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States are moving the needle on climate action

November 10, 2021

A Bloomberg study in 2015 found a compelling pattern about how social change happens in the United States. The pattern is this: Throughout history, a few states took the initiative on passing laws about important issues – interracial marriage, women’s suffrage, same-sex marriage, to name a few. Then a key event triggered more states to follow suit, leading to changes in federal laws establishing, for example, people’s right to marry who they love and women’s right to vote.

Could a similar pattern follow for meaningful action on the climate crisis? We hope so.   For years, states and tribal nations have taken the lead on bold climate action. Let’s take a look at both new and long-standing efforts by states to reduce carbon emissions and help the nation transition to a clean energy future – regardless of federal action.

Laws that move states toward 100% clean energy

In July, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill into law that moves the state toward 100% clean energy by 2040, tying with New York for the fastest statewide timeline. Oregon joins 15 other states and U.S. territories that are on a 100% clean or renewable energy path either by legislation or executive order.

As of the passage of this Oregon law, 31 states have adopted renewable portfolio standards and increased those standards over time. These efforts collectively have produced more than 10% of this country’s electricity from renewable sources as of 2019.

State renewable portfolio standards collectively have produced more than 10% of this country’s electricity from renewable sources

In addition to these state governments, tribal nations are also at the forefront of efforts to curb climate change and protect their way of life. Nearly 50 of them have climate action plans in effect across North America, following in the steps of the Swinomish nation in the Pacific Northwest. The Swinomish were the first Native community to create climate adaptation plans, which include plans to protect salmon runs.

Coalitions to support global climate efforts

When the previous federal administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords in 2017, it prompted the formation of several coalitions to support global efforts to slow climate change. Those coalitions include the U.S. Climate Alliance, We Are Still In and America’s Pledge.

A group of 25 governors formed the U.S. Climate Alliance, pledging to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and to keep temperatures below 1.5 degree Celsius. Together these states represent 62% of the U.S. economy, 56% of the U.S. population, and 43% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. These governors are committed to reducing their collective net carbon emissions by more than a quarter by 2025 and at least by half by 2030 (both below 2005 levels), and achieving overall net-zero emissions no later than 2050.

The US Climate Alliance states represent 62% of the U.S. economy, 56% of the U.S. population, and 43% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions

We Are Still In represents a diverse coalition of 3,900 chief executive officers, mayors, governors, tribal leaders, college presidents, faith leaders, health care executives, and more. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former California Governor Jerry Brown created America’s Pledge initiative. The initiative pledges to collect data on climate actions, share findings, and create climate action roadmaps for businesses, cities, and states. These efforts are important because most Americans think the U.S. should participate in the Paris Agreement.

Regional partnerships

REV Midwest

In October 2021, the governors of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin created a bipartisan plan to build a regional charging network for electric vehicles. REV Midwest is expected to create demand for electric vehicles, and result in improved public health and cleaner air and water. Additionally, the governors expect this plan to spur economic growth with jobs for clean energy manufacturing and to encourage the widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

In 2009, an alliance of states formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Today that initiative is made up of 11 Eastern states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. Since its formation, RGGI has decreased its emissions by more than 50%. When it first began, it was only the second program in the world to regulate emissions, inspiring subsequent carbon pricing programs that drew on lessons RGGI learned.

All of these efforts by states are paving the way for federal lawmakers. Perhaps we’re starting to see the first promising signs of meaningful investments to confront the climate crisis with the recently passed infrastructure bill headed to President Biden’s office. That bill includes $47 billion for climate resilience, representing the largest investment the U.S. has ever made to curb the effects of climate change. Now we’ll have to wait and see if Congress passes the reconciliation bill with an even larger investment, $555 billion, to prevent the worst climate change impacts.

Regardless of the outcome of that larger spending bill, it’s clear states have the power to move the needle on climate change regardless of federal action or inaction.

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Stronger, Faster, Cheaper: Clean energy makes the military better

September 15, 2021

Thinking about going electric on your next vehicle purchase? So is the American military. Recently, the Army kicked the tires on an all-electric version of its Infantry Squad Vehicle, and it’s investing $50 million  over the next year on ways to get around without fossil fuel.

Beyond electric vehicles, a move to clean energy is underway across the U.S. Armed Forces, including solar installations, microgrids, and alternative fuels. Military leaders have long recognized that dependence on fossil fuels is a security risk at home and a deadly liability on the battlefield. Thousands  of casualties, for example, have been attributed to attacks on fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We also happen to have an administration that recognizes the climate crisis as a national security risk. As he took office in January, President Biden signed an executive order declaring that “climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.”

But even back when the election of Donald Trump sent a dark cloud over the world of clean energy, the military was soldiering on with projects such as solar arrays on U.S. bases and an all-electric warship, the USS Zumwalt. After all, the Department of Defense (DoD) accounts for more than three-quarters of the entire federal government’s energy consumption, and it has a goal to reach 25% renewable energy by 2025. Judging from its most recent report on energy, the agency is a little more than halfway there.

The USS Zumwalt, the U.S. Navy’s largest and most advanced stealth destroyer.

And like the rest of us, the DoD is looking for ways to save on energy—its annual energy budget exceeds $3 billion—and be more resilient in the face of power disruptions. The department saw more utility outages lasting longer than eight hours in fiscal year 2019 compared to the year before, according to its energy management report, and outages of all lengths cost the agency more than $4 million .

Given these large bills, installing renewable energy makes both strategic and financial sense. At Fort Hood in Texas, switching to solar and wind power—which now supply about 45% of the site’s energy—saved $2.5 million in the first year alone. And DoD is testing microgrids backed up by robust batteries on a replica base at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory dubbed Fort Renewable.

Switching to solar and wind power saved Fort Hood $2.5 million in the first year alone.

So, when it comes to remaking its energy supply, DoD is working on it… but more needs to be done.

“Let’s be clear. We’re behind,” Army Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley told DefenseNews last year, referring specifically to the electric vehicle transition. “All of the various nations that we work with, they’re all going to electric power with their automotive fleet, and right now, although we do [science and technology] and we’ve got some research and development going on and we can build prototypes, in terms of a transition plan, we are not there.”

U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Robert G. Sutton (L) and Corporal Moses E. Perez, field wireman with Combat Logistics Regiment 15 install new solar panels on Combat Outpost Shukvani, Helmand province, Afghanistan, November 19, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Alexander Quiles/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

With hundreds  of bases operating worldwide and many tactical and security considerations, it’s not surprising that the DoD isn’t converting to clean energy at warp speed. But with an annual budget exceeding $705 billion and more than a million troops, few organizations are better positioned to push the envelope on energy. Former military energy advisers Michael Wu and Jon Powers argue the agency should, among other things, establish an Office of Energy Innovation that would focus on “electrifying the tactical edge,” which could include ships and aircraft. 

This last bit—the tough-to-electrify sectors like flight and marine transport—is where the military could really help move the world away from dirty fuels. Military innovation tends to make its way into the civilian realm. (Duct tape? Who knew!)  Yes, that includes the Humvee, which begat the gas-guzzling Hummer.

But in the future, our armed forces could be a seedbed for cleaner travel and more resilient electricity strategies that benefit all of us.