Reducing carbon emissions is essential to the planet’s future, but politics has long stood in the way. It doesn’t have to be that way, according to Tim Profeta of Sullivan Foundation partner school Duke University. Profeta has proposed a solution to break the political stalemate on climate change, and he presented it to the people who need to hear it the most – members of Congress – in early December 2019.
Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, Profeta, the director of Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and an associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy, recommended a model for addressing climate change that has worked for other environmental challenges: a federal/state partnership. He proposed that the federal government establish targets for reducing carbon emissions while empowering states to craft their own plans to meet those requirements.
“There is no reason that such a federal/state partnership cannot work to address climate change as it has in numerous instances before,” Profeta wrote in his prepared testimony to the House subcommittee. “Given the political uncertainty of our ability to achieve any other alternatives, the urgency of climate change demands that we consider it as the path of least resistance to achieve our climate objectives.”
As the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, Profeta noted in an op-ed for The Hill, the U.S. is “fundamental to that solution … Yet despite some positive steps, U.S. emissions increased rapidly in 2018, in the face of warnings that emissions should be cut by 45 percent worldwide by 2030 to avoid worst-case scenarios.”
“Meanwhile,” Profeta added in The Hill article, “political resistance has blocked the solution many economists favor: a single federal price on carbon, set through a cap-and-trade program or carbon fee.”
As an alternative, the federal government could set targets for reducing carbon emissions and let individual states meet the goals in their own ways.
“I propose using a federal-state partnership to attack climate change akin to the cooperative federalist approach that permeates much of our legal code,” Profeta told Duke Today. “In such a system, the federal government would set greenhouse gas goals for each state to ensure that all 50 states are moving forward. It would leave it to state governments, which are more directly accountable to their communities, to execute plans to reach those goals.
This approach to reducing carbon emissions, he added, “allows leadership by states, which are more in touch with their people’s needs, avoids the specter of big federal government growth that other proposals suggest, and captures the momentum of state leadership on climate change that has been the biggest area of climate success in the past decade.”
He said this federal/state partnership model has already worked for education, policing and health care. “In environmental law, it is similarly common, for instance with national water permitting programs run through the states,” Profeta told Duke Today. “But the most direct comparison is with the Clean Air Act, where the EPA sets national standards for air quality but each state develops plans to reach those ambitions. The Clean Air Act has been one of our most successful environmental statutes, dramatically cleaning the air over the past 50 years in a period of robust economic growth.”
Letting states, both red and blue, develop their own strategies for reducing carbon emissions would sidestep political conflicts, allowing states to “design policies that fit with their culture and economies,” Profeta wrote in The Hill. “States that already lead on climate change could align behind this proposal, while states that have been less aggressive would get flexibility on how to develop their own plans,” such as cap-and-trade systems, carbon taxes and other options.
According to the Nicholas Institute, more than 40 nations have implemented a carbon tax or trading system. In the U.S., California uses an economy-wide carbon cap-and-trade program. States in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, meanwhile, have formed a utility-sector trading regime called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
“State governments have provided politically acceptable solutions to many societal problems through our country’s history,” Profeta concluded in The Hill. “We should embrace their role in the climate fight. This may be the best bet for success on one of our most dire and pressing societal challenges.”