Twelve ways America’s new governors can lead on climate action right now

Over the past year, top climate scientists have issued dire warnings for our future.

Anna Azarov

The latest update to the National Climate Assessment makes clear the stakes: Without urgent action to cut carbon pollution, we can expect droughts, storms, wildfires, flooding and other impacts of global warming to get much worse. But the federal government is failing to take much needed action.

In January 2019, 20 newly elected governors took their seats in states from Florida to Alaska. These governors have the unique ability to act swiftly to reduce carbon pollution and put their states on a path to clean energy—often with just the stroke of a pen.

And a new report from Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group lays out meaningful actions these new governors can take meaningful action on climate right now—making an immediate difference in the fight against global warming.

Here’s what our governors can do:

Action #1: Set a strong statewide emission reduction goal. An ambitious emission reduction goal can focus the efforts of state agencies and rally the public behind climate solutions. In California, former Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2015 order establishing a 40 percent emission reduction target led the state legislature to adopt the target by law one year later.

Action #2: Set strong clean energy and energy reduction goals. Clean energy goals help focus state agencies and the public to chart a path to less energy waste and more renewable energy. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy’s offshore wind goal led to the nation’s largest offshore wind solicitation to date.

Action #3: Set goals for electric vehicles. Electric vehicle (EV) goals help states measure the progress of policies such as rebates, commercial fleet programs and expansion of EV charging infrastructure while highlighting the need for additional policies. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order establishing a state EV goal also directed state agencies to begin rulemaking for an EV rebate program and to plan and budget for the installation of EV charging infrastructure.

Action #4: Set a solid waste reduction goal. The process of producing and disposing of goods is responsible for 42 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A waste reduction goal can drive states to adopt policies to increase recycling, reduce packaging or create composting programs. In Maryland, former Gov. Martin O’Malley set a goal for the state to divert 85 percent of its waste away from landfills by 2040 and achieve an 80 percent recycling rate.

Action #5: Direct state agencies to deploy clean energy. State governments spend more than $11 billion each year on energy. Governors can direct state agencies to reduce energy use and purchase clean energy. In Massachusetts, former Gov. Deval Patrick’s directive led to state operations reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent, increasing solar energy capacity nearly 400-fold, and lowering fuel oil consumption for heating by more than 19 million gallons.

Actions 6 through 12 invite state governments to lead by example, to make policy decisions with lasting benefits for the climate, and to limit or slow the production of climate-altering fossil fuels. Read more in our report.

One new governor has already taken the lead: Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado. On Jan. 17, Gov. Polis signed an executive order to jumpstart the use of electric vehicles and decrease climate-disrupting pollution in Colorado. The mandate advances a zero-emission vehicle program, directs the remaining funds from the Volkswagen emission-cheating scandal settlement toward electrifying the state’s buses and trucks, and calls on the Department of Transportation to support transportation electrification.

When our governors take actions like Gov. Polis’, they have the chance to not only set policy and make an impact on climate, but they also have the ability to engage with people across the political spectrum and build important political support around the benefits of smart climate policy for our health and our communities. And the benefits of these moves toward changing the public mindset around acting on climate may be more important in the long-run than the policies themselves.

If every new governor took all twelve actions this year, their combined efforts would make a significant impact on combating global warming and protecting us and our planet from the worst effects of climate change and set the stage for more transformative changes in the years ahead. Let’s get to work.

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