Seizing the Moment with Strategic Climate Strategies for Subnationals

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Subnational governments can best succeed when their policies go beyond their own borders.

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The United States needs meaningful federal action—not just subnational action—to address climate change. For now, however, as Professors Cary Coglianese and Shana Starobin stated in their initial essay, “subnational governments may offer the only meaningful hope for the United States to make significant policy progress.” We agree on this.

The remaining question—and perhaps the site of the primary difference between our view and Coglianese and Starobin’s view—is how to wed the federal and subnational efforts. In these difficult times, with the global carbon budget stretching thin and federal retrenchment well underway, this is not a merely academic question, but a pressing practical one that we must all confront.

Subnational governments do best when they develop policies that do more than just cut emissions within their borders. Although local emissions cuts are necessary, and benefit us all, our most influential policies are ones that can spread. As our first essay describes at length, opportunities are legion. Policy-spreading can happen through explicit adoption of, for example, linked carbon markets or California vehicle standards by other jurisdictions. Widespread emissions cuts can happen through the spread of policy ideas or technologies that reduce emissions more broadly, such as the spread of electric vehicles, innovative electricity storage, and inexpensive renewable power technology. The spread of these ideas is a response to state mandates along with federal incentives. Shifts in policy can happen via legal means, when we go to court to demand positive action. And policies can spread via political and moral suasion, as forward-looking states set examples that are hard to ignore.

Our point is not that we can rest on our laurels, or to grant “cover” to the federal government for inaction, as our interlocutors worry. California, after all, has long called for aggressive climate policies, and has repeatedly sued the federal government to demand action and protect existing rules. California was the first—and, so far, only—state to submit a compliance plan under the federal Clean Power Plan. California worked with the feds to forge the single national program that is now reducing vehicle emissions, and we are defending that effort now. No state has focused more on turning subnational policies into national action—or, also germane here, on building policies that are worth turning into national models.

We have no illusions that any one subnational’s emissions cutting efforts will alone suffice. We note that any one nation-state’s efforts will not suffice, either: the United States’s emissions are less than 15 percent of the global total. Thus, Coglianese and Starobin’s criticisms of subnational efforts are, at least in part, applicable to federal efforts too. Yet we must start somewhere.

And California has made more than just a start. Through the Under 2 Coalition, California has helped assemble a group that controls almost 40 percent of global gross domestic product and that establishes ready markets for clean technology and moral authority to press for continued change. That this group’s emissions are already low, as the professors observe, demonstrates their seriousness and the efficacy of their solutions.

The conditions for success are present for subnationals, including the ability to design to scale and create the political, legal, and economic pressure for larger change. U.S. states have a long history of moving federal and global action forward; they can do so here.

At bottom, then, we think three points are clear as we consider how best to design and support subnational climate action.

First, subnational governments are capable of cutting substantial emissions while developing policies that, directly or indirectly, support far-larger emissions cuts by exporting ideas and technology for a cleaner world. Legal and political challenges exist in the implementation of those policies, to be sure, and must be accounted for in designing the policies. Yet subnational governments have proven capable of overcoming many such challenges.

Second, not only can subnational governments contribute very significantly to climate solutions, they must do so. Legal and political authority is broadly distributed, and changes are needed at each level of government. Relying primarily on a top-down push will not embed climate policy deeply enough in the many—sometimes resistant—and diverse decision-making bodies that must ultimately take action, or generate solutions from those decision makers. We need solutions arising from every level to ensure those solutions are durable and deep.

Third, relatedly, because climate change arises from so many distributed decisions, a uniform national or global solution may be less likely to be adopted or successful than policies that recognize—or spring from—local differences and have a shared objective. Such policies should empower subnational governments to make better decisions, provide a uniform frame for assessment, and steadily increases rigor while encouraging coordinated but creative problem solving. The Paris Agreement does exactly this. So does the federal Clean Air Act’s state planning process, which has shown remarkable success. Politically and tactically, integrating diverse bottom-up policies with a top-down structure seems most likely to succeed.

The implication is that subnationals design their policies best when they consider what will grow from them. So, we encourage steady, careful, but ambitious, subnational policy development that recognizes some of the risks that Coglianese and Starobin identify, but is not stymied by those risks.

That work has never been more urgent. As we confront a presidential Administration that is aggressively promoting fossil fuels, proposing rollbacks of fundamental climate and clean air policies, and questioning even basic science, we need subnationals to push forward. At this historical moment, the debate should not be over whether subnationals should act, but how they can do so with maximum effect.

Craig Segall

Craig Segall is Assistant Chief Counsel at the California Air Resources Board.

David Hults

David Hults is Assistant Chief Counsel at the California Air Resources Board.

This essay was written in Segall’s and Hults’s personal capacity and does not represent the view of the California Air Resources Board.

This essay is part of a five-part series, entitled State and Local Regulation of Climate Change.