Speech by Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change
Pew Center State and Federal Workshop
February 25, 2008
On behalf of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the Pew Center on the States, I’d like to welcome you to our conference: Innovative Approaches to Climate Change: A State-Federal Workshop. I welcome the opportunity to be with all of you and kick-off this very timely conference that will examine the specific roles of Washington and the states in addressing the urgent challenge of global climate change.
As most of you know, what is happening on this issue right now is this: In the absence of federal action, states have taken the lead in designing regulatory approaches to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. And while it is good that the states are acting - it does not mean the federal government is irrelevant. In fact, both Washington and the states have specific and important roles to play. And I will spend a few minutes this morning discussing what these different yet complementary roles look like and mean.
But first, let’s examine why states are acting. I think there are three reasons: risks, opportunities and authority. States are very close to what is happening - they see the risks that climate change poses to their states – not just higher temperatures and heat waves, but more coastal flooding, more intense rainfall, higher levels of drought, increases in the number and intensity of wildfires, and more. But many states also see opportunities in responding proactively to climate change, including developing new industries in alternative energy, applying information technology to buildings to improve energy efficiency, and improving the quality of life for their citizens through smarter growth.
States also recognize that they have real authority to reduce emissions. They are empowered to take action. States can promote clean electricity and energy efficiency with policy tools such as net metering, green pricing, and public benefit funds. States have authority to adopt building efficiency codes, which can have a major impact when you consider that energy use in buildings produces about 43 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. States also have great control over smart growth policies and transportation policies aimed at reducing emissions from cars and trucks. These are examples of things that fall within a state’s authority and in many instances, outside the authority of the federal government.
But what about the federal government? Washington most assuredly has been absent from the effort to reduce U.S. emissions, as I have said. But there are signs this will change, probably in the next couple of years. And so, when the federal government finally chooses to act, is there a risk that it might come in and supercede all the good and thoughtful work of the states?
I think not. I think the question of federal vs. state action on climate change is not a question of either/or. My thesis is that the states can do some things (indeed they are better suited to do some things) and Washington can do other things that only Washington can do. And I think there is more than enough responsibility and hard work to go around.
For example, certain actions, if they are taken nationally, can be more cost-effective. And we also have to keep in mind that there is no guarantee that all states would act individually. In order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and to do so both cost-effectively and to the levels scientists say are necessary, I do believe we need the federal government to step up to the plate at the same time that the states are doing their part.
One of the things that Washington can and should do is to create a national cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cap-and-trade has been embraced by business and political leaders from both parties as the best and most cost-effective way to achieve real, specified reductions in emissions. But cap-and-trade works best when it covers many emission sources.
The more states, or the more countries, that are part of the system, the more you can achieve efficiencies of scale and the more you can lower the cost of reducing emissions. This is why many states are reaching across their borders to establish regional cap-and-trade programs. They understand that the economics of cap-and-trade get better when more states and more communities are involved. But if regional approaches are better than going state-by-state, it is also true that a national approach is better than doing this on a region-by-region basis.
Ultimately, we need a national cap-and-trade program like the one making its way through the U.S. Senate. This plan aims to reduce emissions across the country and levels the playing field for businesses in all 50 states. It ensures that we’re able to take full advantage (as a nation) of the cheapest emission reductions we can find.
Another thing that only the federal government can do is negotiate and enter into international agreements on climate change. At the federal level, the United States needs to commit to play an active part in crafting an effective global response to this problem. We have not been playing a constructive role in this process – and that has to stop.
International negotiators, including the U.S., have agreed to a process aimed at producing a new global climate treaty by the end of 2009. This is an extremely ambitious goal, but one worth pursuing. Clearly, we need a global agreement as soon as possible that includes binding commitments from the world's largest economies. And a global agreement that creates a worldwide market for emission reductions will help lower the global costs of achieving our emission reduction goals.
Negotiating such an agreement is clearly a federal government responsibility … and it is a responsibility we will carry out more effectively if we commit as soon as possible to a national program of reducing emissions. Right now, emerging economies and major sources of emissions like China and India are hiding behind U.S. inaction on this issue. U.S. leadership, in the form of mandatory emission limits at home coupled with a strong push for binding international commitments, would set the stage for effective global action – and, ultimately, real progress in reducing emissions around the world.
Does this mean the states should step aside and cede the leadership role on the climate issue to Washington? No. The states can and should keep exploring ways to leverage their unique authorities in areas from energy regulation to building codes, smart-growth planning and more. States are doing important and valuable work in all of these areas, and that must continue at the same time that the federal government begins to fulfill its role in the partnership.
In closing, I want to remind you of the vision of Justice Louis Brandeis. He saw the U.S. states as “laboratories of democracy” where policy innovations could take hold and perhaps provide models for other states, and for our national government as well.
And I honestly believe we would not be where we are today in the climate debate – on the verge of adopting a national cap-and-trade program – if many of the states had not acted first to adopt their own targets and to pursue cross-border emission trading regimes.
The U.S. states are acting in the best traditions of federalism by advancing an array of solutions to climate change that address their specific concerns and that take advantage of their unique responsibilities in our federalist system of government. Today, the challenge is to create a more balanced state and federal partnership – a partnership that promises to bring much-needed certainty to the question of how we as a nation are going to address the most critical environmental issue of our time.