Donald Trump’s election was a near-apocalyptic moment for many in the climate movement. The 2016 election took place during the United Nation’s annual climate change conference, where advocates, leaders, and scientists had gathered from across the world to hammer out what they thought would be mundane details of the Paris Agreement. The accord had been passed just the year before, after decades of hard work and negotiations, and its implementation already hung by a thread. With Trump, a climate denier who had promised to “cancel” Paris, set to become president, the prospects for continued progress seemed essentially nil.
But some working on climate saw an opening for a new kind of hard work. “I was talking to a friend who worked in [Washington] Governor Inslee’s office,” remembered Aimee Barnes, who was serving as a climate change adviser to California’s then-Governor Jerry Brown. “He was sort of bemoaning the state of the world. And I was like, you know, this is kind of an opportunity for us to shine.”
Barnes was right. Brown was in attendance at the U.N.’s next gathering a year later, accompanied by a group of other high-profile mayors and governors who advertised themselves as proof that the United States was still committed to keeping promises on climate, no matter who was in the Oval Office. “The federal government is on holiday with respect to climate change,” Brown told USA Today at the time. But, he added, “there is a large part of America—well over a majority—that is committed to serious climate action, because we know global warming is an existential threat.”
Since Trump’s election, states have made progress on climate in the absence of a dedicated federal presence. Over the past four years, for instance, two states and multiple cities and counties have taken fossil fuel companies to court to demand accountability for rising sea levels. States like Pennsylvania and Virginia are gearing up to aggressively cut emissions in the hopes of joining a small but growing cap-and-invest network of Northeastern states (and former member New Jersey reentered the program after voters booted out Chris Christie in 2018). And California passed the nation’s first legislation requiring solar panels on all new homes beginning in 2020.
Even as Joe Biden prepares to take office—and his administration publicly promotes an extensive plan for combating climate change—it seems likely that the federal government will partly remain on holiday. Unless Democrats pull off a pair of upsets in Georgia, the Senate will stay under Republican control. And despite shifting public opinion on climate change and renewable energy, the GOP has largely signaled that it will continue to favor fossil fuels and do nothing to curb emissions. So while Biden can (slowly) roll back various Trump administration rules that made it easier for corporations to pollute, the kind of big ambitious climate bill advocates have been demanding for years seems out of reach.
But for the past four years, policy movement on climate in the U.S. has come not from Congress but from cities and states. There’s reason to believe a Trump administration may have made these forces even stronger—and that they can provide valuable help to Biden. “I would hate to see a situation now where, because we have the opportunity for federal action, we sort of forget about state and local governments and their role to play,” Barnes said.
Pledges to reach 100 percent renewable energy have become markers of a state’s seriousness to act on climate. When Trump took office, only Hawaii had passed a pledge to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Today, nearly a dozen states have passed legislation or executive orders that commit them to reaching 100 percent renewables by various future dates. (These commitments have been made far easier by changing market forces: Renewable energy has become increasingly cheap across the world over the past four years.) They’ve also worked to meet those ambitious pledges, making their industries greener bit by bit, regulation by regulation, sharing ideas along the way.
“Having that unfriendly government that was really not taking action on climate did help create this space for [states] to coalesce and come together,” said Carla Frisch, who works on an effort led by Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to bring together public and private sector actors to fulfill America’s commitment to the Paris Agreement. “There’s a lot more infrastructure in place now for sharing lessons learned [and] technical details. Staff of different governors’ offices are working together—how did you do this? How did you do that?”
Coastal states can take inspiration from New Jersey, which passed a first-of-its kind legislation earlier this year requiring builders to incorporate sea-level rise into their plans in order to get permits. Ten states have now banned or restricted offshore drilling, including five in 2018 alone; seven states have at least one restriction or ban before their legislatures in 2020. And a handful of states have begun enacting legislation to tackle the impacts of climate change on communities of color.
As Trump thumbed his nose at international cooperation on climate, state leaders formed networks that are now eager to help the Biden administration as it recommits to the Paris Agreement and dives back into international policy. Organizations like the U.S. Climate Alliance have grown to 25 governors (including three Republicans), who say that “states are showing the nation and the world that ambitious climate action is achievable.” International leaders who otherwise might be skittish of the U.S. electing another climate denier in four years have since had the opportunity to work with governors like Brown, whom Barnes said saw “unprecedented” outreach from international leaders following Trump’s election. (California, as Californians love to remind everyone, is larger and has a more powerful economy than all but a handful of nations.)
The other good news is that state-level climate work is going to become significantly easier with a friendly force in Washington. One of the biggest climate actions Biden can take is on emissions from cars, an area where state and federal policy collide. Before Trump took office, California, the nation’s biggest auto market, had formed a coalition of states committed to holding cars to stricter emissions standards than the national rule required. (For consumers, this has the added benefit of raising gas mileage.) After taking power, the Trump administration promptly began an extensive and messy legal battle challenging California’s ability to set its own rules and aiming to tear down the efficiency standards.
A Biden presidency, experts say, means that not only will the legal challenge against auto emission standards end—and that these stricter standards are likely to become the rule for the rest of the country—but California and other states can look at similar ways to reduce emissions from other types of engines, like heavy-duty trucks and landscaping equipment. (Lawn mowers might not sound threatening, but emissions from the unregulated landscaping sector are on track to surpass emissions from cars.)
“Often, the federal government either collaborates with California or follows California’s lead once the state has shown that its regulations are workable,” said Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA. “California can’t regulate those small engines or truck engines while battling the federal government. The Biden administration is going to be way more cooperative on that front.”
But continued action from even the most committed states can’t totally make up for a stalled Congress. The states with the most emissions per capita in 2018 were fossil fuel–producing powerhouses Wyoming, Louisiana, and North Dakota—none of which, according to the Georgetown Climate Law Center, have yet adopted a statewide climate plan. Without sweeping federal legislation to force states to the table on lowering emissions, there’s a good chance that many will continue to drag their feet on climate under the Biden administration.
An economic stimulus package could give states funding to spur Covid-19 recovery with investing in green energy, but Congress excluded renewables from its first coronavirus relief package. And experts say that while state-led carbon markets in the Northeast and on the West Coast are crucial starts on pricing carbon, Congress needs to pass legislation to put a price on carbon that is high enough to make a difference—and much-touted bipartisan efforts to pass carbon pricing legislation have failed.
Even if Democrats pull off a miracle in January, there’s no reason to take the foot off the gas on state action. “There is no single solution,” Carlson said. “There’s not one bill that’s going to solve all the problems.… Everything we do is important.”