The secret weapon in Biden’s fight against climate change

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After running and winning on the most ambitious presidential platform on climate change in history, President-elect Joe Biden is now faced with delivering on his commitments. 

Speculation has already begun regarding how this can be achieved, particularly if Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate. Yet most analyses to date have overlooked one of the most important tools at their disposal: building on the leadership of U.S. state and local governments in a new unprecedented era of climate federalism. 

Over the past four years, U.S. states and local governments have played a critical role in filling the leadership void left by the Trump administration. The U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group of governors committed to meeting their share of the U.S. commitment under the Paris Agreement, now includes 25 states and represents over half of the U.S. population and over a $11 trillion-dollar collective economy. Over 3,000 states, cities and businesses signed on to the “We Are Still In” pledge in support of the Paris Agreement. States attorneys general and NGOs have filed over 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration; the EPA has been sued more than any other government agency. 

According to this year’s America’s Pledge report — an initiative co-chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former California Gov. Jerry Brown to quantify the efforts of U.S. state and local climate action — it is possible to get within spitting distance of 50 percent emissions reductions below 2005 levels by 2030 with aggressive federal reengagement starting in 2021, that supports and buoys the actions of U.S. cities, states and businesses.

Looking forward, one of the quickest and easiest things a Biden-Harris administration can do to support subnational climate action is to drop Trump-era actions against state policies, particularly those focused on Harris’s home state of California. These would include challenges to California’s carbon market, and restoring California’s waiver and ability to create more protective clean car standards. Instead, the Department of Justice (DOJ) under a Biden-Harris administration should partner with state attorneys general to advance climate action and hold polluters accountable for undermining climate action and environmental justice.

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris should also look to build on subnational action as they reestablish U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement and its international standing on climate more generally. On day one, a Biden-Harris administration could host a virtual convening of governors, mayors and tribal leaders from across the country in support of a new, more ambitious and science-aligned nationally determined contribution (NDC) — the commitment that countries must submit under the Paris Agreement. Participating governors and mayors would be expected to bring to the table their own clear, science-aligned targets and new commitments to action, in line with the administration’s 2050 net zero goal and ideally in support of an ambitious midterm target on the order of 50 percent by 2035. 

To ensure that the commitments and announcements are more than just talk, the White House could launch a process to meaningfully cooperate with state, local and tribal leaders, creating a virtuous cycle of enhanced ambition and positive competition amongst U.S. states and cities to see which can decarbonize mostly quickly. To support such a process, the Climate Cabinet that has been proposed within the White House should create a State and Local Action Task Force, and the Administration should hire senior staff with significant subnational experience and expertise. 

To support that process, a Biden-Harris administration — even with a Republican Senate — can and should create incentives for state and local climate leadership, as well as set policy floors for laggards. For example, the administration could provide funding to states to develop Climate Action Plans and reward state local and tribal governments that design and implement ambitious policies. Per Biden’s campaign commitment, 40 percent of such funding could be targeted to support disadvantaged communities. 

The Biden administration should also review and bolster other types of financial assistance to state, local and tribal governments to support climate action — including ensuring that federal transportation funds are disbursed in a way that supports the reduction of vehicle miles travelled. And, it can and should also consider innovative financing mechanisms to support subnational climate action — for example, setting up a pre-development fund to support community-led climate and resiliency-focused infrastructure projects. 

To solve the climate crisis, we will need all levels of government across the U.S. cooperating as actively and seamlessly as possible towards a climate-safe future. State and local climate action can and should be seen as the Biden-Harris administration’s secret weapon in the fight against climate change.

Aimee Barnes served as senior advisor on climate change to former California Gov. Jerry Brown from 2017-2019, and is the founder of Hua Nani Advisors.

Tags biden administration Biden-Harris Bipartisanship climate action Climate Cabinet Climate change climate policy Donald Trump EPA Jerry Brown Joe Biden Michael Bloomberg Paris Accords Paris agreement Republican Senate US Climate Alliance
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