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How states could play a key role in climate fight with Congress stalled

State governments could play a major role in cutting the nation’s planet-warming emissions, especially with Congress unable to unify on any major actions, according to public policy experts still stinging from Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) decision last week to back away from action.  

While Manchin’s decision was a serious setback that likely dooms any action on climate by Congress, it doesn’t mean meaningful cuts to emissions can’t be made.  

It’s just that they’ll have to come from state, county and city governments.  

Sam Ricketts, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, said he sees a few different areas where states can step up their ambition.  

These include requiring shifts to electric vehicles, mandating clean energy use for electricity and electrifying new buildings.  

He called for “more states” to step up to the plate and embrace “100 percent clean power, 100 percent clean cars, 100 percent clean buildings.” 

State and city governments working with private business can get a “good amount” of the way toward President Biden’s goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, said Nathan Hultman, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland who has served in the Biden and Obama administrations.  

“It would be a few percentage points away, probably, if it’s just cities, states and businesses,” he said.

None of this detracts from the need for federal action — or the disappointment in Manchin that is deeply felt in Democratic circles.  

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) has questioned whether Manchin should continue to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) accused him of “intentionally sabotaging” Biden’s agenda. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich suggested kicking Manchin out of the party altogether.   

“It would be much better to have federal leadership here. I think states and industry would benefit from the certainty and from the leadership,” said Steve Cohen, a public affairs professor at Columbia University.  

“But we haven’t had it and we’re still making progress, so I suspect we’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing,” Cohen said.  

Manchin hasn’t totally ruled out voting in favor of climate legislation in the future. He blamed inflation for walking away from the climate talks last week after months of talks with fellow Democrats.  

But with Republicans seemingly poised to take back the House majority in this fall’s midterm elections, Democrats and climate advocates think a lack of action by Congress right now will leave global warming unchecked at the federal level for years.  

Hultman said the Manchin news may ramp up the pressure on cities and states to take even more ambitious action.  

“What we have seen in the past, and what we’ll likely see again, is renewed pressure on these states and cities and counties … to now step up and do more on their side,” he said.  

Hultman said states might see “pressure from their own constituencies to revisit” their climate policies, including to “crank up the number” as a result of new scientific information and the political situation.  

Citywide policies are also expected to help reign in climate change.  

Madison, Wis., Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway (D) told The Hill that her city was working on initiatives including subsidizing solar energy, requiring buildings to report their energy use in the hopes of improving efficiency and partnering with a local utility to put chargers in public parking garages.  

But state actions could limit what even mayors want to do on climate change. State laws can prevent mayors from taking certain actions, Rhodes-Conway said.  

“In order to reduce the emissions footprint of buildings, we need to be making our new building stock as energy efficient and as low emission as possible, and right now, we can’t require that in the city of Madison because we’re preempted on building codes,” Rhodes-Conway said.  

A recent analysis by CNN found that as some liberal cities try to ban natural gas, 20 states have laws that would prevent them from doing so.  

States with Democratic governors and legislatures are most likely to embrace bolder climate action. California, the nation’s most populous state, is expected to take a leading role.  

But states with Republican governors and legislatures, at least in more conservative parts of the country, are expected to lag.  

Cohen, of Columbia University, said this doesn’t mean there can’t be any climate progress in red states, especially as renewable energy becomes cheaper.  

“There is a consensus to be built in the country, even in places like Florida and Texas, about modernizing the energy system,” he said.  

Florida increasingly looks like a red state in elections, yet it also has a population highly concerned about climate change given its seaside communities. Texas is also experiencing the perils of climate change in heat waves and winter storms challenging its power grid. 

At the federal level, while legislative action may be on hold, Biden is vowing to take executive action.  

“If the Senate will not move to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our domestic clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to meet this moment,” he said in a statement on Friday. 

Tags climate fight Congress Environment Joe Biden Joe Manchin Policy Steve Cohen

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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