The Role of Cities and States in Combating Climate Change

The Role of Cities and States in Combating Climate Change

By Thomas Forman, Staff Contributor  

The election of President Donald J. Trump has generated tremendous uncertainty regarding the role that the federal government will play in combating climate change. With the overwhelming majority of scientists agreeing that man-made climate change poses an existential threat to the planet, the key questions surrounding climate change are no longer about the need to address the threat, but instead what the best approach is to do so. Although much of the Trump Administration’s climate policy remains unclear, there is much concern in the scientific community regarding the future of climate policy at the federal level. This is in part because of Mr. Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as numerous comments that Mr. Trump has made about climate change on the campaign trail. In addition, Mr. Trump has already added multiple global warming deniers to his cabinet, signaled his willingness to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, and has downplayed the threat that climate change poses as well as the role that humans are playing.[1] Though these decisions and comments made by Mr. Trump and his team have rightfully caused grave concern, there is reason to be optimistic, in part because of recent proclamations and policy announcements made by cities and states around the country. Irrespective of the Trump Administration’s policy, it is likely that moving forward, cities and states will play a much more significant role in combating climate change.

Cities and states playing an active role in combating climate change is not a new phenomenon, in fact they have historically have done so.[2] However, lately cities and states have pledged to play an even greater role by regulating plants to drastically cut their greenhouse gas emission rates, increasing the use of energy provided from renewable resources, and adopting policies and investing in technology aimed at combating climate change.

For example, California announced a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by the year 2030, as well as a plan to add 4.2 million zero-emission vehicles.[3] The bill, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, will attempt to meet this 40% mark through the addition of more electric vehicles, as well as by pledging to get half of the state’s power from renewable sources by 2030.[4] To incentivize Californians to buy more eco-friendly electric vehicles, the Brown Administration has increased the rebate for buying electric cars, and also plans to add 7500 more vehicle charging stations in the state. These new rebates are in addition to the programs already in place in parts of Los Angeles for example, that allow automobile buyers to receive $9,200 in incentives to buy low emission cars.[5] Mr. Brown hopes that this will allow the state to add 4.2 million zero-emission vehicles.[6] Moreover, Mr. Brown has also made promises that California will step up to fill the void for left by the federal government with respect to research on climate related issues.[7]

Although California’s plan to reduce its greenhouse emissions is a significant step in combating climate change, California is quite experienced at enacting such policies. In the last several years, the state has enacted policies such as a cap-and-trade program imposing a limit on greenhouse gas emissions, made significant investments initiatives into clean, high tech industries and research, and has taken a lead role in the Under2 MOU initiative, an international effort made up of 33 countries, aimed at cutting emissions to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.[8] Proponents of laws aimed at combating climate change have also made it clear that they plan to propose a statewide ban on fracking, which is already prohibited in six California counties.[9] In a speech, Governor Brown stated that “California can make a significant contribution to advancing the cause of dealing with climate change, irrespective of what goes on in Washington… I wouldn’t underestimate California’s resolve if everything moves in this extreme climate denial direction. Yes, we will take action.”[10] In anticipation of the Trump Administrations climate policies, the Governor has even suggested the California will launch its own satellite into space if the Trump Administration decides to discontinue using NASA satellites to track global temperatures.[11] With California recently passing France as the sixth largest economy in the world, these policies are sure to have a significant impact on the fight to combat climate change.

Another state playing an important role in combating climate change is Massachusetts, which recently reaffirmed its commitment to combat climate change through enacting laws aimed at the use of more renewable energy sources. This commitment comes on the heels of a study conducted by the Northeast Climate Science Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which suggested that temperatures across the northeastern United States will increase much faster than the global average.[12] The state is no newcomer to the fight against global warming, evidenced by its 2007 challenge in the Supreme Court resulting in a decision requiring the EPA to regulate carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. Since this victory, it has increased its effort to combat climate change by committing to a 80% renewable energy figure by 2050, with the State Senate hoping to pass additional climate change legislation in 2017.[13]

New York State has been another important advocate for policies aimed at combating climate change; it already receives about 26% of its power from renewable sources.[14] Among other goals, New York increased its targets for renewable energy, announced a plan to increase its hydro power production through a partnership with a Canadian plant, and proposed the construction a 90 megawatt offshore wind farm, which would be the largest in the country.[15] Speaking about the role for the state in combating climate change, Governor Andrew Cuomo stated: “climate change is a reality, and not to address it is gross negligence by government and irresponsible as citizens.”[16] New York State has made significant commitments to both the increase in renewable energy sources and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in the last few years. Between 2011 and 2014, New York saw a 300% increase in its solar power production, and in 2014 the state was the leading producer of hydro power in the country.[17] Moreover, New York also completed the construction of a new SolarCity GigaFactory, which in 2015 was the world’s largest solar panel factor in the western hemisphere.[18]

In addition to its renewable energy technologies, New York has announced a new renewable energy program which will allow renewable energy projects in the state to share electricity that is generated to surrounding communities. This program will bring solar energy to 150,000 homes by 2020.[19] In addition, the State Energy Plan includes the installation of clean energy technology at all of the state’s 64 State University of New York campuses by the year 2020.[20] Such initiatives and polices have allowed New York City to cut greenhouse emissions by 19% since 2005, with greater cuts expected across the state in the coming years.[21] As Justin Gillis wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Cuomo might well be able to turn New York, the state where Thomas Edison invented the electrical grid in the 19th century, into a global powerhouse of innovation for the 21st.”[22]

Cities have also been a driving force in the push for laws and policies aimed at combating climate change. For example, Burlington, Vermont is one of the nation’s leading cities in its commitment to renewable energy. Burlington has the distinction of being the country’s first city to draw 100% of its power from renewable sources.[23] Due to the city’s focus on using renewable sources, as well as its promotion of public transportation and conservation, Burlington will be a net zero consumer of energy within 10 years.[24] Other municipalities increasing their efforts include San Diego, which along with 20 other large US cities, recently committed to rely only on renewable sources. [25] Georgetown, Texas became the latest city to run purely on win and solar.[26] The Sierra Club published a list of cities that are on track to becoming 100% powered by renewable energy in the next 20 years, including those that have already met this designation. The cities that made the organization’s list include: Aspen, CO, Burlington, VT, East Hampton, NY, Georgetown, TX, Grand Rapids, MI, Greensburg, KS, Rochester, MN, San Jose, CA, San Diego, CA, and San Francisco, CA.[27] Together, these cities are expected to drastically reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, and increase the use of renewable energies, regardless of any changes in federal policy.

Though cities and states have typically been playing a leading role in combating climate change through the enactment of polices aimed at increasing renewable energy use, some states have also had to use legal recourse to challenge the federal government, a strategy that will likely only increase in coming years. A central concern of environmental advocates is that the Trump Administration will try to either roll back climate legislation enacted under President Obama or simply stop enforcing various regulations. This led attorneys general from Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont to unite in support the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Update Rule, which requires power plants in 22 states to reduce smog blowing into other states in response to fears that Scott Pruitt would not enforce such policies.[28] This will likely only be the beginning of such challenges. California, for example, has already hired former Attorney General Eric Holder, to represent the state in possible legal battles against the Trump Administration.[29] As California’s Governor Brown proclaimed: “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers and we’re ready to fight.”[30]

Even though states and cities have the tools to combat climate change, their efforts may be subject to significant limitations if the federal government attempts to undermine them. For example, the Trump Administration could reduce funds to research facilities and laboratories in states such as California. They could also nullify state regulations on air emission and fuel standards, or cease the enforcement of laws such as the Clean Air Act or EPA regulations. Such actions by the federal government would likely have a significant impact on the efforts made by states. Rob Lapsley, the president of the California Business Roundtable has noted that if “we continue to go it on our own with our climate change policies, then we would be at a competitive disadvantage for either relocating companies or growing companies here, particularly manufacturing factories.”[31] Moreover, the Speaker of the California State Assembly Anthony Rendon declared “our system works better — our cap-and-trade system and other ways of addressing climate change — if we have more company. The more company we have, the better.” Dan Jacobson, the state director of Environment California, has commented that the state’s efforts may not be enough without the partnerships of other cities, states, and nations, noting “that’s why it’s so dangerous for Trump to pull out of the [Paris] accord.”[32] If the federal government does in fact roll back policies aimed at combating climate change, there will still be a significant need for states and cities to fill the resulting void. Although it is easy to worry that any policies by states and cities may be undermined by a lack of effort on the part of the EPA, the situation is not necessarily so grim.

Individuals such as Mr. Jacobson appear pessimistic about the future without help from the federal government, but the prospects for the earth’s environment may in fact be better than initially anticipated. Cities and states across the country are signaling that they plan on continuing to combat climate change, regardless of the policies of the EPA under the new administration. Moreover, it is important to note that cities and states for the most part have been the driver of polices aimed combating climate change in the past.[33] In a recent article, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote:

The United States’ success in fighting climate change has never been primarily dependent on Washington. Bear in mind: Over the past decade, Congress has not passed a single bill that takes direct aim at climate change. Yet at the same time, this country has led the world in reducing emissions. That progress has been driven by cities, businesses and citizens — and none of them are letting up now. Just the opposite: All are looking for ways to expand their efforts. Mayors and local leaders around the country are determined to keep pushing ahead on climate change — because it is in their interest to do so. Over time, as more and more Americans come to recognize what climate change means to their families and their futures — by seeing the increasingly severe impact of storms, droughts and other weather events — they will demand action from the federal government, too. But in the meantime, mayors and other local officials will lead the way.[34]

It is understandable to be concerned about the incoming administration after the statements and actions made during the campaign and the subsequent transition. And though many of the fears held by environmental advocates regarding the federal government may come true, the consequences may be mitigated through the increased role of cities and states in the fight to combat climate change. If cities and states join forces in their efforts to transition to renewable energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions, any lack of effort by Mr. Trump may ultimately not have as severe consequences as some fear.

It is also important to note that cities and states will not be fighting alone, as other nations and private companies are already working to enact policies to combat climate change. Many other countries have already made massive transitions to renewable energy in recent years, which will aid the efforts made by states and cities over the next four years. For example, Stockholm, Sweden announced a plan to become fossil fuel free by 2040.[35] The city intends to accomplish this through the transformation of its transportation industry, including a policy of congestion pricing, which charges individual for driving into the city.[36] Policies such as this have not only improved the air quality in the capital by cutting congestion and traffic by significant amounts, but have also led to more individuals taking public transportation, which in Sweden run almost exclusively off clean energy.[37]

Sweden’s neighbor Denmark now generates as much as 140% of its electrical demand daily through wind power alone.[38] Offshore wind farms, which have significant government backing, will help Denmark beat its target goal for producing half of its electricity from renewable sources in coming years. Germany has also managed to meet its daily energy needs through the use of clean power, further showing the potential that clean energy has around the world.[39] Other nations such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, and even China, have all significantly increased their investments in renewable energy.[40] China for example recently stated that it will remain committed to taking action on climate change regardless of what the United States does.[41] These examples demonstrate that the initiatives of other countries will be able to assist in combating climate change, regardless of the United States’ policies at the federal level.

Furthermore, many private companies have signaled that they plan on helping reduce greenhouse admissions and increase their use of renewable energy in the coming years, regardless of federal policy. Google, a company that consumes as much energy as the entire city of San Francisco, has declared that it will run its company exclusively from wind and solar energy in 2017, making it the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world.[42] Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft also announced a new investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which will supplement and build on research that may be threatened under the new administration.[43] Over 360 companies including Starbucks, Nike, and Gap have publicly urged the Trump Administration to continue to support the curbs on global warming agreed to in the Paris Climate Agreement.[44]

These examples are not exhaustive and are meant to illustrate the ability of cities, states, foreign nations, and private companies in combating climate change, regardless of which course the Trump Administration takes. If nations and corporations continue to invest in renewable energy and cut greenhouse gas emission rates while cities and states continue to do the same, there may be hope for the environment, despite the incoming administration. If recent patterns continue with respect to reducing carbon emissions, increasing reliance on renewable energy, and counteracting causes of man-made climate change, then the future for the environment may not be as dim as many fear, thanks in part to the role of cities and states. While the world waits to see what the Trump Administration will decide to do regarding climate change, states and cities will simply continue to act, innovate, invest, and help the nation move forward. As the director of Environment New York Heather Leibowitz recently said, “States have always led the way in regards to creating significant U.S action on climate change,’ but “the Trump victory will [now] make state climate change efforts even more important.”[45]

[1] See Adam Nagourney, California, at Forefront of Climate Fight, Won’t Back Down to Trump, N.Y. Times, Dec. 26, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/26/us/california-climate-change-jerry-brown-donald-trump.html; Hiroko Tabuchi, Bill Gates Leads New Fund as Fears of U.S. Retreat on Climate Grow, N.Y. Times, Dec. 12, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/12/business/energy-environment/bill-gates-breakthrough-energy-ventures.html. “Mr. Trump has not talked extensively about his views on energy research to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But he has named people who reject established climate science to some crucial administration positions, including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Those being considered to head the Department of Energy, which coordinates and funds a lot of advanced energy research, have backgrounds in the fossil fuel industry. And a recent questionnaire circulated at the department by Mr. Trump’s transition team included requests for the names of employees shaping United States climate policy — raising concerns that the administration is looking to cut back on efforts to control planet-warming emissions.”

[2] See Michael R. Bloomberg, Washington Won’t Have Last Word on Climate Change, Bloomberg (Nov. 22, 2016), https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-11-22/washington-won-t-have-last-word-on-climate-change.

[3] Alejandro Lazo, California Aims for 40% Reduction in Greenhouse Gases by 2030, Wall St. J., Jan. 20, 2017, http://www.wsj.com/articles/california-aims-for-40-reduction-in-greenhouse-gases-by-2030-1484966197.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Nagourney, supra note 1.

[8] Under2 Coalition, Under2, http://under2mou.org/coalition/ (last visited Jan. 30, 2017).

[9] Ben Adler, In the Trump Era, All Climate Progress Will Be Local, Citylab (Jan. 20, 2017), http://www.citylab.com/tech/2017/01/in-the-trump-era-all-climate-progress-will-be-local/513947/.

[10] Nagourney, supra note 1.

[11] John Myers, ‘We’re ready to fight.’ Gov. Jerry Brown unloads on Trump and climate issues, L.A. Times, Dec. 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/politics/essential/la-pol-ca-essential-politics-updates-we-re-ready-to-fight-says-gov-jerry-1481739836-htmlstory.html.

[12] Northeast US Temperatures are Decades Ahead of Global Average, UMass Amherst (Jan. 11, 2017), https://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/northeast-us-temperatures-are-decades.

[13] Adler, supra note 9.

[14] Justin Gillis, New York Plans to Make Fighting Climate Change Good Business, N.Y. Times, May 6, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/10/science/new-york-plans-to-make-fighting-climate-change-good-business.html.

[15] Adler, supra note 9.

[16] Kelsie DeFrancia, Cuomo’s Commitment to Addressing Climate Change, Earth Institute (Oct. 9, 2015), http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2015/10/09/leading-by-example-cuomos-commitment-to-addressing-climate-change/.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Gillis, supra note 14.

[23] Colin Woodard, America’s First All-Renewable-Energy City, Politico (Nov. 17, 2016), http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/burlington-what-works-green-energy-214463.

[24] Id.

[25] Ben Adler, States, Cities Plan Robust Defense of Climate Science in Donald Trump Era, Newsweek (Jan. 21, 2017), http://www.newsweek.com/states-cities-robust-defense-climate-science-trump-545316.

[26] Id.

[27] Cities are Ready for 100% Clean Energy, Sierra Club, https://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/blog/RF100-Case-Studies-Cities-Report.pdf (last visited Jan. 30, 2017).

[28] Samantha Page, If the EPA head won’t defend EPA regulations, there are people who will, ThinkProgress (Jan. 20, 2017), https://thinkprogress.org/if-the-epa-head-wont-defend-epa-regulations-there-are-people-who-will-58f418c0274.

[29] Lazo, supra note 3.

[30] Sydney Robinson, Gov. Brown to Trump: ‘We’ve got Scientists, We’ve Got Lawyers and We’re Ready to Fight’, EcoWatch (Dec. 16, 2016), http://www.ecowatch.com/brown-trump-climate-change-nasa-2151171091.html.

[31] Nagourney, supra note 1.

[32] Id.

[33] See Bloomberg, supra note 2.

[34] Id.

[35] Jason Margolis, Sweden’s capital is on its way to becoming fossil fuel free by 2040, PRI (Feb. 18, 2016), https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-02-18/swedens-capital-its-way-becoming-fossil-fuel-free-2040.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Arthur Neslen, Wind power generates 140% of Denmark’s electricity demand, The Guardian (July 10, 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/10/denmark-wind-windfarm-power-exceed-electricity-demand.

[39] Jess Shankleman, Germany Just Got Almost All of Its Power From Renewable Energy, Bloomberg (May 16, 2016), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-16/germany-just-got-almost-all-of-its-power-from-renewable-energy.

[40] 5 Countries Leading the Way Toward 100% Renewable Energy, EcoWatch (Jan. 9, 2015), http://www.ecowatch.com/5-countries-leading-the-way-toward-100-renewable-energy-1881999459.html; Rebecca Harrington, These 10 countries are ramping up clean energy more than any others, Bus. Insider (Mar. 29, 2016), http://www.businessinsider.com/top-renewable-energy-investments-by-country-2016-3/.

[41] Bloomberg, supra note 2.

[42] Quentin Hardy, Google Says It Will Run Entirely on Renewable Energy in 2017, N.Y. Times, Dec. 6, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/technology/google-says-it-will-run-entirely-on-renewable-energy-in-2017.html.

[43] Tabuchi, supra note 1.

[44] Nike, Starbucks, and Gap Urge Trump to Stay in the Paris Climate Deal, Fortune (Nov. 17, 2016), http://fortune.com/2016/11/17/donald-trump-paris-climate-agreement-letter/. “Implementing the Paris Climate Agreement will enable and encourage businesses and investors to turn the billions of dollars in existing low-carbon investments into the trillions of dollars the world needs to bring clean energy prosperity to all.”

[45] Adler, supra note 25.

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