State and Local Governments Can Take the Lead on Climate Policy
In March, the World Meteorological Organization released data on the state of the earth’s atmosphere in 2016. Last year, it found, was the hottest year since humanity started recording temperatures, continuing a trend of steadily rising mercury.
Inevitably, the rising temperatures led to record severe storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires, from the United States to Brazil to South Africa. Experts believe that the planet will become a much harder place to live if the temperature rise exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius, and will start becoming unlivable if it crosses 2 degrees.
The vast majority of atmospheric scientists attribute these rising temperatures, of course, to emissions from fossil fuels, among other human activities. Yet completely without irony, the Trump administration chose the week after the release of the WMO data to completely roll back even the insufficiently ambitious steps taken by the prior administration to address this looming global disaster.
This is very bad news. But the good news is that there is much ordinary people can still do to ensure that the United States continues to cut back on carbon emissions.
For one thing, we can exert popular pressure on the administration to reverse course, as the tens of thousands of people gathering in late April for the People's Climate March in Washington are doing, along with thousands more in sister marches worldwide. And we can use the courts to challenge aspects of the administration’s attack on sound environmental policy.
But we can also push a wide range of policy changes in our states and cities to proactively advance a just clean energy agenda, regardless of what's going on at the federal level.
In fact, states are already being the adults in the room when it comes to taking bold steps to address carbon emissions. Let’s look at just one possible policy — expanding electricity generation from renewable sources, the subject of a report I recently authored for the Institute for Policy Studies.
Transitioning our fossil-fueled electric grid to renewables would reduce emissions more than if we took every single car in the U.S. off the road, so this is a huge deal.
One adult in the room is Oregon, which legislated that coal be completely phased out of its electricity supply by 2030, and that half its electricity come from renewables by 2040.
The legislation in Oregon also enabled the formation of shared solar projects. A shared solar project is an array of solar panels typically located on the roof of a large building such as a school or church, and collectively owned by community members who cannot install solar panels on their own roof, often because they are renters. To ensure economic inclusiveness, Oregon mandated that 10 percent of the capacity of these shared solar projects be set aside for low-income residents.
Given the disproportionate prevalence of poverty among people of color, this is also a step forward for racial justice. And the idea is spreading far beyond Oregon. Shared solar projects are enabled by legislation in 14 states and the District of Columbia.
Another adult is California, which not only provides dedicated funding to install solar panels on low-income homes, but also requires that the jobs and skills training in those solar jobs be made accessible to people from underserved communities.
The states displaying these signs of maturity don't follow predictable political lines. The South Carolina Senate has passed a bill, for example, exempting homeowners with solar panels from paying property taxes on their panels.
Expanding renewable energy helps reduce carbon pollution and makes the energy system more just. It also creates lots of jobs. Energy Department data show that solar energy accounts for 43 percent of direct electricity generating jobs — the most of any one source, even though it represents only 2 percent of generating capacity.
Even after accounting for the coal mining and oil and gas drilling jobs created by fossil fueled electricity generation, solar remains the second largest employer in the sector, with 18 percent of jobs — still ahead of natural gas, which is the single largest source by generating capacity.
If solar can create this many jobs at 2 percent of capacity, imagine what a dynamic job creation engine it would be if we aggressively expanded it. Compared to that, Trump's fantasy of bringing back coal — which accounts for less than half as many electricity generation jobs as solar, even though its generating capacity is more than 10 times as much — doesn't even hold a candle.
Yes, states can be grown-ups, counteracting Trump's perspective on climate change. But it doesn’t happen by magic. It's going to take lots of local organizing. Environmentalists will have to join hands with anti-poverty groups, civil rights organizations, small businesses, workers, clergy, and other constituencies united in demanding a clean energy economy designed to benefit historically excluded populations and to create good jobs.
So after you march, find out what your state has already accomplished in this regard. If you see room for improvement, start organizing now!