Climate Conflict in the U.S. States

Co-Chairs: Joshua Basseches (University of Michigan) and Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo (Christopher Newport University)

In the absence of federal leadership on climate change in the United States the U.S. states have, in many cases, served as “laboratories of democracy” (to quote the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis), producing innovative climate change mitigation and adaptation policies. Though a Biden administration may prove more active at the federal level on this issue, states are likely to continue playing an important role in climate mitigation.

Thus far, 23 U.S. states have made some level of commitment to reduce their total greenhouse gas emissions across their economies, and 37 states have adopted some form of a renewable portfolio standard, seeking to increase the share of renewables in their electricity mix. In the transportation sector, we have seen low-carbon fuel programs, vehicle emissions standards, and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) programs. We have also seen a number of policies promoting energy efficiency in building construction.

However, we have also seen significant policy retrenchment and inertia when it comes to mitigation efforts. Staunch opposition to climate policy has led many states to enact symbolic policy that lacks the teeth to meet ambitious goals or mandates. Moreover, weak executive actions are immediately reversed with changing governors, and the climate denial and/or delay movement continues to flex its political muscle in the states, through groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the American Petroleum Institute (API) and its state-level affiliates, and the fossil fuel industry — including, to varying degrees, electric utilities. And then of course, we have a handful of states, mostly located in the Southeast region of the country, that have still done absolutely nothing on climate change, despite their being among the most geographically vulnerable to its more immediate, devastating effects.

This working group has the following research objectives:

  • Mapping the interest group landscape in the U.S. states to better understand why there is so much variation in climate opponents’ ability to derail strong climate policy. This includes gaining an increased understanding of both the policy preferences and political power of the various actors involved.
  • Examining variation in state-level political institutions (e.g. legislative professionalization, administrative capacity, term limits, shared power arrangements between the executive and legislative branches) to determine how these institutions mediate the prospects for strong climate policy.
  • Further understanding the contours of public opinion at the state level, and what is influencing state and local variation in public attitudes (i.e. to what extent is it misinformation or lack of information, perceived economic self-interest, etc.)
  • Evaluating, understanding, and combatting major transparency problems with state government policymaking activities, as well as misinformation or lack of information available to the public (e.g. the decline of local media)
  • Considering how the politicization of climate change influences the ability of states to enact climate policy under differing partisan balances within state governments
  • Evaluating the current state of play, and future prospects for, policy learning and diffusion not only between states, but also between the state and federal governments, as well as sub-national units in other countries (e.g. Canadian provinces, Mexican states, etc.)