Three things Biden can do to unleash state and local climate action

President Joe Biden
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President Biden campaigned on the strongest ever commitment to climate action from an American president and, in his first month in office, he came out swinging with an ambitious set of executive actions

Now, he is expected to propose a bold economic recovery package to Congress that will stimulate massive investment in climate solutions from his campaign’s Build Back Better agenda. Yet rising to meet the climate crisis will also require action from all actors, sectors and levels of government across the country. The federal government cannot achieve a climate-safe future alone. 

The Biden administration’s climate agenda must be both informed by and supportive of the climate leadership of state, tribal and local governments. States especially can be critical partners for the new administration. As two former senior advisors to governors who have led on bold climate action, we urge the White House to do the following three things to better engage state, tribal and local governments, particularly in the context of economic recovery and its intersection with urgent climate action.

First, Biden and his administration should create a national climate action advisory committee of state, tribal and local leaders. Reporting to the National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy and the National Climate Task Force, this committee could be modeled on President Obama’s State, Local & Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which brought together U.S. subnational leaders to advise that administration on meeting the needs of communities on the frontlines of climate impacts. 

This new committee could provide coordination, accountability and recommendations to the federal government on how to better advance climate action with state, tribal and local governments. It could work with support from groups like the U.S. Climate Alliance of governors committed to climate action, Climate Mayors, America is All In and others that held the line on U.S. climate action over the past four years. And it should ensure that the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council contains representation from tribal nations, local government and community leaders who have built effective, durable and equitable climate justice policies.

Second, while a task force is important to provide advice and coordination, state, tribal and local governments also need resources and direct federal support and partnership on-the-ground. This should include everything from federal dollars to technical assistance and programmatic resources, as well as access to relevant science and research. 

The National Climate Task Force, Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and regional federal offices should convene key agencies to drive coordination inside of individual states and tribal nations — through on-the-ground Climate Mobilization Councils, modeled on similar entities from American history. To support this work, the federal government should loan federal staff through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act and direct hires to support state, tribal and local climate program implementation. These secondees should especially borrow from academia, national labs and federal regional offices that have in-region knowledge and capabilities. And they could draw upon successful Obama-era strategies, such as the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in California, the Puget Sound Federal Task Force and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in the Pacific Northwest, or the coordinated intergovernmental economic recovery strategy in Detroit

The Biden administration should also use existing federal financing and purchasing power to supercharge state, tribal and local climate progress. For example, federal agencies should involve state and local agencies in their bold new procurement strategies for electric vehicles (EVs) and other advanced energy technologies. The Department of Energy (DOE) should update the 2016 Federal Financing Programs for Clean Energy memorandum and directly engage tribal, state and local governments in its use. And, the DOE Loan Program Office should finalize guidance to allow for billions in available federal financing to backstop low-cost lending from state and local green banks and clean energy finance institutions.

Third, Biden should use “Build Back Better” climate investment legislation to empower states, tribes and cities to further accelerate their climate progress. This should include a new $50 billion challenge grant program, led by DOE, to support state, tribal and local governments that develop and implement ambitious immediate actions and long-term climate goals that align with Biden’s ambitious sector-specific and economy-wide decarbonization commitments. Potential uses of these investments could range from the development of climate action plans; adoption of 100 percent clean electricity or cars requirements; deployment of EV charging infrastructure; training programs for clean energy jobs; incentives for smart-growth, housing and transit-oriented development; implementation of zero-emission and energy-efficient building and zoning codes; climate-smart agriculture and lands conservation, and more. 

In line with Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, states should be supported in the implementation of equity-centered climate policies and ensure that at least 40 percent of the benefits of federal climate investments support disadvantaged communities, using mapping tools like California’s CalEnviroScreen. Federal lawmakers should also increase investments in proven programs — like the State Energy Program, Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grants and others — and should fund new satellite national lab offices in key states focused on renewable energy and sustainable technology transition. 

Biden has announced that he will host a global climate summit on Earth Day — April 22 — at which time a new Paris commitment will be announced and where other major economies will be invited to share their own new commitments. The new administration could supercharge momentum for this important event by beginning as soon as possible to coordinate with and unleash the full potential of state, tribal and local climate leadership.

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. Follow her on Twitter @aekbarnes.

Sam Ricketts is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a co-founder of Evergreen Action and a former longtime climate advisor to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Follow him in Twitter @samtricketts.

Tags Biden climate plan Build Back Better climate action Climate change climate taskforce Earth Day Gina McCarthy Jay Inslee Joe Biden local governments state governments Tribal nations

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