Addressing climate change calls for federal and state partnerships, especially during COVID-19

Addressing climate change calls for federal and state partnerships, especially during COVID-19
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The partnership between our federal and state governments pervades all of public policy in the United States. No policy conversation is properly focused without evaluating its effect on the relationship. 

At Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, we have brought this conversation to the issue of climate change. After giving initial Congressional testimony on how to structure the relationship in December, the Nicholas Institute planned a deep dive into the relationship in 2020, with particular outreach to policy makers from Congress and governors’ offices.

COVID-19 upended all of that. But while our original plans are not actionable, the pandemic also has shone a bright spotlight on the importance of federal and state responsibilities in protecting public health. Thus, building the partnership correctly to address climate change is more important than ever.


As a result, we decided to continue our work. This effort is not about enumerating the specific policies that can reduce greenhouse gases. We are articulating possible policy and political structures that enable specific policies to be implemented effectively and efficiently. It is not sufficient to say “let’s leave it all to the states,” or that “climate change will only be solved when Congress acts.”  The true lasting framework is messy because it involves both levels of government. 

In particular, we still foresee that a full federal/state partnership would allow the federal government to do what it is best suited to do — set the level of ambition necessary for the United States as a whole to do its share in the fight against climate change. This inquiry is part scientific and part political. Science can inform what the overall target for the nation and individual targets for states should be, within bounds of uncertainty. 

After the federal government sets the targets, state governments would be empowered to do what they have done well through history — design policies that fit with the culture and economies of their states. Throughout environmental statutes, states are given the task of achieving federally delineated targets for pollution control. For nearly all of the major air pollutants, state plans are responsible for achieving federally designated air quality targets. 

A federal/state partnership proposal would need to cover, at a minimum, the following concepts: level and distribution of state obligations; process to assess the sufficiency of state plans; provisions to allow for multistate efforts and other desired mechanisms; and provisions to ensure action for states that opt not to act on their obligations, all while maintaining focus on political longevity. State support is a vital pillar to stability. 

Before any such partnership can be built successfully, however, some initial steps must be taken. In particular, states must have resources and data to assess the climate challenge before they can be asked to create comprehensive efforts to mitigate its effects. While we were doing our research and analysis on the structure of potential partnerships, we were struck by how few resources (or in some cases, none at all) states have to plan for anything related to climate change — either mitigation or adaptation. To compound the problem, few state governments have the ability to look at costs of climate change as it impacts their states and residents. 


Resource management for states with ever-thin operational budgets is already logistically daunting without the massive investment in preventative measures needed to meaningfully combat climate change. Where do they start? Do states across the board have the technical capacity to understand what impacts they have already been facing? The resounding answer at this current moment is no. 

Congress thus should consider stepping in quickly to help by expanding federal/state grant programs for purposes of supporting state governments in climate change assessment, planning, programs and information exchange. Despite spending $11.7 billion annually on clean energy technology and climate science, Congress has not established a coordinated and adequately funded set of grant programs dedicated to assisting states. 

Small initial investments now will blossom into smart and cost-effective investments tomorrow. As we saw from the 2009 stimulus, providing funding is only part of the response to an economic crisis. Without “shovel-ready” projects, inefficiencies and lack of planning can lead to delays in relief for heavily impacted communities. This is a missed opportunity to support all states equitably as the nation responds to climate change. Fortunately, however, the ability to direct funds to the states is already there — previously authorized programs under the Departments of Energy and Agriculture could easily be directed for these purposes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on state budgets. But states are still on the frontline for climate impacts and mitigation. Investing in states now to confront climate through assessment planning for mitigation and resilience will have a tremendous return on investment. 

Tim Profeta is director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Elizabeth Thompson is president of Compass Pt, which provides analysis of politics and climate and energy policy.