Toward a Constructive Dialogue on Federal and State Roles in U.S. Climate Change Policy

Jun 02, 2008

In the United States to date, states have taken most of the significant actions to address climate change. Yet enactment of a nationwide program requiring reductions across the entire United States is both necessary and increasingly likely. This prospect raises a number of questions as to the appropriate division of responsibilities between state and federal governments across the many areas where climate change action is needed. The key question is not whether responsibility for climate change action should rest exclusively with the federal government or the states, but rather how and to what degree the federal government and the states should share responsibility for tackling the problem.

A number of arguments exist to support state-level action on climate change. States have historically played a role as effective first-movers on important environmental issues, functioning as policy innovators, testing policies that have later been adopted at the federal level. States also bring an understanding of the unique circumstances within their boundaries and a familiarity with their stakeholders. States drive federal action, sometimes insisting that policies be strengthened even after the federal government has acted. There are also numerous arguments in favor of a strong federal role in climate policy. A federal program would bring every state into the climate change effort and tend to level the playing field for businesses in all 50 states. Federal action offers a platform for engaging with other nations in forging an international emissions reduction agreement. A national GHG cap-and-trade program would keep costs manageable and drive climate-friendly technological innovation, and could link with other markets around the world.

Given the strong reasons for both state and federal action on climate change, it is perhaps not surprising that historically state and federal governments have chosen to share authority over most areas where climate change action is needed. This is true across most air pollution control, energy supply, energy efficiency, transportation, forestry and agricultural policy areas. Rather than asking whether federal or state government is best able to address climate change, the more relevant question is which level of government should tackle which parts of the challenge.

Precisely how to delineate state and federal roles in a comprehensive nationwide climate change program should be the focus of a constructive national dialogue. This paper evaluates several possible approaches along a continuum from heavy reliance on federal action to heavy reliance on state action. The scenarios examined differ in the degree to which responsibility for reductions is shared between federal and state governments, but each recognizes that some action will be required at both levels.

Federal action on climate change is needed to achieve the significant reductions science demands and to establish a minimum level of uniformity across the U.S. economy. This federal action can preserve room for states to continue in their important roles as policy innovators, on-the-ground implementers, and policy drivers, and to capitalize on the significant experience in the states across the many aspects of climate change action. A federal climate change program will be most successful if it is designed with the relative strengths of each level of government in mind.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions site.

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