As US backs away from world stage on climate, states fight back

State attorneys general are tasked with representing their states in court and advocating for justice for their citizens. In the past, this mostly involved them in state or regional concerns, but today, what is global is local.

Consider, for example, the message of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. The Trump administration’s own report tells us that in Illinois — the nation’s largest soybean producer and second-largest producer of corn — climate change threatens higher temperatures, more rainfall and increased flooding. Farmers are projected to face a choice between accepting lower yields and spending more on the same yields, as changing conditions bring more erosion, diseases and pests.


The danger doesn’t stop with agriculture. Air and water quality are at stake, along with the biodiversity of the Great Lakes, and more days of extreme heat each year will cost Midwestern states such as Illinois $33 billion annually by 2050.

As someone elected to advocate for the people of my state, I must ask what that looks like in terms of a human toll, not merely an economic one, and the National Climate Assessment makes it clear that climate change is a civil rights issue.

The most vulnerable residents of Illinois — including low-income communities, communities of color and rural communities with scant health care access — bear the burden of inaction, facing disproportionate risk from extreme temperatures, poor air quality and catastrophic weather. As dangerous heat waves such as the one Illinois experienced in 2011 become more frequent, elderly Illinoisans, children and those with chronic illnesses will suffer the most.

As states, local governments and individual Americans weigh what the report means for them, delegates from around the world earlier this month were gathered in Poland for the most significant round of climate negotiations since the 2015 Paris agreement. Yet the Trump administration, after withdrawing from that agreement, continued to cast doubt on the reality of climate change, even holding side events in Poland touting the benefits of fossil fuels. Its posturing doesn’t just weaken the United States on the world stage; it jeopardizes the welfare of the people of my state.

Back at home, the Trump administration is recklessly attacking our nation’s bedrock environmental laws, relying on sloppy analysis, bad math and novel “legal” reasoning. Since Congress consistently has failed to pass legislation addressing climate change, the Obama administration based its commitment under the Paris agreement on a regulatory framework that its successor is trying to unravel.

State attorneys general have a unique role to play in challenging the federal government’s assault on environmental regulations. It was a coalition of state AGs that first compelled the Environmental Protection Agency to acknowledge its legal responsibility to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts v. EPA. California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Groups sue EPA over 'backwards' lead rule | 12 states, green groups sue EPA over airline standards they deem insufficient | Biden taps Janet McCabe to serve as deputy at EPA 12 states, green groups sue EPA over airline standards they deem insufficient Democratic senator: COVID-19 relief is priority over impeachment trial MORE, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood and current Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, among others, have led the legal fight to prevent the Trump administration from taking the country backward.

We attorneys general must continue to advocate for critical climate action and hold the Trump administration accountable when it disregards the plain text of the law in its quest to dismantle environmental protections. Last week, at the Democratic Attorneys General Association conference, newly-elected and sitting AGs discussed the issues our states face and how we can work together to tackle the challenges that lie ahead, including the imminent threat of climate change.

The fight to preserve regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, Clean Car Standards and restrictions on methane emissions will determine whether the U.S. remains on the path forward, or whether we sit back and watch the devastating impacts of climate change wreak havoc on our society, laying claim to the most vulnerable first. We must win this fight for a chance at a brighter future and to restore our place of leadership on the global stage.

Kwame Raoul is the attorney general-elect of Illinois. He started his legal career nearly 25 years ago as a prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and has practiced in labor, employment and health law.