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Riding to the rescue on climate, the Biden administration needs powerful partners

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On Jan. 20, the United States emerged from four troubling years of stagnation on federal climate action. During this period of self-imposed exile from the Paris Agreement, U.S. states, cities and businesses joined forces to carry the torch of American climate leadership both at home and abroad. 

The movement started as a necessary plan B in the face of federal inaction. But as the Biden administration takes the helm amidst a deepening global climate crisis, it is increasingly clear that only the combined power of federal and subnational climate leadership can keep the United States on track to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.   

During his time in office, President Obama primarily focused on activating the federal climate action toolkit, making significant progress but leaving his legacy in jeopardy when the Trump administration took over and began to unwind many federal regulations and programs.  

Only four days after Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the We Are Still In coalition of states, cities, businesses and other subnational organizations stepped forward to assume the mantle of U.S. climate leadership. This coalition swelled during the Trump years to include over 4,000 entities representing two-thirds of U.S. economic output and population.  

In 2020 alone, amid the pandemic and economic crisis, subnational leaders have continued to make strong climate commitments. This includes actions by states Michigan, Massachusetts and California; cities Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, Calif.; major utilities Dominion Energy and Southern Company; and corporations Uber, Lyft, Ford, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley (to name just a few). Many of these have committed to carbon neutrality on ambitious timelines. 

As the Biden team re-engages internationally, it cannot simply pick up where Obama left off. The last four years have seen mounting scientific evidence that faster cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be needed to avert the most dangerous effects of climate change. China, the European Union (EU) and other major economies are digging deeper to accelerate their pace of low-carbon transformation and more will be asked of the United States as well. Globally, to hold warming to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels will require cutting emissions around 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.   

Analysis by America’s Pledge, which assesses U.S. climate action and its impacts, examined potential emissions reductions under a realistic set of political and legal conditions. It found that only an “all-in” climate strategy — comprehensive federal climate action built on top of and complementing action at all other levels of government and society — can align the United States with science-based targets and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.    

What began as plan B is therefore an essential part of plan A. A successful national climate policy must be powered by the twin engines of federal and subnational leadership.   

Cooperation and Integration 

Then President-elect Joe Biden recognized this reality in calling out state and city leadership in his statement on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement. However, creating a comprehensive and ambitious national climate policy in practice will require deep integration and partnership across all levels of government and society. For example, a joint working group could steer the direction of national climate policy. This group, whether led by the federal government or outside of it, should be broadly representative and can leverage existing coalitions like We Are Still In. In addition, the government could assign each federal agency a liaison tasked with coordinating with non-federal leaders. 

The federal government can do more to encourage non-federal climate leaders to advance and expand their individual climate commitments. Effective measures would include stimulus and recovery funding building on the December 2020 stimulus bill, funding for non-federal programs, enhanced technical assistance, encouragement for non-federal standards that go above and beyond federal standards and cooperative partnership on the international stage.  

To spur innovation further, a climate “Race to the Top” program could reward ambitious subnational climate plans with continued financial and technical support. A multi-stakeholder roadshow could highlight the climate leadership happening in communities across the country and also collect feedback and build collaboration between the federal government and communities on the ground. 

The federal government should also remove barriers to subnational climate initiatives. For example, the new administration is expected to reinstate California’s waiver of preemption for its vehicle emission standards. It could take actions like these a step further by using them as a call for states to step up and strengthen standards beyond those set at the federal level.  

This partnership between federal and non-federal entities should also extend to the international stage. Showcasing states and cities in our new 2030 national climate target under the Paris Agreement presents an opportunity to encourage similar approaches in other countries. The federal government could appoint non-federal leaders to serve as informal U.S. climate ambassadors and partner with non-federal entities for an integrated U.S. presence at the November COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. 

Making up for four years of lost time will not be an easy task for the Biden administration. But by harnessing the full power of American society and government at all levels, we can show the world what true climate leadership looks like. Nothing less will be required to meet the greatest challenge of our time. 

Paul Bodnar is a former White House climate lead in the Obama National Security Council. He is a managing director for Rocky Mountain Institute.

Tags Barack Obama biden administration Biden climate policy carbon emissions Climate change climate crisis climate leadership climate policy Donald Trump Environment Joe Biden Paris Climate Accords
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