The University of Arizona

A Multi-Level Government Approach to Climate Change Benefits All

October 17, 2011
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Climate change affects everyone on the globe, even residents of countries that emit very small quantities of greenhouse gases. Such a global issue might seem to require a global response. Indeed, nations that are party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are working to promote an international response to climate change, but as many are aware, the United States—among other big emitters—has rejected ratification of the Framework Convention’s successor, the Kyoto Protocol, which obligates developed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the U.S. Congress has so far failed to adopt any federal climate-change legislation, even as our federal government acknowledges the need for strong federal policies.

Does this mean that less than global-level efforts—and less than national-level efforts—aren’t worthwhile? Definitely not. A new book published by the University of Arizona Press, Navigating Climate Change Policy: the Opportunities of Federalism, argues that our federalist governmental system, in which power is divided among a national government and state and regional governments, is actually well-suited to address the challenges of climate change because it allows for policy responses at multiple scales – from the national to the local and all nature of combinations in between.

One take-away message of Navigating Climate Change is that actions to address the challenges of climate change at state and regional levels should be encouraged regardless of whether national policy is enacted. Why? States and regions are impacted by climate change differently, and should be able to respond as their interests and resources dictate. California is going to care a lot more about sea-level rise than Colorado, for example. States in the West that rely on high-elevation snowpack to serve as water-supply reservoirs will need to take different actions to adapt to warming temperatures—bringing more rain and less snow—than those that do not. More generally, some regions may need to put greater effort into adapting to changes that will occur regardless of mitigation efforts; others may focus more on mitigation--reducing present and future production of greenhouse gases to try to minimize the climate changes that occur.

In a federal system of government, policy innovation can come from the top down, but also from the bottom up.  States and regions can test policies and incentives that others—including the federal government—can learn from, thus fostering innovation and experimentation. Several chapters in Navigating Climate Change explore the remarkable record of state, local and regional policy innovation in areas related to climate change.  For instance, in 2009 California was granted a waiver from the US EPA to enforce its own vehicle emissions standards; 14 other states have since adopted California’s standards. Experimentation is not limited to government: the solar industry has bloomed across the Southwest.

Fortunately, states already have taken matters into their own hands through such actions as setting emissions standards and targets, building energy codes, and “green pricing” options. The Pew Center maintains data on climate change actions taken by states and regions. Industry, too, is acting independent of any federal directives; the Carbon Disclosure Project recently reported that 68% of 396 of the world’s largest publicly held corporations have climate change actions as part of their business strategy. “Low carbon growth is now widely accepted as fundamental to generating long term shareholder value, avoiding dangerous climate change and helping the global economy recover from recent turmoil,” according to the report.

Navigating Climate Change Policy demonstrates that climate change policy need not be an either/or matter – either federal or state – but rather explores policy-making processes that draw upon the strength of multiple levels of government.  Thus, even if Congress does enact national climate change policy, it should still support state and local responses, including collaborative efforts. Collaboration improves efficiency, helps avoid redundancy and conflict, and encourages different groups—such as government agencies, interest groups, and citizens—to work together. Collaboration is especially worthwhile when addressing climate change, as its impacts do not respect any type of boundaries. The editors of Navigating Climate Change Policy recommend that Congress reward collaborative climate-response efforts by revising budget and personnel requirements, and as importantly, through the establishment of accountability measures for collaborative efforts to ensure transparent decision making. 

Navigating Climate Change Policy is packed with good ideas; its authors explore options for national climate legislation as well as regional coordination. Congress could go the route of “cap and trade” in carbon emissions credits, but so too it could follow the model of the Clean Air Act, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, by setting national emission reduction goals and then working with states to develop regulations and plans for meeting them according to the resources and interests in each state.  These are options that are available now, but are not widely discussed outside the technocratic world of environmental attorneys in Washington, D.C.  However, in this book, these ideas are unpacked and made accessible to the general reader.

While we may not have the commitment of every industrialized nation in the world—including our own—to the Kyoto Protocol or the even stricter reductions that may be required to combat global warming, we can still foster significant reductions through cooperation and coordination at local, state, and regional levels. Such actions can provide lessons on how emission reductions can be accomplished in the real world, and in many cases may even save money. They also demonstrate political will that, if scaled up, would have a big influence on climate. With time, more and more non-federal actors can make real action plans and achieve real greenhouse-gas emission reductions, which will slowly add up while we wait for federal—and global—action. For more ideas, read the book!