State Climate Leadership Is Coming to the Nation’s Capital in 2021

The rising sun illuminates the U.S. Capitol building on September 19, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

More so than any election in history, climate action was on the ballot on November 3, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won with a bold vision for climate action—putting forward an ambitious agenda, campaigning on the issue in key states, and using it centrally in their closing message. This was also the first election with climate at its center, as Americans are feeling the impacts of climate change in serious, personal ways—from hurricanes and floods, to wildfires and extreme heat—that can no longer be ignored. Even exit polling from Fox News found that an overwhelming majority of voters—72 percent—say they are concerned about climate change, and 70 percent support increasing government spending on green and renewable energy. In short, the 2020 election confirmed climate action is a winning issue at the forefront of Americans’ minds—those of both parties.

Notably, many of these representatives- and senators-elect come from states that have recently launched bold climate action of their own, either through legislation or executive orders. The advocacy coalitions that achieved these actions—and the background experience of some of these representatives- and senators-elect in climate action at the state level—could now be integral partners in working with the Biden White House to advance climate action throughout the country in 2021.

Scientists have made clear that leaders at all levels of government only have a decade to take aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and they must do so while also protecting those communities who are disproportionately affected by environmental racism and who remain most vulnerable to the increasing effects of climate change. While the Trump administration undermined climate action at every step over the past four years, so many states and local communities have continued to lead, implementing 100 percent clean energy standards, centering environmental justice, and working to invest in good, high-paying union jobs through a clean energy transformation.

This column considers some key congressional outcomes from states that have an existing commitment to climate action and makes the case that these senators- and representatives-elect will bring this local mandate to bear on federal administrative and legislative climate action in 2021.

The state of climate action

The Trump administration actively undermined climate action from the start, including by withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement early on, with its official exit happening the day after the election; repealing and replacing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan with a significantly weaker program; and rolling back the landmark federal clean car standards—all as part of more than 100 rollbacks of federal climate and conservation policies. But it is worse than that: Thanks to its decision to employ more former lobbyists than any prior administration in history, the Trump administration actively catered to polluters over the American public. These appointees have provided regulatory handouts and financial bailouts to the administration’s fossil fuel allies, while its environmental and public health rollbacks make Americans sicker and put at risk clean air, clean water, and wildlife.

However, in response, states and cities have stepped up. This momentum of leadership at the state and local levels has carried the country through the last four years. Twenty-five states representing 55 percent of the U.S. population and 60 percent of the American economy formed the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is committed to upholding the Paris agreement’s climate targets. Meanwhile, 13 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have passed legislation or executive orders to achieve 100 percent clean energy, and nine states have set economywide carbon pollution reductions targets. Polling shows that these 100 percent clean energy goals are very popular: Nearly two-thirds of voters in September 2020 said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. In a Pennsylvania-specific poll from August 2020, 74 percent of respondents favored transitioning the country to 100 percent clean electricity.

Ultimately, much of this state climate policy has been politically successful in large part because it has 1) committed to achieving 100 percent clean energy, as mentioned above; 2) included a focus on equity and environmental justice, as in the case of New Jersey’s legislation that protects overburdened environmental justice communities from new sources of pollution and that was developed with environmental justice advocates at the table, or the comprehensive set of climate and racial justice actions called for by Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) in executive orders; and 3) targeted good, high-paying union job creation through climate policies, as in the case of Washington state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act or New York state’s combined renewable energy solicitation—the largest in U.S. history.

These state climate policy commitments are starting to be reflected back through an emerging consensus around federal climate policy recommendations. Vox’s David Roberts has identified in a May 2020 article three key components that are present in all recent federal climate policy recommendations. In holding up examples such as the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, the Green New Deal framework, and former Democratic presidential hopefuls’ historically ambitious climate plans, Roberts defines the core elements of bold federal climate policy going forward as “rapid decarbonization through stringent sector-specific standards, large-scale public investments, and a commitment to justice.” States have been successful laboratories for these policies; now, it’s time to adapt this to bold policy at the federal level through strong leadership from the Biden administration, as these newly elected leaders bring the lessons and the momentum of their states’ climate leadership to Washington, D.C.

Arizona: Sen.-elect Mark Kelly

The policy: Mere days ago, in late October 2020, Arizona utility regulators adopted one of the nation’s boldest climate action targets: regulations that, once approved, will require 100 percent clean electricity throughout the state by 2050. While Arizona is not a member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, Arizona Corporation Commissioner Sandra Kennedy (D) noted after the vote, “The climate crisis is impacting Arizonans right now. … [T]he Commission was finally able to look past partisan politics to support science and economics-based policy.” Arizona’s plan also includes interim targets for a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2032 and 75 percent by 2040. Proactive climate action provides opportunity for Arizona, which has been hit by increasingly excessive droughts and wildfires over the last decade but which is also one of the country’s sunniest states, ranking fifth for solar installation.

The member-elect of Congress: Sen.-elect Mark Kelly (D), a former astronaut, has underscored the importance of science, data, and facts in politics, also making reference to climate change by pointing to how it is worsening Arizona’s droughts. This drew a contrast to incumbent Sen. Martha McSally (R), who during her time in the U.S. Senate has blocked climate action by voting against the Clean Power Plan’s implementation four times.

Colorado: Sen.-elect John Hickenlooper

The policy: In June 2019, Colorado enacted bold climate legislation that requires a 90 percent reduction in carbon emissions economywide by 2050; mandates that large investor-owned electricity utilities reduce emissions by 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2030; and lays out a plan to move the state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. This last target is one of the country’s most aggressive timelines for clean electricity. Colorado’s climate legislation also centers community support and good job creation with its new Office of Just Transition, which was created to ensure that the communities and workers most affected by a transition off of fossil fuels receive targeted funding and access to job training programs. These efforts will be critical over the next decade, given that Colorado had its most devastating wildfire season in history this year with 624,000 acres burned and an estimated $195 million in damages so far.

The member-elect of Congress: Sen.-elect John Hickenlooper (D), the state’s former governor, ran in this year’s election on a platform of supporting a shift to 100 percent renewable energy. Despite enjoying significant support from the fossil fuel industry earlier in his career, Hickenlooper now supports transitioning to a clean energy economy. As governor, he joined the U.S. Climate Alliance and implemented a first-of-its-kind regulation limiting methane pollution—a climate superpollutant—in industrial operations.

Michigan: Sen. Gary Peters and Rep. Andy Levin

The policy: Shortly after being elected in 2018, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) followed through on a campaign promise to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, committing the state—which has experienced heavy rainfall and floods in recent years as a result of climate change—to climate action. In September 2020, Gov. Whitmer went a step further and signed an executive order committing Michigan to carbon neutrality statewide by 2050. Notably, Gov. Whitmer centered environmental justice in signing the executive order: “[Climate change] is already causing harm throughout Michigan, with communities of color and low-income Michiganders suffering disproportionately, which is why I’m taking immediate action to protect our state,” she said in the press release announcing the executive order.

The members of Congress: In representing Michigan’s 9th Congressional District, incumbent Rep. Andy Levin (D) has already shown a strong commitment to transforming the country’s transportation sector while ensuring good auto manufacturing jobs remain in Michigan. Furthermore, Sen. Gary Peters’ (D), who has voted in favor of climate action numerous times in the U.S. Senate, defeated John James, who has stated that “the jury is still out on exactly the impact man is having” on climate change. This is critical for keeping a vote in support of climate action in the U.S. Senate.

Minnesota: Sen. Tina Smith

The policy: Minnesota has been a strong Midwestern leader of climate action, joining the U.S. Climate Alliance when it was formed in 2017. In March 2019, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) proposed legislation targeting 100 percent carbon-free electricity for the state by 2050. With the last remaining divided state legislature in the country—Democrats control the state House, while Republicans retain control of the state Senate—Minnesota has not yet passed this legislation. But the advocacy coalitions that came together to make it happen, including labor union and environmental justice coalitions, in particular, present many lessons for congressional and administrative leaders to draw from.

The member of Congress: Sen. Tina Smith (D) already has experience with climate policy in the U.S. Senate through leading on legislation for a federal clean energy standard, in addition to her role on the U.S. Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. Through her own state’s progress on centering both labor and environmental justice interests in climate policy, and through her relationships with leaders from both interests, Sen. Smith has the opportunity to combine her own existing climate policy experience with her state’s lessons learned on federal climate action moving forward. 

New Mexico: Sen.-elect Ben Ray Luján

The policy: In 2018, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) campaigned—and won—on her commitment to bringing clean energy development to the state, and she has delivered. In addition to joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, Gov. Lujan Grisham signed into law in March 2019 one of the most ambitious pieces of state climate legislation in the country, committing New Mexico to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. New Mexico’s legislation also includes bold yet measured interim targets cloaked as renewable standards to help check progress along the way: Utilities must get 50 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040.

The member of Congress: Sen.-elect and current Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D) has already taken bold steps on climate action in the U.S. House of Representatives as one of the lead sponsors on legislation for a federal clean electricity standard, alongside Sen. Tina Smith.

Virginia: Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Elaine Luria

The policy: In 2020, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed the Clean Economy Act into law, committing to 100 percent carbon-free electricity for the state by 2045. Gov. Northam had previously issued an executive order calling for this same goal in 2019 and formalized it through legislation this year. That law made Virginia the first state in the American South to pass 100 percent clean energy legislation.

The members of Congress: Rep. Elaine Luria (D) and Sen. Mark Warner (D) have both already spent time in Congress: In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Luria voted in favor of H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act, and Sen. Warner has been active in supporting climate action, including as a lead co-sponsor of the U.S. Senate’s International Climate Accountability Act. Now, Virginia’s new landmark 2020 law, with its ambitious climate goal and timeline, provides a strong foundation and lessons learned to support and spur further climate action from both Rep. Luria and Sen. Warner.

Conclusion

Climate action was on the ballot in this election more than ever before—and was overwhelmingly supported by voters. At a pivotal point in the nation’s and the world’s fight against the looming existential threat of climate change, this urgency is critical to forcing action at the federal level. Thankfully, Congress will be welcoming new members—and welcoming back some experienced ones—who come from states with bold climate commitments that build off of standards, catalyze investments, and center justice. These new leaders are well-positioned to bring this knowledge and the momentum of these state victories on climate to Washington, and the nation’s capital, the country, and the world will be the better for it.

Sally Hardin is the interim director for the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress. Sam Ricketts is a senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Center. Aimee Barnes is the founder of Hua Nani Partners and a guest author working on state climate policy with the Energy and Environment team at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Shanée Simhoni, Kate Kelly, Nicole Gentile, and Cathleen Kelly for their contributions to this column.