State Experimentation and the Clean Power Plan

The Trump EPA has made clear that its primary mission will be to dismantle existing environmental protections, especially any adopted by the Obama administration, and especially those related to climate. In the impending absence of national policy, some states are trying to fill the void.

California is the obvious example and the state is currently debating how to keep its existing program going after 2020. @chelseaeharvey at WaPo had a nice roundup recently of other state efforts specifically on carbon taxes. Today, The Hill reported (via @Devin Henry) that Terry McAuliffe signed an Executive Order calling on state regulators to move forward with climate regulation.

State climate policy efforts not only help reduce emissions, but provide a means of political experimentation that offers data on what might work to escape the climate policy gridlock.

In a paper out recently in the Yale Law Journal called “The Perils of Experimentation” I explore the possibility for state efforts like this to generate political information about climate policy. Viewed through that lens, the unsuccessful carbon tax initiative in Washington State (spearheaded by economist-comedian Yoram Bauman) is not as much of a failure as it is sometimes perceived, because it produced valuable information about what does and does not work from a messaging and coalition-building perspective.

The rub is that everyone learns in these contests, including special interest lobbies. As I argue in more detail in the paper, there are many contexts in which well-organized and well-networked interest groups will be in a better position to learn from experimentation than public interest groups. Thus the “peril” associated with experimentation: the bad guys may often be able to translate political information into policy advantage.

Nevertheless, the real tragedy if the Trump EPA undoes the major Obama-era greenhouse gas rule — the Clean Power Plan — will be in short-circuiting these political conversations. Yes, there can be dangers if the coal lobby and other opponents of sensible climate policy learn valuable political lessons from state experimentation. But climate is a context in which there is such deep gridlock, and enough public salience and political organizing, that the costs of experimentation are likely outweighed by the benefits.

The really valuable thing about the Clean Power Plan — from the perspective of political information — is that it spurred all states, from dark Blue to deep Red, into action. The rule worked by setting state-by-state carbon budgets and then requiring each state to develop a plan to cut emissions. States had a huge range of policy tools, from renewable standards to carbon fees to efficiency mandates, at their disposal. It was up to political leaders in each state to figure out how to make climate policy work for their constituents and their political coalitions. This fifty-state process would have generated a huge amount of political information, which could then productively spill over into national climate policy, potentially spurring the kind of policy realignment that is necessary to move past the current gridlock.

Without the Clean Power Plan prodding them along, it is hard to see many Republican governors and legislatures getting serious about this task. It appears that residual efforts in Blue states will be the only experimentation that will happen for the next several years.

And that will be a terrible shame. Without some road map emerging, we will likely just continue to stumble even further off the path of sensible climate policy.