What can states do on climate? 

By Emmanuel Alcantar, Media & Communications Fellow
February 16, 2022

Adapting to the changes and preventing the worst impacts of climate change will require coordination between all levels of government. States can lead the charge on an equitable clean energy future - but they can also block progress and hold us back. Paying attention to what's happening at the state level can be challenging, so we're here to help. 

Here's a primer on the many different ways states can step up as climate leaders.

Why do states matter? Not all politics is national.

Federal efforts in Congress get all of the attention, despite overwhelmingly failing to deliver results. That’s why most of the meaningful action being taken right now is actually at the state level.

Just in the last few years:

  • Nevada passed a 100% clean energy unanimously through their state legislature
  • Maine passed a statewide Green New Deal with massive support from labor unions.

  • Illinois recently passed the most equitable climate legislation in the country.

  • Virginia was the first southern state to commit to 100% clean energy.

  • Nebraska committed to 100% clean energy by 2050
  • And more! 

And, when legislation does pass at the federal level, it's up to states legislators to implement them in a way that is appropriate for their community. You can find your state legislator’s climate voting record on our scorecard (we’ll discuss this more later).

So what can states do on climate specifically?

States occupy a critical space between local government implementation and Federal ambition. States have enormous power to control decisions about housing, transportation, energy, agriculture, industry, and environmental justice.

Housing: Gas stoves and heating in buildings alone accounts for about 13% of emissions. States can update building codes to require on-site solar energy, they can provide funding to make housing more energy efficient and save people money on energy bills, and they can incentivize all-electric new buildings powered by the sun and wind. They can also end single-family zoning restrictions in most neighborhoods, build more housing, and incentivize transit-oriented development to dissuade people from driving. California just recently passed SB 9 which will allow for the construction of duplexes and lot splitting. 

Transportation: Transportation generates the largest share of emissions at 29%. In order to cut pollution from cars, states can provide incentives for buying electric vehicles (EVs), set funding for EV charging infrastructure, and expand public transportation and bike/pedestrian infrastructure to provide better non-driving alternatives. 12 states have also adopted California’s Low-Emission and Zero Emission Vehicle Standards, which requires manufacturers to reduce tailpipe pollution and start selling more electric cars.

Energy: Electricity is the second highest source of emissions in the US (25%), and since electricity powers our buildings, electric cars, and more - making sure this electricity comes from renewable sources is the first step towards a clean energy system. Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) set by states have helped drive almost 50% of all renewable energy growth in the US to date! In addition to setting clean and renewable energy requirements like RPS, states can streamline permitting of renewable energy projects, ensure that wind and solar get a fair shot in the energy market, incentivize renewable projects, and hold utilities accountable to clean energy and energy efficiency goals. For example, in Washington State, they implemented a clean energy standard by 2045 and reformed their utilities to switch to a performance-based model, incentivizing energy efficiency, renewable energy, and equity in the utility business model.  

Agriculture: Our food system is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change - and is also a critical part of the solution. Conventional farming practices are water and fossil fuel intensive. States can reduce emissions in agriculture by changing how they use water and supporting farmers who practice sustainable and regenerative agriculture. 

Industry: Heavy industry, which includes processes like refining oil and gas and manufacturing concrete and steel, is responsible for 23% of emissions. Decarbonizing these sectors is challenging, and this is an area where federal R&D investment is still needed. However, as states begin to transition off of fossil fuels, some of these industrial emissions will follow. Another way states can tackle this is by implementing Buy Clean policies, which require that government contracts consider the environmental impact of materials before beginning big projects. That requires manufacturers to disclose their environmental impact and reward those who have the least emissions. This sends a signal to the market that they must clean up their manufacturing process. 

Environmental Justice: Black, indigineous, and other communities of color are the most likely to suffer the effects of climate change. States can direct agencies to develop a screening assessment that identifies at-risk communities based on demographic and environmental risk factors (i.e. racial ethnicity, income, air quality, proximity to landfills, etc). Another thing states can do is set public health setbacks separating fossil fuel drilling and residential areas. They can also prevent new industrial projects in communities already overburdened with pollution, like New Jersey did in 2020. States should also make sure that the benefits of the clean energy transition reach environmental justice communities first, by ensuring investment for energy efficiency upgrades, public transportation, clean cars, and clean energy in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. 

How to hold your legislator accountable.

Holding our elected officials accountable to equitable climate action is both possible and necessary. Climate policies are incredibly popular and yet too often, progress stalls because there is a fundamental disconnect between popular opinion and public policy. The majority of voters support transitioning to renewable energy, so every state legislature should have a plan to decarbonize their energy sector. 

There are a lot of legislators in local and state office who are not voting the way they need to be. That’s why we need climate champions to run for these seats. But they need help from the climate community to run and win.

  • One simple step you can take is to pledge to support these local climate candidates
  • If you don’t know who your state legislators are, this tool makes it easy to find out! 

  • State legislatures have a lot of authority over climate, but most people don’t know how their legislator votes. Our Climate Scorecard makes it easy to look at your representative’s climate voting record. 

  • Sign up for our mailing list to stay updated on important climate policy trends in states across the US.

  • And get involved with local groups! Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Sunrise Movement, 350.org and other great climate organizations exist in many communities.

In our opinion, too much attention is placed on federal politics – and not enough on powerful state legislatures. Many state legislatures are only a small handful of seats away from being controlled by pro-climate legislators who want to invest in clean energy, invest in clean transportation, and provide clean air and water for their communities. Flipping state houses – and holding your decisionmakers accountable – are among the best ways to address climate change now.

Return to the Climate Cabinet blog.