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  • Justin Dynia

The Subnational Response To Climate Change

One of the largest existential threats faced by humanity today is climate change. The international community has taken action in recent years to address the problem, such as the Paris Agreement signed in 2016 by the United States and 194 other countries to outline a framework for dealing with climate change. Just a year later, President Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement citing the limiting effects it would have on American interests. The White House has followed suit in supporting the fossil fuel industry and reversing the comprehensive environmental regulations of the Obama administration. This has raised a critical question— if not the federal government, who will combat climate change? Local and state governments have arisen as the answer, and they could become the key players in the fight to mitigate our carbon footprint.

In the 1970’s, the general public began to largely adopt the view that the issue of climate change was both real and significant. Major scientific works, such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, provided insurmountable evidence that humanity had been warming the atmosphere through an exponential increase in fossil fuel emissions since the Industrial Revolution. These findings prompted swift action from the federal government; President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 and President Carter popularized solar panels by installing them on the White House in 1979. The EPA in particular has come under much scrutiny from the current administration. President Trump reduced its budget by nearly a billion dollars in 2018 and nominated Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic and fossil fuel investor, to lead the agency. The EPA is responsible for protecting the environment and reducing America’s carbon emissions; these budget cuts will significantly hamper its ability to fulfill its purpose. Coupled with Congressional policies of the same vein, the federal government has consistently neglected climate change in the last few years.

This sentiment, however, is not present at all levels of government, with many different levels taking serious measures to address climate change. Boston’s City Council and the Massachusetts State government have worked together to reduce emissions and prepare for the major changes in the region’s climate. Climate Ready Boston is an initiative launched by the Democratically held Boston City Council in 2016 to prepare the city for rising sea levels, while Carbon Free Boston is its plan to be carbon neutral by 2050. In early February, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, testified in front of Congress calling for bipartisan climate change legislation. He has also supported initiatives such as a real estate tax to fund climate change preparations, as well as statewide emission reduction goals. Most of these initiatives are linked through statewide funding of local projects and the state’s use of local municipalities. These actions taken by both governments highlight their ability and commitment to address climate change.

Consequently, there are some clear indicators that the subnational level of government is better equipped to deal with the issue. Climate change can only be extensively taken on through bipartisan governmental action, something local and state governments have accomplished. On a federal level, the issue has not superseded hyper-polarization. Congressional Democrats have offered comprehensive policy solutions to curb our carbon footprint and prepare for the effects of climate change, such as the Green New Deal. However, many Congressional Republicans, along with President Trump, are not convinced that climate change is an issue that merits a swift and costly response from the government. As a result, it is not very likely that Congress or the White House will pass major legislation that addresses climate change in the near future.

Furthermore, local and state governments have more jurisdiction over the response to climate change. Key institutions to fighting climate change— such as environmental, planning, and public health departments— are controlled and funded by local and state governments. This gives them more authority and accessibility to use these resources in the most effective way possible. Although it is important for the federal government to set standards and enforce regulations designed to address climate change, it is not the most efficient way to carry out these endeavors since the federal government does not directly control the key pieces necessary to fight climate change.

This is a trend we can expect to see in the near future, as federal inaction on climate change shows no sign of ending. The United States’ federal system gives authority to local and state governments to do what the federal government cannot and will not do. Scientists have conclusively proven beyond a reasonable doubt that man made global warming poses an existential threat to humanity. Unless we act accordingly, irreversible damage will be done to Earth that jeopardizes our ability to prosper here for decades to come. Therefore, if not the federal government, the fight against climate change should be taken up on the non-federal level, as we attempt to better prepare ourselves for the tremendous challenges ahead.

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