In the U.S., the scale and urgency of the climate crisis requires that each level of government — federal, state and local — fully bring their strengths to the table. The possibility of eventual federal reengagement on climate policy puts in question the future roles of state and local governments in carrying out such policies. To take a closer look at which strengths these levels of government can leverage, WRI convened a group of thought leaders among current and former U.S. federal, state and local government officials for a recurring dialogue. Together, they laid out a vision for what climate action could look like at all levels of government and agreed upon a set of “Principles for a New Climate Federalism.” This paper sets out the context and findings of the dialogue discussions, and proposes a working federalism framework to delineate roles within a future federal climate policy.

Key Findings

  • Ambitious federal action is necessary to address the climate challenge. Moreover, given the urgency and scale of the challenge of climate change, all levels of government—federal, state, and local—must be part of the solution.
  • Policies at every level should promote equitable and healthier outcomes for all Americans, especially disproportionately harmed communities of color and low-income communities.
  • Preemption should be rare. Actions by the federal government should enable and not impede more ambitious actions by state and local government that aim to drive additional greenhouse gas emissions reductions with strategies that reflect knowledge of state-specific circumstances. Likewise, state governments should enable and not impede more ambitious action by local governments.
  • The best way to achieve consistency in regulations across the country is to establish federal standards that are sufficiently ambitious to address the climate challenge, while preserving the ability of state and local governments to take more ambitious action and adopt compliance strategies that reflect local and regional conditions. 
  • State and local governments play a key role as “laboratories of democracy” that can help pioneer new solutions and spur market development in a manner that can help enable more ambitious federal policies over time. The federal government should learn from and engage state and local governments and replicate successful policies at the national level where appropriate.
  • A strong federal role is clearly necessary and appropriate in certain areas. For example, the federal government should establish national emission reduction targets consistent with science; engage the international community to ensure sufficient international action to meet the climate change challenge; support continued research, development and demonstration of technologies that will underpin decarbonization and position U.S. industry for leadership in the global low-carbon economy; provide funding and technical support for subnational efforts; maintain an emissions registry and require adequate and comparable emissions measurement, monitoring, reporting and verification across the economy; and take steps to decarbonize the federal government’s own operations.
  • A strong subnational role is clearly necessary and appropriate in other areas of action. For example, subnational governments are typically in the best position to: implement local land-use planning and zoning decisions; implement local transportation solutions (with the support of federal funding); carry out infrastructure resilience planning and implementation; and allocate funding to address climate change in an equitable manner.
  • In a great majority of circumstances, a collaborative approach to energy and climate action across all levels of government will work best. Examples of programs that warrant a collaborative approach are: clean energy standards; carbon pricing programs; and zero-emission vehicle standards.
  • The federal government has considerable financial and technical resources and thus should look for opportunities to act as a catalyst to drive additional state and local action in a manner that promotes equitable outcomes for all Americans.

Executive Summary

Full executive summary available in the paper.