The Energy 202: ‘There’s no reason for us to wait.’ Four more Dem governors join alliance to uphold Paris climate goals

Source: By Paulina Firozi, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)

Some states aren’t waiting around for Congress to pass a Green New Deal to tackle climate change.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) plans to announce today that he’s joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, his staff confirmed to The Energy 202.

Evers is the latest of four newly elected Democratic governors to join the group of states that have pledged to meet the goals outlined in the Paris climate accord, even though Trump vowed to withdraw the United States from the global pact meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, New MexicoGov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced their participation in recent weeks.

These latest commitments expand the bipartisan coalition from a group of mostly coastal states to a group of 21 that is more representative of the broader country.

“It feels new and like a sea change as we’re thinking about who is leading on climate change and identifying policies that really resonate across the country and not just with constituents in the more liberal states,” said Julie Cerqueira, executive director of the alliance. “What is significant is you are seeing a new region on the rise.”

The coalition was formed in June 2017 by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and then-California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) as a response to the Trump administration’s vow to withdraw from the Paris deal.  While the Midwest and Southwest regions were already represented in the alliance by Minnesota and Colorado, there are now “more states in the neighborhood that are really showing leadership on climate change,” Cerqueira said.

The most recent additions to the alliance say their participation is critical. “It’s a new day in Wisconsin and it’s time to lead our state in a new direction where we embrace science, where we discuss the very real implications of climate change, where we work to find solutions, and where we invest in renewable energy,” Evers said in a statement.

“If the federal government is not proceeding with greenhouse gas reduction policies, then we’re going to do it . . . There’s no reason for us to wait for a national program,” said Sarah Cottrell Propst, cabinet secretary designate of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

Having New Mexico, the nation’s third-largest oil producer, join the alliance can send a message to other states and to the federal government to act, Propst said. “It’s a bold statement for a state like New Mexico that does have a significant — and I want to emphasize, very important — oil and gas production sector,” she said. “That part of our economy is really important and we’re not trying to minimize that. We want to work with industry partners to minimize waste and minimize emissions.”

These states are joining the coalition as scientists increasingly point to how climate change will affect the interior of the country, not just the coasts. The National Climate Assessment released by the federal government last year details how increases in humidity have eroded soils and created favorable conditions for pests in Midwestern farms while water resources have declined in the Southwest because of droughts in part caused by climate change.

Devashree Saha, director of energy and environmental policy at the Council of State Governments, said as state leaders across the aisle start to take climate change seriously, “it seems like the rationale for holding out is shrinking.”

“The outlook for U.S. emissions is going to be a lot worse if we don’t have states doing something,” she said.

This growing momentum from states follows a midterm election that saw a groundswell of campaigning from Democratic candidates for governor on goals of renewable energy and a path away from fossil fuels. The alliance points to increased public concern about climate change as one reason for state-level momentum. Meanwhile in Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a sweeping Green New Deal measure last week with dozens of co-sponsors that quickly prompted division among Democratic lawmakers worried about the ambitious plan.

Even as states look to avoid the division seen at the federal level, one expert argued that without binding emissions targets, joining the Climate Alliance goes only so far.

None of the alliance’s targets are binding, but by joining, member states commit to working toward the target U.S. contribution to the Paris goal of reducing emissions by at least 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The states also pledge to track and report their progress and accelerate the implementation of new and existing environmental policies.

“It doesn’t commit or obligate these states to anything; they don’t force any formal decision or commitment, and so I think for a newly elected governor they are relatively easy steps to take that are symbolic,” said Barry Rabe, a climate policy expert and professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. “It’s not a carbon tax, it’s not a renewable energy mandate; there’s some real limits to this.”

Cerqueira pushed back on the idea that joining the alliance is just symbolic. She said some of the executive orders signed by governors show a commitment to making climate action a priority and have “already been indicative of more than just a political maneuver.”

Lujan Grisham’s Jan. 29 executive order, for example, orders the creation of a climate task force that will recommend a state climate strategy and calls on the state to cut emissions by 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The order also directs agencies to develop a plan to reduce methane emissions, which Propst said was motivated by the Trump administration’s move to roll back federal methane rules.

“It’s ambitious,” Propst said of the order. “But the governor shares the other participating states’ vision that we have to do our part in the U.S.”