Republicans took full control of Congress in 2014. By doubling down on climate denial and stonewalling Democratic proposals, they have killed all prospects of passing green energy legislation.

Since taking the reins of the executive branch in 2017, the GOP has also pursued an aggressive regulatory rollback of Obama-era environmental rules meant to keep drinking water clean and petroleum-burning vehicles fuel efficient.

For liberals across America, Washington’s inaction across much of the last decade has produced nothing but hand wringing and rising pessimism. However, green energy advocates should not lose hope. Despite the current balance of power in Washington, the future of green climate policy is bright.

A State Level Green New Deal

At the state level, climate change action is actually alive and well. It is true that many Republican-controlled states have taken zero action, with a small handful rolling back green energy policies due to the lack of a federal standard.

However, the impact of these rollbacks is vastly outstripped by key policy victories across several states where Democrats wield power. Deep blue states like Massachusetts, California, and New York have recently enacted historic legislation aimed at reducing state emissions by almost 100% by 2050. 

In addition to California’s existing cap-and-trade program, America this year witnessed the passage of what was dubbed “a Green New Deal for New York.” Although the law excludes the major welfare programs like Medicare for All included in the national proposal, it does not water down the national Green New Deal’s ambitious climate targets. When implemented, the law is poised to bring New York state to a 100% reduction in emissions by 2050 and a net zero carbon economy through rapid investments in green energy at an unprecedented scale. 

Similarly, Massachusetts is legally mandated to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. The Democrat-dominated state legislature is also considering enacting a carbon tax. So far, these policies have been lauded for their relative success. California has witnessed a surprisingly rapid drop in carbon emissions since the cap-and-trade program’s 2012 introduction and Massachusetts appears poised to roughly meet its 25% emissions reduction target by 2020. 

In addition to these more ambitious policies, 20 other states plus the District of Columbia have imposed more moderate targets ranging from 40-70% decreases in carbon emissions by 2050.

Cynics are likely to point out that many of these targets originate in a pre-2010 flurry of legislative activity when climate change action still enjoyed bipartisan support. Current Republican governors in states like Arizona and Florida will be loath to effectively implement these pieces of legislation in good faith. 

While this may be true, advocates can then look to the courts to enforce climate change legislation, as most states are required by law to meet emissions reductions targets.

For example, in 2016 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the state’s moderate Republican governor Charlie Baker to take action upon learning that Massachusetts was no longer on track to meet its legally-binding 2020 emissions reduction target. In response, Governor Baker promulgated new green energy regulations under the regulatory authority granted to him by the legislature in the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act. 

Furthermore, many Democratic Governors outside of deep-blue states have found ways to bypass uncooperative Republican legislatures through executive orders. While those in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina lack the power to take sweeping action without legislative approval, they have used their limited executive authority to gradually transition their states off of fossil fuels. 

The 23 states that have either passed major legislation or pursued executive action on climate change contain nearly all of America’s major cities and the majority of its population. Thus, responsible for a substantial portion of America’s carbon emissions, these states stand much closer than widely thought to meeting the United States’ former Paris commitments. 

Federal Action On Climate Change Is Coming

Several states are without a doubt taking the lead on climate action in the United States in the short term. However, long term federal action on climate change is not impossible. In fact, it may be inevitable. 

Skeptics will no doubt point to the failure of the Waxman-Markey bill in 2009 as evidence against this assertion. This sweeping bill proposed establishing a nationwide cap-and-trade system, a renewable electricity standard, and other policies that would lead to a roughly 83% emissions reduction by 2050. After passing the House by a narrow margin, it failed in the Senate and was blamed by President Obama for contributing to Democratic losses in the 2010 midterms. 

However, the difference between 2009 and now lies with the national grassroots movement in favor of renewable energy and carbon reduction that simply did not exist in 2009.

The political incentives for passing the bill were far outweighed by the political risks, that with time have begun to diminish.

Young voters comprise the beating heart of the green movement as well as an essential part of a winning Democratic coalition, as older voters have increasingly shifted to the Republican Party. Unable to win reelection without strong young voter turnout, a future Democratic Congress is certain to make ambitious climate legislation a top priority. 

Furthermore, America is not a dictatorship. 2016 may have been a strong Republican election year, but history tells us that the electoral pendulum will swing back to Democrats in the not so distant future.

If the current Presidential race is any indication, the next Democratic president will propose a bold and ambitious climate plan far outstripping even the Waxman-Markey bill, including Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s Green New Deal. These proposals, which aim to reach 100% renewable energy use nationwide, nonetheless face difficulty in passing Congress.

Modern presidents’ hands are tied tightly by the infamous Senate filibuster and the supermajority needed to overcome it. However, assuming the arcane practice survives increasing calls for its abolishment among Democrats, liberals could and likely will bypass the filibuster through the budget reconciliation process.

Exempt from the filibuster, reconciliation bills receive a fast-track to passage provided they contain taxing and spending provisions only. Although barred from making regulatory changes, this would a would mean a climate bill passed through reconciliation would still be able to be direct hundreds of billions of federal dollars toward historic green energy and infrastructure investment.

Therefore, even if Democrats are forced to water-down their climate proposals, America would still be virtually guaranteed to go above and beyond in meeting its obligations under the Paris Accord. 

The American federal government may currently be controlled by a party that does not consider climate change a threat. However, with significant action occuring at the state level and a future Democratic victory on the horizon, Democrats, young people, and climate activists should not give up yet. Given recent political developments, climate change policy is far from dead in America. 

Edited by Rebecka Pieder.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Image by Stephen Melkisethian via Flikcr Creative Commons