When It Comes to the Climate Crisis, Don’t Forget the Power of the States

Even with the federal government in chaos, there’s still plenty of opportunity to solve a global problem.

Livia Gershon | Longreads | November 2019 | 7 minutes (1,863 words)

My family’s natural gas-fired furnace is 23 years old. That’s aged; the average lifespan of a system like ours is 15 to 20 years. I live in New Hampshire, which gets awfully cold in the winter and, every October, I wonder whether we’ll make it to March. If the furnace fails this year and we replace it with another one like it, we’re committing to burning fossil fuels until about 2042. If my household switches to electricity, which is better for the environment than what we’ve got, our gas bills will nearly double, to around $2,800 every year. Recently, I called Bill Wenzel, who owns a geothermal heating business the next town over from me.

A geothermal heat pump is like a refrigerator in reverse. A hole is drilled deep into the ground, where the temperature remains steady at 55-ish degrees, then the system warms up the air some more and pumps it through the house. Wenzel told me that one of his systems would probably cut my heating bill in half. It would also provide essentially free air-conditioning, since it can circulate 55-degree air in the summer, too. The trouble is that, including the cost of drilling a bore hole, installing a geothermal system would run $30,000, compared with something like $4,000 to just throw in new gas furnace.

New Hampshire does not encourage geothermal heating with climate-conscious tax breaks or environmental subsidies. There is a federal renewable energy tax credit that would reduce the cost to me by 30 percent, but it’s slated to phase out over the next several years unless Congress takes action. Wenzel said that he does most of his business over the border in Massachusetts, where a hodgepodge of state incentives, combined with the federal credit, cut the price in half and provide no-interest financing. “New Hampshire stinks,” he told me. “That’s why I’m selling a lot in Massachusetts.”

When we think about the climate crisis, we tend to think on two levels: a global one, where the players are nations and international bodies, and an individual one, where we’re asked to make personal changes that, in theory, add up to collective transformation. But in the United States, we know that the federal government is a disaster, and it’s hard not to feel like making an individual choice is more about relieving guilt than it is about real change. If I squint, I could almost make the math work on a geothermal system by moving to another state—here in New Hampshire, not so much. And even if my family wanted to suck it up and spend thousands of dollars on green heating, we’d know, deep down, that it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to polar bears or climate refugees. Wenzel told me that a lot of people make the same calculation.

Still, from the case of my home-heating system, it quickly became clear: at the moment, the most significant place for climate action in this country is at the state level. Lately, states have been passing a wave of ambitious climate legislation, not just in Massachusetts, but also, this year alone, in Colorado, Maine, Washington, New Jersey, and New Mexico. Groups like the Sierra Club; the Union of Concerned Scientists; and 350.org, an international climate action nonprofit, have supported those laws. “As soon as Trump was elected to office, it was really clear that attention needed to shift to the states,” Emily Southard, US Fossil Free Campaign manager at 350.org, told me. Local organizations with connections in state houses have pushed their governments to address the climate crisis; some of the same has happened in cities, too. “Your traditional green groups that might do more insider lobbying have moved with frontline groups that are seeing the first-hand impacts, whether it be polluted air or water from the fossil fuel industry,” Southard went on. “They can speak to different elected officials in different ways, and can hold their feet to the fire.”

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The best recent example of state-level progress is the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law by Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, in July. Southard told me that it contains the strongest emission standards in the country. The force behind the CLCPA was NY Renews—a coalition of more than 180 environmental, social justice, faith, and labor organizations—that demanded not just an end to the burning of fossil fuels but also a sincere investment in green infrastructure. Of particular focus, they argued, had to be poor areas and communities of color, where environmental problems tend to hit the hardest. An estimate by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst predicts that a plan on the scale of the CLCPA can create more than 160,000 steady jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency; in New York, at least 35 percent of investments in housing and public transit will go to low-income or otherwise “disadvantaged” communities.

As soon as Trump was elected to office, it was really clear that attention needed to shift to the states.

 

How will the CLCPA affect life in the state of New York? “You would expect to see a ton of additional public transportation—bus lines, maybe light rail—so that you and your family would not need to rely as much on your vehicle,” Arielle Swernoff, of NY Renews, told me. “In terms of the health of your community, you’d be looking at better air quality. Rates of asthma would go down. In terms of jobs and industry, solar and wind and renewable jobs tend to be much more stable than fossil fuel jobs; maybe your neighbors would be working in renewable energy.”

Swernoff said that the vision for the CLCPA was based on that of PUSH Buffalo, a founding member of NY Renews. PUSH—which stands for “People United for Sustainable Housing”—lobbied the State House for the legislation’s passage; many of those involved had already been doing work that the new law will expand, such as installing renewable power systems and weatherizing homes. Rahwa Ghirmatzion, PUSH Buffalo’s executive director, told me that when the group formed, 14 years ago, it didn’t have a focus on climate; the initiative grew out of a 400-person community meeting. “Most worked in service-industry, minimum-wage jobs,” Ghirmatzion recalled. They talked about how winter wind leaked into their apartments and how, during the cold months, they sometimes paid more for their utilities than their mortgages. Yet there were plenty of skilled construction workers, handymen, and plumbers in the community, plus empty houses and vacant lots.

In the years that followed, PUSH Buffalo used tactics like civil disobedience to force the local fuel monopoly to fund weatherization. With additional money from the 2009 federal stimulus and a 2012 New York State law that it also lobbied to pass, the group renovated more homes with the best available solar power and geothermal systems. PUSH opened a “hiring hall” for green-construction workers and started training Buffalo residents returning from prison and young people not on a college track. They’re now planning a 50-unit project with a zero-carbon footprint that includes supportive housing for people with substance-use disorders and mental illness. “We thread workforce through every single component,” Ghirmatzion said.

Organizers such as these draw connections between local needs and the global climate crisis; they’re effective lobbyists for state regulation because they’re looking out for their livelihood. The steps can be incremental, to be sure; Swernoff said that NY Renews will have to keep fighting for real progress. Currently on the agenda: getting the state to pay for its energy transition by setting a penalty for polluting industries and influencing appointments to the Climate Action Council, the body charged with implementing the CLCPA. Some member organizations are also fighting a fossil fuel pipeline. Overall, though, she has a sense of hope. “It’s really easy to just get discouraged by the lack of action at the federal level, and I feel and understand that, but I think it’s really critical that states are taking these steps,” Swernoff said. “The work that we’ve done, and that other states have done, figuring out policies, figuring out how this works, are also impactful.”

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Setting a goal doesn’t guarantee reaching it. In California, a national leader in climate legislation, implementation has been a serious challenge. From 2016 to 2017, for instance, the state reduced carbon emissions by just 1.15 percent and, according to Next 10, a nonprofit that monitors California’s climate efforts, if that pace continues, the state won’t reach its 2030 goal until 2061. James Sweeney, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, told me that California has made strong progress when it comes to generating electricity from renewable sources, but that conventional vehicles and agricultural emissions remain a problem. “The bottom line is that California set very ambitious goals, but then you measure the actual progress toward those goals, the progress is not as dramatic as the goals set,” he said.

Everything we do determines just how bad the problem becomes.

The key to meaningful change, Southard told me, is grassroots engagement. Almost every state battle on environmental legislation has come down to the work of people who have felt the stakes of the climate crisis—those who lost their homes in New York during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or in California during the devastating recent fires. Southard, who is based in Denver, told me that much of the attention in her state is on fracking; climate activists have formed alliances with other local interest groups for whom the environmental consequences are personal. “Here in Colorado there’s been a real coming together of those diverse constituencies,” she said, “to make sure any climate legislation isn’t just about a renewable energy standard—where it might mean that we’re putting a lot of solar on rooftops but we’re not closing down a coal-fired plant in a people-of-color community.”

In New Hampshire, for the past two years, Chris Sununu, my state’s governor, has vetoed bills that would have helped develop a more robust renewable energy industry. But the climate movement is growing here, too. In September, in the state’s biggest environmental protest since the seventies, a group of 67 activists got themselves arrested while demanding the shutdown of one of the last coal-fired power plants in New England. Sununu, a Republican, remains resistant to climate action, yet it’s not hard to imagine that, as in other states, the environmental movement would expand and join forces with other grassroots forces to craft a comprehensive plan he can’t ignore. Maybe my aged furnace will even hold out long enough that, by the time it dies, a geothermal system installed by well-paid local workers will be a viable option.

When contemplating the climate crisis, it’s easy to get stuck; even the best signs of progress we’ve got might not be enough. But everything we do determines just how bad the problem becomes; Southard said that state and local action can provide a template for federal laws—so far in the 2020 campaigns, there’s been lots of talk about ambitious plans to help the U.S. reduce its monstrous carbon footprint—and they also matter on their own. As she told me, “Every time a municipality or a state is passing climate action, then it’s knitting together this massive framework which we need to truly address the climate crisis.”

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Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for the Guardian, the Boston GlobeHuffPostAeon and other places.

Editor: Betsy Morais

Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler