this year.”

While Democrats have led the transition away from fossil fuels at the state level, the politics of climate change are less polarized on party lines the further one gets from the federal government. In the very red state of Nebraska, for example, electric utilities are publicly owned. Although the state government has no climate action plan, in December the Nebraska Public Power District, the state’s largest electric utility, voted in favor of adopting a nonbinding goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Last September, when Illinois became the first Midwestern state to plan a full phaseout of fossil fuels, some Republicans backed the bill because it included nuclear subsidies beneficial to their districts.

A cracked riverbed
Evidence of drought near Shasta Lake, Calif. (Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But getting laws passed in state legislatures can be as difficult as it is in Congress. And just as Biden is planning to push the transition to cleaner energy sources through executive branch powers such as issuing regulations, some governors are doing what they can on their own.

Last month, following the death in the Connecticut Legislature of a proposal to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, Gov. Ned Lamont signed executive orders directing Connecticut state agencies to take actions that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to adapt to climate change.

“Climate change is here, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t take meaningful action,” Lamont said. “In September, a bad progress report showed that we’re in danger of missing our statutory greenhouse gas reduction goals, so we need to roll up our sleeves and do the necessary work to improve.”

A recent study from Yale University found that hurricanes will be migrating farther north up the East Coast and hitting Connecticut with increased frequency and severity later this century, as a result of climate change.

Lamont’s actions included ordering the state to review all public buildings for energy efficiency, develop energy efficiency standards for buildings and home appliances, make all buses electric by 2035, work with local governments on adapting to climate change, and expand air quality monitoring. Lamont is also creating a Connecticut Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Council to advise the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on how to reduce pollution and the effects of climate change in low-income and minority neighborhoods, and the state will explore adopting California’s strict vehicle efficiency standards.

Ned Lamont
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“I think this recognizes state government’s important role as a landlord, who owns and operates a lot of buildings, as a fleet operator who has responsibility for large numbers of light-duty and and medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, and the opportunities to take immediate action,” Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney at Save the Sound, a Connecticut-based environmental advocacy organization, told Yahoo News.

Republican governors can also try to stretch the limits of their authority in the opposite direction. That’s what happened after businessman Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial race last November. In December, before he’d even assumed office, Youngkin announced that he would remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a coalition of 11 Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states that caps, charges for and gradually reduces emissions from energy utilities.

It turned out not to be as simple as issuing an edict, however. Virginia’s General Assembly passed a law in 2020 that directed state regulators to join RGGI. In 2021, its first year in the program, Virginia raised $227.6 million for flood protection and energy efficiency programs.

“He’s gonna have to undo this long regulatory process that’s already in the books,” Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a local environmental group, told Yahoo News. “You can’t just wave a wand and pull out of RGGI, the way Trump pulled out of [the] Paris [Agreement].”

Last Saturday, however, Youngkin issued an executive order calling for the State Air Pollution Control Board to pull out of RGGI. The Virginia-based Southern Environmental Law Center argues that it would still be illegal, however, without legislative approval. “He can try, and it’s all going to wind up in court, but we’re optimistic that we’re going to stay in RGGI, despite whatever Youngkin does,” said Tidwell.

Glenn Youngkin
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Even when executive actions are clearly allowed, they are more vulnerable to change than legislation. “Executive unilateralism faces its own set of challenges,” Marc Eisner, a professor of government and environmental studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., told Yahoo News in an email. “Executive orders and the policy statements, coordination/planning units, and voluntary agreements created by one executive can be eliminated with the stroke of a pen [by] his or her successor.”

Ultimately, the power of the purse strings is needed to effect real change on climate policy. Even Lamont’s executive actions require spending that he can’t produce on his own, relying on a combination of money that has been approved by Congress in the infrastructure law that recently passed, and the Build Back Better bill that so far hasn’t.

“Much depends on funding that Lamont can’t control (for example, resources needed to replace diesel buses with electric vehicles, the building of charging stations),” Eisner said of the Connecticut governor’s recent actions. “Some of this may come from the [Build Back Better] bill, if it makes it through the Senate in its current form."

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