By Frances Sawyer
Conventional wisdom holds that implementation is the boring part of bringing a big idea to life, but it’s where great plans succeed or fail. While the spotlight shines on Washington, D.C. with the recent passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act, it is important to consider who is typically in charge of planning, designing and building our infrastructure: cities and states.
The climate crisis is knocking on the front door of every American home, and our success in meeting its challenge will depend on our implementation of solutions, community by community. With $550 billion in new Federal funding, the BIJA can remake America as we invest in the overdue maintenance and repair our country needs to thrive. But whether this bill can be considered a climate bill — or not — will be decided by state and local governments.
The Federal government will disburse funding through two primary mechanisms: state block grants and competitive grants. Where the Biden Administration has a say, they have promised to prioritize emissions reductions, resilience to climate impacts, and equity. But for the funding delivered to states via legacy formulas, the White House will have little control over the deployment of dollars. It is up to elected officials at the state and local level to uplift projects that will a) reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and b) ensure the infrastructure we pay for today is ready to withstand the climate impacts we are already experiencing and expect to accelerate.
Even when funds are explicitly set aside for low carbon investments, state and local implementation can make or break a project’s success. For example, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) included public transportation funding for a high speed rail network, including passenger rail corridors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio. Following the 2010 midterms in which Republicans roared back into power, Governors Scott Walker, Charlie Crist, and Ted Strickland each killed high speed rail in their state and returned the money — nearly $3.16 billion in funding in total.
This story is a warning shot across the bow. It shows the need for strong climate leaders in every jurisdiction, at every level of government, who understand the stakes of the climate crisis and are willing to act boldly. The funding and direction provided by the infrastructure bill, if states invest it wisely, could be a big investment in climate action. The passage of the Build Back Better Act is an even more critical step forward, due to the clean energy investments within it that we must make to meet our 2030 climate goals. But these bills are just the first step.
This is why, when asked about the climate implications of the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill, I look to the 2022 midterm elections. Climate is clearly on the ballot. Because infrastructure funds will be spent over several years, the elected officials who are voted into state legislatures, Public Utility Commissions, governor’s mansions, and city halls in 2022 will direct the policy, hire the planners, and define project success for this unprecedented Federal investment in their communities. Their actions will determine whether we decrease carbon reductions and increase resilience to climate-driven disasters — or not.
To date, states have had diverse and divergent approaches to climate action. Leading states — like California, New York, and Washington – have creatively driven climate policy throughout their state programs. This club of climate-forward states is growing, with this year’s passage of the Illinois Clean and Equitable Jobs Act and a compromise energy bill in North Carolina that will drive emissions reductions by 2030. These state laws add up to real advances and position them well for the influx of Federal support.
Meanwhile, other states are actively blocking progress on climate action by prohibiting the collection of environmental data, throwing tax dollars at underperforming coal plants, instituting preemption laws that ban cities from electrifying homes and businesses, and barring the expansion of public transportation systems, amongst other climate-recalcitrant actions. We should expect a wide divergence in how states prioritize their discretionary spending.
It is imperative that all of us working to secure our future from the worst impacts of a warming world focus our attention on state and local leaders who will act aggressively on climate change. It is time to pay serious attention to action at the state and local level, and give climate champions the support they need.
Frances Sawyer is the co-founder of Pleiades Strategy. Sawyer previously served as Deputy Director of External Affairs to California Governor Jerry Brown and as Policy Advisor to Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign.