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Climate and Clean Energy Policy Federalism

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
September 13, 2016

Development and implementation of economically and environmentally balanced solutions to the wicked problems of climate change and global energy security are rife with difficulty within contemporary governance structures. Federalism has been a constant driver of progress and source of tension throughout U.S. history. Federalist #46 notes the limitation of the federal authorities but also indicates an opportunity for expansion of federal power where voters and politicians find it prudent. Federalism can be unequal and inefficient, but it can also suit local resources and needs and foster effective competition.

From health care, to education, to economic regulation, the division of powers remains a contentious process even in today’s national elections. Global common problems, such as climate change and energy security, further confound these issues with debate over responsibilities from the local to the international levels. Whether or not the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (most recently updated with the 2015 Paris Agreement) can ever provide an effective global regime, it will always require sub-national buy-in and policy action to meet carbon mitigation goals and a polycentric approach in which overlapping jurisdictions handle problems at the optimal governance level. The federalist structure is a critical political structure for how the world’s largest economy in the United States will meet–or fail to meet–the challenges of the climate and clean energy future.

Federalism has evolved since the country’s founding and has expanded to democracies across the globe. The competitive federalist system has facilitated state leadership and the diffusion of innovative policies that addressed climate change and energy issues with the current absence of comprehensive federal action. From Charles Tiebout’s seminal work on citizens “voting with their feet,” to conservative theorist James M. Buchanan’s perspective on competitive federalism as the “ideal political order,” competing and collaborating is a value in American political culture.

Not all of the experiments in Supreme Court Justice Brandeis’s characterization of states as “laboratories of democracy” succeed. For example, the failure of California’s electric utility restructuring provided the model of how states ought to avoid proceeding on an energy-related issue. Successes, however, can bring new models of innovation or new modes of implementation that enhance state policy and can impact the nation as a whole in dealing with a difficult global commons problem.

Pushing for federalist cooperation, president-elect Barack Obama spoke before the National Governors Association in December 2008 and stated,

That’s the spirit that I want to reclaim for the country as a whole. One where states are testing ideas, where Washington is investing in what works, and where you and I are working together in partnership on behalf of the great citizens of this nation.”

On the other hand, a 2006 report from the National Academy of Public Administration warns,

During the 21st century, […] centralizing forces are likely to exert increased pressure for preempting state and local responsibilities. Yet state and local governments exercise important responsibilities and play vital roles in achieving national policy and program goals.”

It is these opportunities for cooperation and experimentation along with institutional tensions and rivalries that give rise to competitive federalism and the resultant policies. Competitive federalism is the functional and legislative conflict between units of government horizontally across the states and vertically between local, state, and federal in the system of governance. The policy tools for energy are part of the interplay between the different levels of governance.

The contemporary policy subsystem of climate and clean energy in the United States exists in the context of fraught political arena that the ideologically divergent political parties are shaping. Law professor Jessica Bulman-Polzen defines partisan federalism as,

Political actors’ use of state and federal governments in ways that articulate, stage, and amplify competition between the political parties, and the affective individual processes of state and national identification that accompany this dynamic.”

The competitive federalism exists as the state governments and their political leaders challenge one another horizontally and the federal government vertically for legislative credit and functional authority on relevant policy issues Legislative federalism and political competition arises from politicians trying to address an issue of political concern, such as climate and clean energy problems.

Polycentrism is an approach to get the benefits of centralization and decentralization. Scholars Krister Andersson and the late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom discuss polycentricity as “the relationships among multiple authorities with overlapping jurisdictions.”  They argue against decentralization as the sole answer to common pool resource issues, such as climate challenges, and state, “Many policy reforms attempt to streamline government organizations- a strategy that often make the resulting governance structure less able to deal with complexity of resource problems.” Regulatory, financing, and other types of policies across the United States and the world have built on these ideas. Even in this effort to attain polycentricity, there will remain consistent tension among the various centers as they argue the functional merits and politically prudent legislative responses of their roles.


Author: Benjamin Deitchman is a practitioner in Atlanta. The column derives from his forthcoming book Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications. Ben’s email is [email protected]

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