In Taking Up Climate Battle, Cities and States Shift the Debate

View of a large solar energy farm with solar panels lined up in a field in New Jersey.

View of a large solar energy farm with solar panels lined up in a field in New Jersey. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Some city leaders looking to lead on climate change policies, reducing emissions in their areas and tackling other environmental issues. But state preemption laws sometimes stand in their way.

SEATTLE — Progressive leaders, forced in the Trump era to look for positive notes where they can, have turned to what they can control at the state and local level: boosting renewable energy development, safeguarding civil rights, stiffening gun laws and raising the minimum wage.

At a meeting of state and local Democratic leaders from around the nation in Seattle this past week, speakers said one key frontier is addressing climate change. They hailed the fact that the focus on policy solutions has shifted to city governments. They said that the country’s historic rural-to-urban migration and enormous resource consumption and emissions in cities mean municipal policymakers can have outsized impact in reducing national greenhouse gas emissions and in writing the next chapter of political narratives around the topic.

Talk About Jobs

“You talk about jobs and people pay attention,” said Washington state Senate leader Kevin Ranker. “In our state currently, there are 57,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector, representing 900 companies, 195 patents in 12 different sectors.”

Ranker said the growth of renewable energy and the effort to in other ways reduce the effects of climate change also will protect a lot of jobs.

“Ocean acidification here in Washington has threatened jobs already. Taylor Shellfish moved 300 jobs to Hawaii because our waters were too acidic. That galvanized a bipartisan movement to take action... When lobster fishermen in Maine realized that the same thing that was impacting our oysters would impact their lobster, Maine woke up.”

Ranker is one of the roughly 30 members of the NewDEAL network of progressive state and local leaders who gathered in Seattle last Tuesday and Wednesday for an “ideas summit.” The group has an updated, unabashed Clinton-era Third Way sensibility. It is chaired by U.S. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and former Delaware Governor Jack Markell. It pitches itself as promoting non-ideological policy meant to fuel economic growth, mainly through programs that prioritize lifting and expanding the middle class. The summit was held at the downtown Seattle Chamber of Commerce offices and was hosted by NewDEAL member Cyrus Habib, Washington state’s 37-year-old tech-savvy lieutenant governor.

Ranker also talked about Washington state’s outdoor recreation industry and the political opportunity presented by the fact that climate-friendly policies create jobs outside liberal-voting metro regions.

“If [the outdoor recreation industry] were one company, we’d be bending over backward to give it a tax break bigger than Boeing’s: 199,000 jobs, $21.7 billion in annual spending. And a supermajority of those jobs—be it the clean-energy sector jobs in wind or tech or what have you, or outdoor recreation, or shellfish aquaculture—these are jobs in rural districts, 90 percent aren’t in Seattle, they’re in Southwest Washington or Eastern Washington, areas still experiencing higher unemployment.”

Cities as Major Emitters

Prodipto Roy, a program manager at environmental organization ClimateWorks, said the potential for cities and states acting alone to reduce climate emissions has been grossly underestimated. He said part of the problem is that it is standard practice to measure emissions as a matter of production instead of consumption. Measuring production alone creates something like a “carbon loophole” in the data: Cities can outsource manufacturing to remote areas, he explained, but they can’t outsource consumption.

“This is not to point fingers. It’s to appreciate the control and scale at which a city- or state-level intervention can have an impact,” Roy said. He added that low-carbon standards for municipal procurement of goods and services, particularly tied to infrastructure projects, can slash enormous amounts of emissions and bring around sectors traditionally difficult to win over on climate considerations. Procurement standards can unite environmentalists with members of labor and industry leaders, he said, because they level the playing field for project bidders. Popular low-bid but high-polluting competitors effectively are taken out of the running.  

California’s Buy Clean legislation last year enjoyed just such support. The law requires state agencies and public universities to adopt a low-carbon standard for any new infrastructure projects, something like $10 billion in annual spending beginning in 2019. The bill gained strong support from the California steel and concrete industries and from labor unions.

“Applied at scale, this sort of thing has the potential to have profound effect and to create clean local industries and local jobs,” Roy said.

State Preemption

But these efforts come at a time when conservative political leaders around the country have launched a wave of state “preemption” proposals aimed at reining in what they see as overreaching local governments. Even though none of the speakers at the conference mentioned them, preemption efforts have successfully quashed proposals to curb greenhouse gas emissions, with critics saying they are attacks on industry that would kill jobs and hike energy prices.

Colorado in recent years has sued cities and counties that have passed bans on oil and gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, arguing that regulating extraction is a state matter for a reason—that patchwork regulation would make it extremely difficult for drillers to operate successfully in the state. Courts have agreed with the state’s argument.              

In 2016, Arizona passed the “mother of all preemption bills.” “That’s what we call it,” Phoenix City Council member Kate Gallego told Route Fifty in an interview on Wednesday. Gallego, a Democrat, chairs the city’s sustainability subcommittee and one of at least five declared candidates running  to replace Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who resigned this past week in order to run for Congress.

Arizona’s Senate Bill 1487 was introduced and passed after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey vowed in his 2016 State of the State address to crack down on local initiatives that he said threatened economic development. Ducey pledged to "use every constitutional power of the executive branch and leverage every legislative relationship to protect small businesses and the working men and women they employ—up to and including changing the distribution of state– shared revenue,” according to The Arizona Republic.

The law allows the state attorney general to direct tax revenue away from any cities and counties that violate state laws. The measure came in reaction to local proposals that sought to raise the minimum wage and ban plastic shopping bags, but it casts a long shadow.

“Basically, if we don’t follow the state’s lead, there goes funding for the city’s police and fire departments,” said Gallego, “So we need to be strategic. We run for office to get things done, so you need to pick your battles wisely.”

Private-sector Workaround

Rising urban temperatures is the kind of issue Phoenix officials are looking at.

“We’re the country’s hottest capital city,” said Gallego. “The heat that comes with our summers is a life and death issue. We can’t afford to wait for a federal government that will pay attention.”

Gallego said city leaders are talking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also simply about how to prepare for the hotter climate—how to “provide greater access to water and shade and transportation,” she said.

“We’re also looking at how the hotter temperatures will change our economy,” she added.

Phoenix is home to a bumper crop of data centers that run large blocks of computer servers day and night. Gallego said the city, for that reason, has to be at the forefront of efforts to improve critical infrastructure performance and advance cooling technology, and that city leaders should also be prepared for the data-center industry in Phoenix at some point to level off or decline.

Gallego said there were ways to avoid state preemption on certain kinds of climate efforts. Basically, she explained, when the private sector leads, there’s no preemption problem.

“A lot of our large solar deployments have been led by financial institutions,” Gallego said. “In those cases, partisan politics don’t get in the way. It’s when cities lead on our own, that’s when we get preempted.”

Another way to avoid preemption she said is through philanthropic partnerships, accepting the fact that philanthropic sums are tiny in the world of infrastructure development. Phoenix this year won a $100,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which it is using to develop a comprehensive plan to prepare for heat waves the same way cities have developed earthquake- and hurricane-readiness plans.  

Pragmatic Approach

In supermajority Republican Arkansas, where state leaders have passed several preemption laws, Warwick Sabin, an Arkansas state representative who is running for mayor of Little Rock, said that he stays focused on the way public policy addresses real problems in people’s lives.

“Preemption is something we have to keep in mind. That’s why it’s important to keep talking about climate change or, as I like to talk about it, ‘sustainability,’” Sabin told Route Fifty at the summit. “It’s important to talk about it in terms of economic development and government efficiency and public health. When you talk about energy-efficiency standards, for the average person in their homes, that’s about money that could be spent on food or medicine or clothes for the kids but that’s going out the door because they live in an inefficient home. For businesses, it’s about saving money. For the government, it’s about saving tax revenues.”

“In Little Rock, we have a lot of businesses that have sprouted up in the energy-efficiency realm and in renewable energy generation,” Sabin said. “We talk about creating a good business climate to attract corporations. Well, those corporations are going to demand action on these issues and we have to demonstrate that we’re willing to do that.”

Sabin is former director of development for the Clinton Foundation and has been a member of the NewDEAL network for years. His wife, Jessica DeLoach Sabin, is NewDEAL’s political director.

Sabin added that the conversation around solar power in Arkansas has evolved significantly during the six years he has served in the Legislature and that talking pragmatically about renewable power fueled change.

“I’ve run a lot of pretty progressive energy legislation, a lot of which didn’t pass, but just yesterday our Republican governor dedicated the largest solar power plant in the state,” Sabin said. “He presided over the ceremony and talked about the need to do more of it.”

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Seattle.

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