Congress Blog

Climate change — hope for how to (literally) save the world

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The Problem

As the scrum continues among Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the Republicans and the Democrats regarding the infrastructure and spending bills, one thing is clear: Congress is not going to save the planet. President Biden's bipartisan infrastructure bill, which just passed Congress, is a big step forward, offering necessary funding to the cause, but there is still a great deal of work to be done to ensure our planet survives for generations to come.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley's powerful words at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) said it best - "we need 1.5° to survive." If the Earth's temperature increases more than 1.5°, we will lose entire Island nation-states and create massive food and water shortages, leading to massive climate migration. Even at 1.5°C, millions will experience devastating heat waves, droughts, extreme storms, and sea-level rise, as an overwhelming number of animal and plant species go extinct, according to the United Nations Foundation.

The Solution

But all hope is not lost. The IPCC clarified that preventing "every fraction of a degree of warming makes a significant difference" in reducing the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Rather than offer another article about the impending apocalypse, which has done little to move the needle on policy, this story is about the climate warriors - the individuals, organizations, cities, and states making change from the ground up to combat climate change in the absence of federal and international leadership.

States Leadership

States have made incredible strides in climate policy. California, an international leader, has committed $15 billion over the next three years to address climate change, including drought and wildfires, climate resilience, zero emission vehicles, and new renewable energy sources. To date, 10 states have set clean or renewable portfolio standards at 100 percent by between 2030 and 2050. These states are leading the way, creating a massive demand for clean energy, and moving markets. One study found that in the U.S., investments in clean energy yielded more than double the return for fossil fuels.

States that enact policies like community choice aggregation (CCA), which allows cities to band together to negotiate lower rates and more renewables from their utility providers, are also having a big impact. CCA is a powerful tool that can help push utilities to increase renewable portfolios.

New Climate Warriors - Cities and NGOs

It is estimated that municipalities consume two-thirds of the global energy supply and generate three-quarters of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions, making them some of the largest consumers and emitters when aggregated. Changes in local policy across the country can make a huge impact in the fight against climate change and climate injustice.

And that's good news, because cities are much more nimble than their larger governmental counterparts when it comes to enacting change.

There are many tools available for local governments to build a ground-up clean, and equitable economy without national leadership. To reduce emissions, municipalities can green public facilities, electrify vehicle fleets, plant urban forests, and decarbonize city buildings. Ithaca, N.Y., voted last week to fully decarbonize its buildings, an unprecedented move that will lead the way for other courageous cities.

Cincinnati, nestled in a conservative state, recently broke ground on a solar facility that will generate enough electricity to power all city operations.

Cities are also using Virtual Power Purchase Agreements (VPPAs) and clean energy contracts to meet aggressive climate targets. One VPPA passed in Arlington, Va., reduced CO2 emissions by 55,986+ metric tons annually, roughly equivalent to removing 12,176 gas vehicles from the road! To address climate

injustice, VPPAs and other clean energy contracts can require developers to provide climate adaptation projects and community benefits to protect the underserved communities historically impacted by air pollution.

It's the NGOs, like RMI, World Resources Institute, US and Southeast Sustainability Directors Networks, and Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG), to name a few, who are at the forefront of empowering municipalities across the country to move towards clean energy, with equitable solutions.

Lawyers Can Make the Difference

Lawyers can make a huge impact in the fight against climate change. L4GG, a network of over 125,000 legal advocates across all 50 states, has been assisting cities since 2018 with implementing tools to reach 100 percent renewable energy. From creating state-level guidance and providing direct training to cities on VPPAs and other clean energy contracts, to helping pass clean energy legislation in Virginia, an empowered national group of lawyers can make a real change.

Biden's infrastructure plan will offer critical dollars to fund local climate projects like EV infrastructure, electric buses, infrastructure upgrades and climate resilience, and local governments will need help navigating the most effective way to obtain and implement those funds. Lawyers can be critical in the role of providing eligibility guidance, reviewing proposals, and drafting local laws to expedite implementation of these critical climate projects.

Even without a law degree, individuals are taking action now to address climate change. They are buying electric vehicles, adding roof-top solar, and asking their utility about greener energy options. No matter what happens in Glasgow, states, local governments, NGOs, and yes, even lawyers, have the power to build a sustainable future for generations to come. 

Jillian Blanchard is the director of the Climate Change Program at Lawyers for Good Government.