Federal gridlock leaves climate hawks looking to state capitols for progress, but what will they find there?

Guest blogger Mike Livermore is executive director of NYU’s Institute for Policy Integrity.

The scent of burning rubber is already in the air as Congress skids towards utter climate gridlock. And now, as EPA starts to unroll it’s next round of greenhouse gas controls, several legislators have promised to do everything in their power to jam up traffic in the agency.

So it makes sense that many large environmental organizations are beginning to look to state capitals for leadership on climate change. But what will they find when they get there?

According to the study released by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law this week, in many states they are likely to be met with a morass of inefficiency that is often biased against environmental regulation. Using a grading system that judges state regulatory review on factors like transparency and balance, even relatively progressive states like California earned grades in the D range.


Other states have become completely unhinged. In Florida, the legislature overturned Governor Crist’s veto to pass a law requiring legislative approval of any measure that has more than a $1 million economic impact. That means even small environmental protections could require a legislative vote, essentially locking in the status quo, no matter how outdated or inefficient, if there is a special interest with enough lobbying power to gain a political favor (not a big hurdle).

This kind of potential hindrance to climate action is unfortunately common around the nation and green groups ignore the problem at their peril. Even passing legislation through state houses does not ensure proper protections will be put in place””regulations will still need to be implemented. At that point environmentalists could find themselves stuck in a process that is conducted in back rooms and based on ideology or special interest influence rather than science and economics.

To lay the groundwork for climate progress at the state level, reforms need to be made to the regulatory review and cost-benefit analysis practices that so often stymie environmental protections. Improvements in transparency, public participation, evidence-based decision-making, and independence could help ensure that state agencies do not bog climate progress down in an influence-peddling boondoggle. The good news: many of these changes could be made with the stroke of a pen from governors.

By requiring state governments to justify their regulatory choices in the language of science and economics, environmentalists win. In both these categories, the data is on their side when it comes to climate. The scientific consensus on greenhouse gas emissions is well established (Senator Inhofe’s musings notwithstanding) and the economic case for carbon controls is equally recognized within the expert community, if not the media circus. So forcing governing bodies to rely on these facts rather than allowing them to adjudicate based on whims and fancies would be a huge boon to those pushing to rein in the use of carbon.

Vermont provides a sense of what more attention to climate at the state regulatory level could look like. There, agencies must detail the sector-by-sector greenhouse gas impacts for every new regulation, ensuring that climate counts when agencies adopt new rules.


As climate activists start to move their attention away Washington and look towards the states, pushing for reforms to regulatory review should be part of the strategy for long-lasting progress. Not only will it make implementing greenhouse gas controls easier and more effective, but it will help protect gains from the violent political swings that, at the federal level, have us fastening our seat belts to go nowhere fast.

— Mike Livermore is the executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law and the author, with Richard L. Revesz, of Retaking Rationality: How Cost-Benefit Analysis Can Better Protect the Environmental and Our Health.