A Weather Forecast for Climate Change Governance

by Shana Campbell Jones

Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions.
                                                           -- Thomas Jefferson


Last week, I attended the National Conference on Climate Governance at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.  Given the politicization of climate change science and the impending political battles over what to do about climate change, “Mr. Jefferson’s University” was a profoundly fitting -- if ironic -- setting for a climate change and governance conference. In addition to being one of the founders of the republic, Thomas Jefferson assiduously recorded the weather for 50 years in his daily journal. (A little-known fact: Thomas Jefferson recruited volunteers throughout Virginia to observe the weather, establishing a network that eventually became the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Weather Program). As the above quote suggests, Thomas Jefferson also considered science to be a tranquil pursuit – a feeling that likely eludes climatologists today.


Tranquility also eludes our politicians and bureaucrats, because both mitigating and coping with climate change is the greatest environmental challenge we have ever faced. As several participants at the Miller Center conference pointed out, and as CPR has explained in its white paper, Cooperative Federalism and Climate Change: Why Federal, State, and Local Governments Must Continue to Partner, addressing climate change also raises profound issues for federalism, as policymakers consider what roles local, state, and federal government should play in combating the problem.


As policymakers tackle these governance issues, they should take note of the results of a national survey conducted by Muhlenberg College and released at the Miller Center’s conference. The poll found that most Americans not only believe that climate change is a serious problem, but they want all levels of government – local, state, and federal – to do something about it. (Here’s the survey report itself, and here’s a Richmond Times Dispatch story on it.)


The Member Scholars of the Center for Progressive Reform also believe that all levels of government should do something about climate change, which is why they think any climate change legislation enacted by Congress must reflect the “cooperative federalism model.” Cooperative federalism establishes a framework for federal, state, and local governments to work together to protect the environment.  When it comes to climate change, state and local governments are uniquely positioned to address some of the thorniest issues (such as building codes and lifestyle habits). Indeed, states are far ahead of the federal government in taking bold steps to reduce carbon emissions. As it happens, the 10-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is having its second carbon auction today


Unfortunately, there’s another approach on the table – one that has significant support. Under that approach the federal bill would preempt – which is to say, undercut – state and local action on climate change, in favor of a one-size-fits-all standard. That approach is contrary to tried and true legislative practice. In most instances, Congress explicitly gives the states authority to adopt standards that are more protective than federal standards, and last session’s Boxer-Warner-Lieberman climate change bill did just that. Industry, however, has targeted for elimination provisions in climate change legislation that retain state authority, hoping for one national standard that is less burdensome than many state standards are or may be.


The debate about whether climate change is a real problem may finally be coming to a close. The Muhlenberg College poll tells us that the majority of Americans want action, and the Obama administration and Congress have put climate change at the top of their agendas. But if the conversation about climate change science was difficult and contentious, the policy strategies to deal with climate change may be more so. So here’s a weather forecast for 2009: partly cloudy, with federalism playing a larger role in the debate than even Thomas Jefferson could have imagined.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform