Greenhouse & Statehouse: The Evolving State Government Role in Climate Change

The current level of state activity surrounding the issue of climate change is striking. Measures that have proven controversial at the federal level, such as renewable portfolio standards and mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, have been implemented at the state level, often with little dissent.

In this report, author Barry Rabe of the University of Michigan describes a diverse array of state initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Based on case studies of nine states – Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, and Wisconsin – the report identifies the strengths as well as the limitations of these state-level initiatives, some of which could serve as prototypes for federal programs.

A number of themes emerged from the case studies. Foremost among these is that there are multiple drivers that influence states to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and states derive multiple benefits from doing so. New Jersey, for example, views climate change explicitly and comprehensively, and has integrated all sectors of the economy into programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, Texas passed an ambitious renewable portfolio standard primarily out of a desire to ensure long-term energy security for its residents, to secure its position as an “energy state,” and to take advantage of increasing opportunities in renewable energy.

Indeed, state climate change efforts illustrate that climate change can be a bipartisan issue, an economic development opportunity, and an opportunity for policy entrepreneurship. But state action is not a substitute for a comprehensive national or international approach. A number of factors limit the ability of states to address climate change, including the reluctance of some states to deal with the issue, constitutional limits to their engagement in international relations, limited funding, and potential inefficiencies if states address climate change in different, incompatible ways. Rather, state leadership is getting the United States started down the path of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing learning opportunities for policy-makers. We would do well to be mindful of their successes as we work toward federal and international programs, and actively involve states in their design and implementation.

The Center and the author wish to thank Tom Arrandale, Bill Becker of STAPPA-ALAPCO, John Dernbach of Widener Law School, David Terry of NASEO, Michael Winka, Athena Sarafides, Philip Mundo, Caroline Garber, Eric Mosher, Joanne Morin, Dana Runestad, Alex Belinky, Matthew Weinbaum, and John Shea for their comments on a previous draft of this report.

Executive Summary

Most analysis of policy options to address global climate change has focused on national and international levels of governance. Even within the United States, most scholars and journalists have concentrated on federal government capacity to engage in international negotiations and formulate nation-wide policies. This emphasis has tended to overshadow a remarkably – and increasingly – active process of policy formulation evident in the American states. This report is intended to provide an overview of this aspect of American climate change policy, considering recent trends and highlighting a range of case studies that cut across traditional policy sectors.

States have been formulating climate change policy for more than a decade, although their efforts have expanded and intensified in the past several years. In some cases, states have considered climate change mitigation explicitly while in others it has been an incidental benefit. Reflective of the vast scope of activity that generates greenhouse gases, state policies have been enacted that reduce these emissions in such areas as promotion of renewable energy, air pollution control, agriculture and forestry, waste management, transportation, and energy development, among others. In almost all cases, there have been multiple drivers behind and multiple benefits from these state policies. In Texas, for example, the desire for energy independence, economic development, and air pollution control drove the state to promote renewable energy. Not all states have demonstrated interest in these initiatives and some legislatures have taken steps to prevent state agencies from pursuing any efforts that are designed to reduce greenhouse gases. Nonetheless, there has been a remarkable increase and diversification of state policies since the late 1990s, reflected in their current operation in every region of the country. Collectively, they constitute a diverse set of policy innovations rich with lessons for the next generation of American climate change policy.

Much of this report is devoted to an examination of leading examples of innovation in various sectors, from renewable energy efforts in Texas to a cross-cutting approach in New Jersey. Nine case studies are presented in particular depth, followed by supplemental cases where appropriate. These cases tend to vary markedly from one another in detail and yet are linked by common design characteristics. First, they tend to have been supported through broad, bipartisan coalitions that received significant support from diverse stakeholders. State climate change policies have been signed into law by Governors who are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Second, they regularly have viewed climate change mitigation as an economic development opportunity. State policies have been crafted to foster long-term economic well-being, which has contributed to their broad base of support. Third, they reflect abundant state-level opportunities for innovation and policy entrepreneurship, often involving state officials who build coalitions around a particular idea for new policy. Many of the most effective entrepreneurs are not particularly well known outside their respective states but have helped redefine climate change policy with their efforts.

When viewed as a collection of efforts, these initiatives outline possible elements of a long-term climate change strategy for the United States. Diffusion of innovation from one state to others is already occurring and clusters of contiguous states are beginning to consider cooperative efforts. Some of these policies may also serve as models that warrant emulation by the federal government in developing a more comprehensive strategy for the nation. This is entirely consistent with the long-standing tradition in American governance whereby states serve as laboratories for subsequent federal policy. In turn, the vigorous and creative nature of state innovation in this area suggests that any future federal policy initiatives on global climate change consider carefully the significant roles that state governments may be able to play in achieving long-term reduction of greenhouse gases.