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Climate Action: Back to States and Cities

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

With Republican control of Congress after 2022 and the White House after 2024 looking increasingly likely, a brief moment of climate progress under the Biden Administration faces reversal. Climate advocates must get ready to refocus efforts on state and local governments. They are the source of most climate action in the U.S. anyway. The history leading up to the 2015 Paris Climate Accord tells the story.

In 1999, Massachusetts and 11 other states petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide as pollutant under the Clean Air Act, because its climate impacts were damaging to human health. The EPA denied the petition. The states took it to court. In 2007, the Supreme Court took the states’ side in the Massachusetts v. EPA decision. In 2009, under a new administration, the EPA affirmed that CO2 should be regulated under the Clean Air Act, setting in motion the Clean Power Plan, the 2015 Obama Administration Initiative to reduce coal plant pollution.

In 2002, California passed legislation to cut CO2 pollution from cars. A 1967 federal law gave the state the power to set its own tailpipe pollution standards because of its unique conditions. California’s regulation preceded passage of the federal Clean Air Act. The new CO2 law withstood court tests and went into effect in 2006. Average California cars and light trucks put 30% less CO2 in the air in 2016 than they did in 2004.

Because other states could opt into the California standards, efforts were undertaken in many states to enact the tougher standards, including in the Northwest and Northeast. The goal was to build a critical mass to push so much demand for less polluting vehicles that the auto industry would just throw in the towel and make all of them that way. That was the basis for the 2012 vehicle efficiency agreement the Obama Administration negotiated with the industry. The strategy’s success was indicated when California ruled cars that met the 2017-25 federal standard would also meet the state’s.

When Obama took U.S. climate commitments to the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, they largely consisted of the Clean Power Plan and vehicle efficiency standards. The Paris Climate Accord arguably would not have happened without the U.S. commitments. State initiatives which the vital groundwork. Predictably, those policies were exactly what Trump targeted when he withdrew the U.S. from Paris, cancelling Clean Power and the vehicle standards. The administration also took aim at the EPA waiver that allows California to make its own clean air rules. The fossil fuel operatives in the administration knew exactly what they were after.

The Biden Administration has rejoined the Paris Accord, reinstated vehicle standards, and plans a new rule limiting coal plant pollution. But Republican attorneys general are challenging the right of the EPA to regulate CO2, and the Supreme Court has agreed to take the case.  A reversal of Massachusetts v. EPA looks likely under today’s reactionary court.

Climate action in Congress is already at a near standstill, thanks to two coal state Democratic senators in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. If Republicans take even one house of Congress in 2022, progress will come to a complete halt.

More whipsaws can be expected. If Trump or someone like him is sworn in on the Capitol’s east portico in 2025, the U.S. will again back out of Paris Climate. Vehicle standards will again be rolled back and the power of states to set their own clean air standards will be under fresh attack. Any new coal plant regulations will also be ditched. The entire already inadequate framework to reduce fossil fuel pollution from the world’s second largest carbon polluter will be out the window, and other nations will feel free to abandon their own climate pledges.

Looks like we are heading back to action from the bottom up.

Back to states and cities

Rollback of the federal climate framework and the second withdrawal from Paris will no doubt plunge many into despair. This is a decade when we are supposed to be reducing climate pollution by 45% to have any chance of keeping global heating below 1.5°C, the point at which already disastrous climate impacts such as heatwaves and drenching floods become far more severe. Instead, we will be going in exactly the wrong direction.

But we should not underestimate the power of local and state action. In the 2020 election, counties going for Biden represented 71% of the U.S. economy. State and local governments are where decisions are made in areas critical to fossil fuel reduction, such as transportation and land use, building codes and energy supplies.  Blue counties and states have disproportionate power to cut back fossil fuel burning, but that takes political will that so far is falling far short, even in reputed climate leader states such as my own, where climate pollution has been increasing. It’s going to take a confrontative, no-bullshit approach by climate advocates to create that will.

Substantial progress has been made at state levels, most notably in requirements that power grids include a percentage of clean electricity. Many states have passed such standards, but the idea of 100% clean electricity was on the margins a decade ago. Now, beginning with Hawaii in 2015, pathways to 100% clean have now been put into effect in 20 states plus DC and Puerto Rico, as well as more than 200 cities. As of 2019, even before some of those requirements were set, one-third of the U.S. population lived in jurisdictions headed for 100% clean.

Climate advocates need a repertoire of plays, from pushing policies in legislatures, city halls and county courthouses, to nonviolent direct action.  Grassroots resistance and direct action have blocked plans for expanded fossil fuel infrastructure across the U.S. Cascadia has been in the forefront. Situated between massive fossil fuel reserves east of the Rockies and the growing markets of Asia, the region was targeted for major coal, oil and gas export terminals. Cascadia’s thin green line,” as it is called, has stood in the way. (I even took my own trip to county jail.)

Investigate West called it “A Thin Green Line With Global Impact.” Writes Robert McClure, “Against the odds, and even their own expectations, activists blocked nearly every effort to use the region’s ports to expand the global fossil fuel trade between 2004 and 2017 . . . Industry wanted to turn the Pacific Northwest into a fossil fuel export hub. Instead, environmentalists assembled coalitions that shut down or brought to a near-standstill proposals that, taken together, would have punched the carbon equivalent of five Keystone XL pipelines through Cascadia and its ports . . . “

Confronting greenwashing politicians

Crucially, we are going to have to confront the leaderships in our blue city and state centers of strength that claim climate leadership while continuing to push carbon polluting business as usual. For example, on my home turf of Cascadia, two politicians with reputations as climate champions, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington – the guy who ran a climate campaign for president in 2020 – are pushing forward with plans to build a massively expanded bridge across the Columbia River that joins the two states. The $5 billion project would also double freeway lanes leading up to the bridge, adding 30 lane miles.

The project even has a climate framework. It’s the classic lipstick on a pig. The added road capacity would increase travel 155-233 million miles each year for 100,000 additional tons of climate pollution. The Urbanist calls it “a sprawl-inducing supersizing of I-5 in Clark County with some greenwashing elements.” And that is only one of a number of highway expansions being proposed in Washington and Oregon.

Another example from my region is a plan to build a new regional airport to match the current Sea-Tac International. The state legislature in 2019 unanimously created a commission to search for a new Seattle-area site. “The new hub would pave the way for decades of aviation — and emissions — expansion,” writes Peter Fairley of Investigate West.  “Seattle attorney Sarah Shifley, co-founder of the volunteer aviation team for 350 Seattle, calls that ‘flabbergasting’ . . .  ‘I actually think it’s insane,’ says Shifley, without a hint of hyperbole.”

One might hone the diagnosis to schizophrenia. Many of those legislators who voted for the airport study voted the next year to set a state goal for a 45% cut in climate pollution below 1990 levels by 2030. They mandated that as a firm carbon cap in 2021. It is hard to see how expanded highway and airport infrastructure jives with those goals. A new airport would serve an urban area failing to meet its own ambitious carbon reduction goals, and in fact where emissions are still increasing. This is substantially because of aviation climate pollution growth, 40.8% from 2008 to 2018, the date of the most recent climate inventory, and 9.3% from 2016-18 alone.

Both highway and airport expansion are predicated on business-as-usual assumptions of growth. Climate advocates must challenge whether road traffic and aviation can grow in a carbon-constrained world. Advocates for the expansion claim that clean fuels such as electricity and aviation biofuels can keep carbon down. But it will be decades before the road fleet is entirely electrified, and aviation biofuels, even if they can be made without endangering food security or ecosystems, or actually spewing more carbon than oil fuels, can only supply a percentage of current aviation demand, let alone growth. In any event, expanded road and aviation infrastructure will be pouring additional CO2 into the atmosphere in years we desperately need to be reducing climate pollution.

If climate action loses all traction at the federal level, it becomes increasingly important to demand it at state and local levels, and not buy into the greenwashing of politicians and public agencies. Or of nonprofit advocacy groups too much in bed with them to call it out.

Preparing for a rough ride – Adaptation

Sadly, there is another aspect to what we must do at state and local levels, prepare for extreme climate disruptions. We are already seeing an increase in extremes, and we will see more. If we brought climate pollution to zero today, the climate would stabilize and global heating would stop within 10 or 20 years. That’s the good news. The closer we come to zero, the more chance we have to hold global heating within bounds.

But temperatures would still remain at high levels for decades, continuing to produce the kind of impacts we are seeing today. And reaching zero is going to be an uphill battle, to say the least.  We have to get real. Humanity is already triggering climate feedback loops, from Arctic ice melt that opens up blue water that soaks up more heat that melts more ice, to drought-driven forest fires that dump more carbon in the atmosphere. We are toying with forces we barely understand. We are in for a rough ride whatever we do.

Thus we must do all we can to climate-proof our places. Adaptation is highly dependent on local conditions. So local and state governments are the places to prepare. The good news here is that many actions to adapt to climate change also reduce climate pollution. For example, protecting coastal wetlands and moving to sustainable agroforestry soak carbon out of the atmosphere. Securing indigenous land rights promotes forest preservation and carbon storage on the 50% of global land they manage globally. Decentralized renewable energy systems and mass transit buffer against climate-driven infrastructure disruptions while reducing carbon pollution.

We need to build strong places to ready ourselves for the storms that are coming, literally and politically.  We need to keep up the climate fight in our communities, states and regions, whatever happens at the federal level. We need to build strong and resilient communities to withstand the climate extremes we know are coming, to protect the most vulnerable when heatwaves, cold fronts and drenching storms blow in. We need to be ready to rebuild in a world where we will be more and more on our own while a disrupted climate overloads the capacity of national agencies.

Climate action is up to us, bottom-up. We can hope that national and global climate policies will eventually scale to the immense challenge, and prepare for that day. But we clearly cannot expect that in coming years when, in the U.S. at least, action looks to be moving back to state and local levels.

This originally appeared on Patrick Mazza’s substack page, The Raven.