The road to climate stability runs through us, not SCOTUS

Climate action at the local level can offset the damage done by the US Supreme Court’s recent rulings.

FILE PHOTO: Power-generating Siemens 2.37 megawatt (MW) wind turbines are seen at the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility California, U.S., May 29, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan//File Photo
Power-generating wind turbines are seen at the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility Project in California on May 29, 2020 [File: Reuters/Bing Guan]

In June, the United States Supreme Court wrapped up the 2022-23 term much like the previous one. In late May, the court undercut the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate water pollution under the Clean Water Act. That came nearly a year after it curtailed the EPA’s authority to broadly regulate emissions from power plants. This continued barrage on federal environmental regulations leaves us in a precarious spot.

“The vice in both instances is the same,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissenting opinion on the water pollution ruling, “the Court’s appointment of itself as the national decision-maker on environmental policy”.

In April, the Biden administration proposed ambitious new regulations to reduce methane pollution, tighten fuel-efficiency standards, and curtail emissions from power plants – essential steps for slashing national emissions in half by 2030. As opponents bring new legal challenges before a sympathetic Supreme Court, we cannot assume these measures will stand.

State- and local-level leaders will be our last line of defence against judicial overreach – they must rise to the occasion and enact ambitious climate policies of their own. When groups of states leverage their collective influence, they can set de facto national policy. Fortunately, that work is well under way.

To date, 24 states have adopted concrete greenhouse gas reduction targets. An ambitious Maryland law, passed in April 2022, requires the state to slash emissions by 60 percent by 2031 and achieve net zero by 2045. Maryland will do so by systematically reducing energy consumption in large commercial buildings and investing in renewables. A new regulation that will come into effect later this year will also see the state phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.

California is another example of what individual states can accomplish: It has committed to 100 percent clean energy by 2045; appropriated billions of dollars for climate-smart agriculture and green transit infrastructure; and also set a 2035 deadline for phasing out new gasoline-powered vehicles.

State governments are amplifying the impact of their efforts by banding together. Twelve states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have set up their own regional cap-and-trade arrangement, a market-based mechanism for reducing emissions; California and Washington have created similar systems.

Another promising coalition is the US Climate Alliance, a group of 25 states and territories representing 58 percent of US GDP, 54 percent of the population and 41 percent of national emissions. There is a real upside to this collective approach.

California, for example, commands such a large share of the US automobile market that its fuel efficiency standards have been adopted by large automakers that cannot afford to ignore the state. Rather than joining a race to the bottom, California is leveraging its power to encourage greener private sector behaviour.

For an inspiring example of what individual cities can accomplish in a short time, look to Denver.

In 2019, a local advocacy group got the city council’s and the mayor’s attention, prompting them to create a citizen climate task force. The task force recommended a 0.25 percent sales tax increase to fund climate policies, and it passed with nearly 62 percent support.

That meagre increase has transformed the city’s climate budget from $4m to roughly $40m, allowing for programmes like e-bike rebates, vouchers for swapping gas-powered furnaces with air source heat pumps and workforce development for green jobs.

The changes are often minor in isolation but incredibly effective in aggregate – Denver is now on track to reduce emissions by 65 percent by 2030 and go carbon neutral by 2040.

Local governments are typically less constrained by the political and logistical factors that impede national action, making them laboratories for innovative new net-zero measures. Other big cities are already following Denver’s lead, including Portland, Los Angeles, Albuquerque and San Antonio.

In this context, the spectre of Supreme Court influence begins to feel less daunting. While the federal government will continue to be hamstrung, states and localities can set ambitious net-zero targets.

Public service commissioners, for example, make big decisions about the use of clean solar and wind energy. Land and agriculture commissioners oversee public land use, forest conservation, and farming standards – all the decisions that determine how much-stored carbon stays in the ground.

Spurred by a windfall of money through the Inflation Reduction Act, decisions made at a local level can set our national reality.

Federal climate action may be in jeopardy, but we need not turn to despair. When the road to climate stability runs through every state, city and town – rather than one marble courthouse in Washington – everyone has the opportunity to shape our planet’s future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.