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Americans agree with their state and local officials on climate action

Although Congress seems unable to act, enough states, cities and counties are mobilizing to make a dent in U.S. carbon emissions

The sun sinks behind a smoky sky and burned forest at the Oak Fire on near Mariposa, Calif., on July 24. (David Mcnew/AFP/Getty Images)

In the next few weeks, California’s government is expected to issue regulations requiring that all new cars sold in the state be electric or zero-emission by 2035. The regulation would be the first of its kind in the United States. Gasoline-powered cars accounted for 41 percent of the state’s carbon emissions in 2019, so this rule would have a major effect. California state regulators project that the rule would reduce emissions by about 384 million metric tons of greenhouse gases by 2040. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) announced in February that over 60 percent of the energy consumed by the city’s population now comes from carbon-free sources.

California’s efforts are part of a trend. Around the United States, local leaders are taking action on climate policy. Hundreds of mayors and county executives have committed to upholding the Paris climate agreement, finding ways to significantly reduce their town, city or county’s greenhouse gas emissions. For example, New York City and Boston have set themselves targets of zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Such local action may be particularly important, given the Supreme Court’s ruling limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority and the fact that Congress recently failed again to come to an agreement about passing laws that would combat climate change. As a result, the United States may not meet its Paris agreement commitments — unless state and local governments take action.

But would cities and towns outside these liberal bastions adopt ambitious enough policies to get closer to those targets? Our new research suggests it’s possible — and can make a real difference.

How we did our research

In April, May and December 2021, we fielded two survey experiments. Our first survey was of 573 local policymakers — mayors, county executives, and council members — from across the United States recruited through CivicPulse, a firm that specializes in surveying local policymakers. CivicPulse invited via email a random sample of all U.S. town, municipal and county officials serving populations of 1,000 or more. Our second survey was a sample of 1,029 Americans recruited online through Lucid, a global survey firm. Lucid uses quota sampling to match census population estimates for age, gender, ethnicity and region.

We had each respondent look at two hypothetical local climate plans at a time and randomly varied aspects of each plan. For example, we varied the types of tax policy and energy-efficiency standards in the plan; whether economic relief was provided to offset the plan’s cost; whether major political parties endorsed the plan; how many years it would take for the climate policies to take effect; and the plan’s cost-benefit projections.

We then asked respondents to rate each plan individually and which of the two they would prefer to adopt in their community. Each participant read up to four pairs of mock climate plans, with the factors above randomly varied. Known as a conjoint experiment, this strategy reveals how much each attribute of climate plans affects respondents’ relative support for it. By allowing us to vary numerous features at once, a conjoint design allows us to represent complex decision-making tasks. Additionally, because our policymaker and public surveys were identical to each other, we can directly compare their preferences and test how closely they match.

Here’s what we found.

Local policymakers agree, across party lines, about some climate policies

Both Democratic and Republican policymakers are, on average, about 9 percentage points more likely to support plans that offer subsidies to encourage clean energy use rather than tax increases or penalties designed to achieve the same goal. Similarly, policymakers from both parties support economic relief to offset any climate plan’s costs. That’s consistent with Leigh Raymond’s findings, recently discussed here at TMC, showing that constituents are more likely to support climate policies that offer clear and tangible benefits.

Lastly, policymakers are about 8 percentage points more likely to support plans that increase energy efficiency standards for all new construction than those that only increase standards for government buildings. That’s significant, because residential energy usage accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and local governments typically have control over building codes.

What climate policies do Americans want from their legislatures?

Local policymakers and the public favor similar climate policies

Policymakers and members of the public generally favored the same climate policies in our study. This suggests that policymakers should be able to design plans that their constituents support. It also helps explain why some research finds voters reward policymakers for supporting relatively bold climate action like the Green New Deal, and why some state and local governments have adopted robust climate plans.

California — not Biden — is leading climate cooperation with China

Local policymakers were more likely to shy away from climate plans endorsed by only the Democratic Party, suggesting that in crafting proposals, advocates may wish to avoid seeming partisan. Republican policymakers are also much more likely than Democratic policymakers to support delaying implementation and to choose plans with fewer long-term benefits if that keeps short-term costs down.

How much will local action really matter?

Local and state government action on climate change offers a more patchwork array of climate policies, with different towns, cities and states having their own standards — which would be less effective than a unified federal policy. Nevertheless, local government actions can still make a major dent in greenhouse gas emissions.

Major urban areas account for about 30 percent of the U.S. carbon footprint. This means even relatively narrow efforts focused on those cities could still have a significant impact. For example, one analysis found that if 50 of the largest U.S. cities meet their climate goals, then that would be the equivalent of removing at least 80 million passenger vehicles from the road. To date, less than half of the largest U.S. cities have made serious climate pledges. Cities and local governments could do more.

However, the states, cities, counties and towns that have committed themselves to upholding the Paris agreement currently release a majority of U.S. carbon emissions. If they do manage to meet their targets, they can make a meaningful difference.

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Joshua A. Schwartz (@JoshuaASchwartz) is a Grand Strategy, Security and Statecraft Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT and Harvard Kennedy School.

Sabrina B. Arias (@sabrinabarias) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania.