Breaking the stalemate in the fight against climate change

Breaking the stalemate in the fight against climate change
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Climate change is a tragedy. Earth’s shared atmosphere absorbs all of civilization’s greenhouse gas pollution, and no individual or nation can solve the problem alone.

As the second largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, the United States is fundamental to that solution. Other nations, such as those gathered right now at the UN Climate change conference in Spain, know this only too well.

Yet despite some positive steps, U.S. emissions increased rapidly in 2018 ‚ in the face of warnings that emissions should be cut by 45 percent worldwide by 2030, to avoid worst-case scenarios.

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Meanwhile, political resistance has blocked the solution many economists favor: a single federal price on carbon, set through a cap-and-trade program or carbon fee. 

There is another way to solve this conundrum, though. To quickly achieve real solutions to climate change, Congress should strongly consider a model that has been successfully proven through our nation’s history: the federal-state partnership. 

America can create a 50-state climate strategy that supports the vital role of states in cutting emissions, and allows for differences between the states. Instead of attempting to settle all concerns about costs and impacts at the federal level, Congress could determine the total level of reductions needed to achieve our national climate goals and divvy up that goal among the states. State governments would then be empowered to execute plans to reach those goals.

Many states have stepped up their efforts on climate change in recent years.

Twenty-five governors have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, aiming to reduce state emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and 19 of those states are at least halfway towards that goal. And midwestern states collectively cut carbon emissions 9 percent annually from 2009 through 2016, even while the Midwest’s economy grew by 3 million jobs.

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Yet as emissions go down in some states, they are going up in others. The result in 2018 was the largest increase in nationwide carbon emissions in eight years.

A comprehensive federal-state climate partnership would allow the federal government to set targets for the nation and for the states. States could then design policies that fit with their culture and economies. Such an approach would:

  • Give businesses a more consistent framework across state boundaries, thereby boosting innovation;
  • Promote regional fairness by tailoring action plans to each state’s circumstances and strengths;
  • Be familiar to the professionals responsible for its implementation, since many environmental laws already give states the task of achieving federal delineated pollution control targets;
  • Appeal to a wide range of states. States that already lead on climate change could align behind this proposal, while states that have been less aggressive would get flexibility on how to develop their own plans and financial and technical support from the federal government in tracking emissions and developing needed policy tools.

A federal-state climate partnership should spell out: 

  1. Each state’s emissions reduction target
  2. How state plans will be assessed
  3. How states can cooperate to meet emissions reduction goals
  4. Incentives that would encourage state participation, such as planning funds or tax incentives
  5. Consequences for states that do not meet their obligations.

Within that framework, states would have flexibility about how to meet their goals. Governors could choose to design a cap-and-trade system, implement a carbon tax, impose flexible emissions standards, or select any number of other options or combinations.

If any revenues are raised through climate programs, the money would keep circulating within the state’s economy rather than growing the federal budget — for instance by designating funds to prepare for climate change.

Climate change is the test of our generation. To pass this test, the U.S. must find a path forward that is both economically effective and politically durable. A comprehensive federal-state partnership could achieve fast and significant climate action.

State governments have provided politically acceptable solutions to many societal problems through our country’s history. We should embrace their role in the climate fight. This may be the best bet for success on one of our most dire and pressing societal challenges.

Tim Profeta directs Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, a non-partisan resource for decision-makers striving to solve pressing environmental challenges.