Throughout this semester, my primary area of curiosity has been the role of U.S. states in international negotiations. Climate change is a deeply polarized political issue and there is palpable frustration growing in pockets of the electorate at the perceived burden placed on the United States by engagement in international institutions. Despite the relative friendliness of the incoming Biden Administration, substantive and committed long-term federal involvement in the UNFCCC process in the years proceeding his Administration is not guaranteed. However, one of the silver linings of the last four years has been the, often defiant, pursuit of climate action by a broad swath of U.S. states both independently and collectively through the U.S. Climate Alliance. Barring unforeseen changes in political discourse federal action and a presence in international negotiations will continue to become increasingly dependent on executive initiatives. The impermanence of this arrangement will leave an obligation for states to continue to serve as climate stalwarts, and it is important to explore options for their inclusion on the world stage.

This curiosity led me to Katelyn Roedner, an Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Manager for U.S. Climate. In her current position, Katelyn focuses on state climate policy with a focus on California as well as environmental justice, cap and trade initiatives, air quality, land use, and transportation policy. In 2017 she was directly involved in the expansion of California’s cap-and-trade program and is currently involved in EDF’s ongoing work investigating the effectiveness of state leadership on climate.

In our conversation, I wanted to explore what the future looks like for states that have been leading with ambitious climate pledges throughout the absence of substantial leadership from the federal government. Some specific questions that Katelyn answered were:

  • What avenues are there for increasing official involvement in international negotiations?
  • What challenges are states currently facing regarding meeting their own ambition?
  • What long term impacts from pandemic-related budget shortfalls are there going to be on advancing climate initiatives?
  • Are states going to maintain leadership during the incoming Biden Administration, or will a friendlier federal government, combined with a dependence on federal pandemic, funding force states back into a subsidiary role?

As expected, there are limited options for official state involvement in international negotiations. Though Katelyn mentioned that advocacy organizations would love for leading states to become party to these international negotiations in an ideal world, they acknowledge that there are virtually no avenues where states like California or New York have a seat at the table alongside the United States. So while we can expect prominent voices from U.S. states or coalitions like the U.S. Climate Alliance embrace voluntary roles in, for example, the Climate Action Leadership Network; that is likely the ceiling of state involvement in the international space.

However, as Katelyn pointed out, the most important ways that states can lead is by example through substantive action on their climate goals. Speaking on the potential for involvement in more economically binding climate clubs, Katelyn voiced skepticism of both the willingness and ability of states to meaningfully become involved outside of large economic powers like California (and even then, not likely). But, as EDF has recently noted through a wide-ranging report on emission reduction progress, states that have enacted ambitious targets are having a difficult time living up to them. It was here where we spent most of our discussion. Katelyn summed it up nicely when she stated, “One of the things that is going to make subnationals more influential in this space is delivering real policies that are delivering real reductions at the rate we need… and they have to put in the work now to get us there.” As we continued discussing, it became apparent that the most challenging hurdle in execution is an old problem; a trade-off between allowing for state flexibility in implementation and the development of unique challenges. States like Washington have been limited through unfavorable rulings in the state Supreme Court, other states like North Carolina have opposing legislatures and limits on environmental regulations like the Hardison Amendment, and some states like Colorado have Governors at odds with environmental groups about the execution of legislative solutions. In the presence of staunch legal restrictions on official involvement in international negotiations, states are going to have to clear these hurdles if they want to lead.

In recent years, a principle of defiance and little political downside has incentivized states to enact ambitious targets and lead on climate – even with limited success in reaching them. However, it remains to be seen if states will – or can – invest the resources necessary to build their capacity, or if they will default to the initiatives of friendlier Biden Administration. Complicating matters are the widespread budget shortfalls being experienced by states across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Without federal relief funding, states having to make hard choices concerning essential services like education, policing, and infrastructure management are not going to divert funding to ambitious climate plans. President-elect Biden has long maintained that any infrastructure or stimulus spending prompted by his Administration will be firmly rooted in green investment. However, as state relief funding appears to be left out of recent congressional negotiations, it is likely that it will have to be incorporated somehow into these future plans. Though Katelyn and I agree that coalitions like the Climate Alliance are likely to endure, their influence will depend on their degree of flexibility in investing resources. State leadership in the international climate change conversation largely depends on how vocal they are in communicating their priorities to the federal government in the coming months.

Katelyn was incredibly informative regarding the ongoing work of non-governmental organizations like EDF and I want to thank her for taking the time to speak with me! We are at a critical point in the effort to mitigate the effects of climate change and though it appears that U.S. leadership plans on pushing for green investment, organizations like EDF will be what holds power to account.