The Power States Hold: Our Climate Fight Begins With Accountability

Something big is coming soon... Read this sneak preview by Emma Buday, State Research & Policy Intern at Climate Cabinet Action, summer 2021.

I am an intern at Climate Cabinet Action, and after spending just 8 weeks diving into the fascinating, and tedious, world of state climate policy; I have come to this simple conclusion: state legislators are underappreciated.

In preparation for the release of Climate Cabinet Action’s first ever national state legislature climate scorecard; I’ve combed through thousands of climate bills, dove into the policy landscape of Texas and North Carolina, and researched energy outlooks for dozens of states. All of this has highlighted for me the (often neglected) importance of state decision-making.

With millions of constituents to appease, and billions of combined dollars at their behest; states shape the trajectory of our collective climate and energy future — not to mention impacts on marginalized and historically overburdened communities. In order to alter our global climatic course, holding these legislators accountable is critical.

Throughout my time at Climate Cabinet Action, the power of state legislatures has become overwhelmingly clear. I’ve seen that many climate wins in the U.S. come from the state level. States’ renewable portfolio standards are responsible for the majority of renewable energy growth in the US; California, amongst several others, has adopted vehicle emissions standards that have set the nation’s future course; and more and more states across the US are adopting binding 100% renewable electricity commitments.

But at the same time, states also have immense power to hold us back. In my research, I have been appalled by the sheer number of regressive bills moving through statehouses — and the different types of attacks being advanced. The consequences are too grave to ignore, so I wanted to share these (hopefully, in some sense, motivating) findings about some of the many ways state legislatures are blocking climate progress: through subsidies, interference with federal and local action, and attacks on democracy.

Fossil fuel subsidies.

Most shockingly, to me, is perhaps the amount of tax-payer dollars funneled directly into the fossil fuel industry. Across the United States, state legislatures (still!) actively contribute to the dominance of Big Oil — through subsidies amounting to billions of dollars for gas and oil companies.

  • Recently, in 2020, Pennsylvania passed legislation to include a $670 million, 25-year tax credit for petrochemical and fertilizer manufacturing facilities that use natural gas produced in the state — a blatant handout to the fracking industry.
  • More covertly, Montana passed legislation in 2015 to extend a tax credit to the most potent polluter of all; granting $2 million in annual funding for a process called “coal washing” at the Signal Peak coal mine, when this process would be used despite the subsidy.
  • Wisconsin, in 2018, passed legislation to extend $3 billion over 15 years to electronic giant, Foxconn; while also exempting the company from environmental and air quality standards. Luckily, with the election of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, this deal was cut to (“only”) $80 million in 2019.
  • In total, the United States provides 10 times as much funding for the fossil fuel industry than the federal budget for education. While these subsidies come at all levels of government, state legislatures clearly play a large role.

Whether legislators openly extend aid to Big Oil, or camouflage against bureaucratic red tape; it is a stark reminder of the attention we must pay to state budgets.

Interference with federal & local efforts.

In addition to the influence of this powerful allocation, states are the nexus between local and federal action — and a surprising amount of legislatures have blocked climate action efforts from these other governmental levels.

  • Stalling federal action: In 2015, President Obama passed one of the largest attempts to curtail emissions — the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, intended to be implemented at the state level. But reliance on state compliance has proved detrimental: 29 states filed lawsuits against the rule, thus resulting in the Supreme Court vacating the regulation before states could comply.
  • Interfering with regulatory efforts: Beyond suppressing federal efforts, legislators in many states are blocking regulatory agencies’ ability to implement new or existing environmental laws. This is exemplified in Pennsylvania, where state legislators blocked oil and gas regulations from 2015. These policies were crafted over several years with guidance from climate experts and the public — to protect both the environment and health of PA citizens from detrimental effects of fracking and oil/gas operations.
  • Pre-empting local progress: In 2020 and 2021 combined,19 states passed or considered bills preventing cities from requiring new buildings to be all-electric or phase out natural gas. In Missouri, legislation banning building electrification was passed before cities even attempted to phase out natural gas. Here, counties and cities and municipalities are blocked from promoting clean energy — a requisite for the future.

Attacks on democracy.

In order to reverse the negative momentum towards a climate oriented legislative agenda, communities and individuals must rise up and express their distaste. But this is becoming increasingly difficult in states enforcing voter suppression and criminalizing peaceful protest. These actions against justice will prevent future action on a multitude of popular aspirations; and are ultimately an attack on democracy. Across the U.S., there are an alarming amount of regressive, dangerous, decisions being made by states — which will not only prevent action now, but determine our course for the future of the planet:

  • Since the 2020 election, 14 states have passed 22 voter suppression laws, and 61 bills have been introduced throughout 18 legislatures. More than half of this legislation includes restricting mail-in ballots and absentee voting, with many requiring more forms of ID to register to vote.
  • Voting districts this year are particularly malleable, with 35 states legislatures controlling redistricting (following the 2020 census). States consistently suppress minority votes with partisan “gerrymandering” — an unregulated tactic that results in unfair reapportionment of state legislators. This gives state legislatures disproportionate power over the political process across varying levels of government.
  • Unfortunately, attacks on democracy go beyond voting: according to the ACLU, in 2020–21, 90 anti-protest bills were introduced in 36 states. This legislation was in response to successful mobilization by activists — specifically, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and the civil rights behemoth of Black Lives Matter.
  • And underscoring the epitome of anti-environmentalism, a report by Greenpeace found that the legislative supporters of these bills are heavily funded by fossil fuel companies.

In conclusion; subsidies towards fossil fuels, federal interference, and local preemption severely thwart our future course — and will leave many regions unprepared, completely opposing innovation as our crisis persists. These issues will only be exacerbated by anti-democratic legislation, which suppresses free speech and prevents equal representation.

And while our attention floats towards DC politics, states continually pass this critical legislation. Rather than falling into a single national mindset, we must recognize the importance of state decision-making — promoting individuals who support climate action and environmental justice, and waging accountability on those who enforce regressive legislation.

Of course, with an overwhelming 7,000+ state legislators in America, it’s incredibly difficult to determine who is advancing progress, and who acts as a legislative roadblock. Fortunately, that’s why Climate Cabinet Action will soon be releasing the first national climate scorecard for state legislators. With this data, I hope you’ll see, like me, the influential role of states across the U.S. — and the true state of climate action.

I hope you will be motivated to act. Our climate depends on it.

We’re a data-driven climate policy group that helps downballot candidates run, win, and legislate on the climate crisis. https://www.climatecabinetaction.org/