The United States is finally on the verge of addressing the climate crisis at the scale the crisis demands. The House of Representatives has taken up both the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which has already been passed by the Senate, and the Senate’s $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which will set the stage for a budget reconciliation bill. Taken together, these two pieces of legislation represent significant progress on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, and—if passed—would provide transformative investments in climate at a scale we’ve never seen before.
Young people care about the climate crisis, and have been on the frontlines of fighting for action on this issue from the local level all the way to the federal level. We care about the climate crisis because we, along with Black, Brown, Indigenous and low-income communities, will be impacted the most by its harmful effects. In part because of this, young people turned out in unprecedented numbers in the 2020 election to vote for leaders that will treat the climate crisis with the seriousness it requires.
Despite broad consensus among scientists and national security experts that the climate crisis is real and poses an extreme threat to the United States, some members of Congress have resisted the critical climate investments put forward in President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. But Congress can and should look to states for inspiration when enacting ambitious climate policy. Many states and localities have passed legislation that aims to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 or earlier—a benchmark that scientists say is imperative to addressing the climate crisis.
Across the country, states have paved the way for progressive and ambitious climate policy. These climate policy wins have come about due to tireless advocacy from community groups, workers, environmental justice activists, and other key stakeholders. The lessons learned from state-level advocacy and policymaking can be a guide for effective federal policy.
Below are examples from three states that have passed ambitious climate policies, with the goal of drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating good-paying jobs in the sectors of our future.
Washington state has been a national leader on progressive climate policy. In May 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) into law. The law requires the state to stop use of all coal-fired power plants by 2025 and transition to carbon-neutral energy by 2030, while transitioning the state to 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045. By adopting 100 percent clean energy, CETA will create new jobs as new clean energy infrastructure is built.
CETA also establishes tax incentives to boost clean energy projects that meet certain labor requirements, including procuring contracts from woman- or veteran-owned businesses, hiring locally, and compensating workers fairly (as determined by their collective bargaining agreements). The law also requires that all utilities in the state provide energy assistance to low-income households, which is not limited to just bill reductions, but also includes weatherization, energy efficiency and “direct customer ownership in distributed energy resources,” requiring addressing energy burden at 6 percent. Additionally, CETA requires the development of a Cumulative Impact Analysis that will identify communities disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution, and requires that the benefits of the Act are distributed equitably. CETA also requires utilities to work with community boards, which are required to include representatives from impacted communities, to develop plans, provide oversight, and ensure transparency. It is also important to note that the law states that all customers, “benefit from the equitable distribution of energy benefits and reduction of burdens to vulnerable populations and highly impacted communities,” which is critical for the implementation of environmental justice.
More recently, Gov. Inslee signed the HEAL Act into law, which will prioritize environmental justice by requiring state agencies to consider the impacts of their work on frontline communities, including both harms and benefits, as well as create an environmental justice council to collaborate with these agencies on their environmental justice priorities.
In New York, the state legislature passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which became law in July 2019. The bill directs the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, with the remaining 15 percent to be offset by other methods. It also requires that the state gets 100 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2040. In addition to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, CLCPA enhances labor standards and worker protections, ensuring that these jobs are not only safe, but also pay a good wage.
CLCPA’s passage was predicated on the passage of a separate environmental justice bill, New York State Senate Bill S2385, which created a permanent environmental justice advisory group that will ensure the actions of state agencies will not disproportionately burden any communities with pollution. CLCPA recognizes that frontline communities are the most impacted by climate change, and advances environmental justice in the state by requiring that these communities receive at least 35 percent of all investment benefits in clean energy. Environmental justice groups in the state celebrated the bill, but acknowledged that it is not perfect.
In March 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act (ETA) into law. It transitions New Mexico away from fossil fuels through interim targets, requiring that 50 percent of the state’s electricity is renewable by 2030, 80 percent renewable by 2040, and 100 percent renewable by 2045. The ETA provides workforce support for communities that will be directly impacted by this transition away from fossil fuels by training workers for the construction and development of renewable energy infrastructure. The law also provides better protections to consumers and economic relief to the communities that will be impacted by the closure of coal-fired power plants.
The good news is that the Biden administration has already incorporated a lot of the solutions above into its strategies for addressing the climate crisis. Environmental justice, job creation, and transitioning to clean energy feature prominently in the administration’s Build Back Better policies. However, now it is time for Congress to act.
This is why it is up to Congress to follow the example set by these three states and make significant investments in climate on the federal level. The planet and our communities can’t wait any longer.