The Way Forward On Climate Change

State coalitions and global subnational action represent the best hope

After last night’s presidential election results, it’s easy to despair that we’ve lost the fight against climate change.  Trump will likely kill the federal Clean Power Plan and pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement. He’ll also probably pull back regulations that make it harder to permit coal-fired power plants and conduct other business activity that furthers a fossil fuel-powered economy.

Yes, California’s climate program will continue, as a bright spot.  But the state relies on the federal government in crucial ways to lessen the economic burdens to Californians of the transition to a clean economy.  The immediate examples that come to mind are the federal tax credits and research on solar and wind energy, tax credits for electric vehicles and associated charging infrastructure, and general support for and research on energy storage technologies.  Without that support, California’s climate policies will likely become more expensive and potentially politically unpopular.

So where do climate advocates go from here?  Dan’s post is right on: use political leverage, the courts, and continued state action.  But I fear the first two options will be made more difficult given the potential for a coming breakdown in our governance system, as the full weight of “11/8” is felt in our institutions, from the courts to congress to the media.

That leaves state action.  And in this respect, as Dan described, there may be cause for hope.  In fact, given the hostile national politics during even the Obama years with a Democratic congress, this election may be an important wake-up call about the most viable path forward, politically speaking — even had Clinton won.  Especially since the federal Clean Power Plan, which represents the high-water mark for federal action given congressional resistance, has pretty weak targets that won’t set in for years.

California is the obvious state leader here, but so are other west coast and northeast states.  We’re long past the time when those states should join together for unified policies to boost clean technologies and price carbon.  Those coalitions are happening fitfully but need to be accelerated.  That means unified carbon markets, incentives for renewables, and a common market for electric vehicles, among other policies.

Internationally, the Paris agreement was always just a paper commitment.  Action to achieve the ambitious international targets will still require courageous policies at the state and subregional level.  And now that the Paris agreement is called into question under a Trump administration, we can see the wisdom of California’s approach to sign up subnational entities to commit to this fight.  The “Under 2 Coalition,” as it’s now called, represents 136 cities and states with 832 million people and $22 trillion in GDP.  It’s the brainchild of Governor Jerry Brown’s senior advisor Ken Alex, and it may represent the world’s best hope to achieve the goals spelled out in the Paris accord.

So while many climate advocates will be playing defense at the federal level for the foreseeable future, the offensive play, to my mind, is through state coalitions and bolstering of the Under 2 Coalition.  It’s not going to be easy, but it was always an uphill battle anyway.  And while the climb is now steeper, we still have a way forward.

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