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Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
October 2019

Using the Old to Solve the New—Creating a Federal/State Partnership to Fight Climate Change

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Climate change is a challenge like none other. Its impacts are occurring at a global scale, and any policy solution must take effect at an equivalent scale. Yet the politics of the issue push in precisely the reverse direction, as large efforts fail due to the challenges of collective action across governments and the comprehensive reach of the cost of the policies. 

The United States might be the best illustration of this challenge. As the world’s second largest current emitter, and the largest historic emitter, the United States’ footprint is significant, and domestic action is essential to solve the problem. Yet all efforts to legislate a federal solution to the problem have failed. 

This policy brief proposes that there may be another way to solve this riddle. Instead of attempting to settle all concerns about a program’s costs and impacts at the federal level, simply let Congress determine the level of ambition needed to achieve our climate goals. And then use the state governments, which are more in touch with the equitable tradeoffs of their populations and directly accountable to their communities, to execute plans to reach those goals. 

This may be the best approach to achieve fast and significant climate action and put cooperation and solutions ahead of partisanship and bickering. Our network of state governments has provided politically acceptable solutions to a number of societal problems through our country’s history, and perhaps it is time to embrace their role in the climate fight fully.

Such a federal/state partnership, in fact, should sound familiar to scholars of environmental law—it underlies nearly every other successful effort at environmental legislation. For the reasons described below, it may be the best bet to find success legislating on our most dire and pressing environmental challenge—climate change.