Second Generation Climate Policies in the American States: Proliferation, Diffusion, and Regionalization

Barry Rabe

Nearly 15 years after its ratification of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and a decade after its negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, the United States federal government has maintained its posture of climate policy disengagement. Congress has rejected a series of legislative proposals that would have established modest targets for containing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions from major sources. The Bush Administration remains tightly scripted, endorsing further research and voluntary reductions, but nothing more. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s push for some American flexibility on the issue, in conjunction with his leadership of the G8 nations and push for new climate initiatives, got a cold shoulder in Washington.

This familiar tale, however, fails to provide a complete picture of evolving American engagement in climate policy. Indeed, at the very time federal institutions continued to thrash about on this issue, major new initiatives were launched with bipartisan support in such diverse state capitals as Sacramento, Carson City, Santa Fe, Austin, Harrisburg, Albany, and Hartford. Even Blair has gotten in on the federalism act, negotiating transatlantic climate partnerships with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger rather than with a governor-turned-president like George W. Bush.

As of August 2006, more than half of American states could be fairly characterized as actively involved in climate change, with one or more policies that promise to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Virtually all states have begun to at least study the issue and explore very modest remedies. A growing number of these states are every bit as engaged on multiple policy fronts as counterparts in European capitals. These state programs are beginning to have some effect on stabilizing emissions from their jurisdictions. Indeed, many states are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, with considerable potential for reduction. If the fifty states were to secede and become sovereign nations, thirteen would rank among the world’s top forty nations in emissions, including Texas in seventh place ahead of the United Kingdom. So if it is globally consequential when other nations establish climate policies, state engagement is more than a matter of environmental trivial pursuit.

There are, of course, profound limitations on what American states, acting individually or collectively, can do to reverse the steady growth of American greenhouse gas releases of recent decades. States face enormous constitutional constraints, including prohibitions against the negotiation of international treaties and restrictions on commercial interstate transactions. This paper will consider the historic role of American states in national policy development and particular drivers that seem pivotal in the climate case. It will also examine state climate policy evolution, with particular attention to new trends that have emerged in the past few years. Finally, we will consider possible limitations facing state-driven policy and opportunities for these statehouse-level developments to continue to expand and ultimately define a unique American response to this enormous policy challenge.