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Climate Change and State Governments

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

By David Howard Davis
May 22, 2015

In March, the Miami Herald broke the story that Florida state agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection were not allowed to use the terms “global warming,” “climate change” or “sea level rise” on order of Governor Rick Scott. The allowed term was “nuisance flooding.” Most of Florida lies only a few feet above sea level, and has 300,000 houses worth about a total of $145 billion that are vulnerable. The governor’s denial of climate change sparked outrage and ridicule nationwide and in Europe.

But Florida was not the only state where agency employees were told to ignore the scientific consensus. In 2012, North Carolina forbid planning agencies from using assumptions of sea level rise other than linear ones based on historical data since 1900. Last year in Texas Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Commission on Environmental Quality, said there was not enough evidence to link greenhouse gases and the climate. In 2010 the conservative attorney general of Virginia launched an investigation of Professor Michael Mann of the University of Virginia under provisions of the Fraud against Taxpayers Act. The alleged fraud was scientific data on temperatures. Science was to be criminalized.

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Credit: Nickolay Lamm. Data: Climate Central

State planning and environmental agencies are headed for conflict with new requirements from the Federal Emergency Management Administration for state disaster mitigation plans. FEMA wants state agencies to address the “challenges posed by climate change, such as more intense storms, frequent heavy precipitation, heat waves, drought, extreme flooding and higher sea levels.” Under the new policy, plans will only be approved if they address the threats of climate change. Moreover federal funds will not be appropriated unless the plans comply.

The federal government has further imposed requirements on state agencies with EPA’s Clean Power Plan that seeks to reduce greenhouse gases from coal plants. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas immediately sought to protect his constituents by flying to Washington to meet with key Republican Senators to block EPA and FEMA. His press release praised him because he “has repeatedly acted to defend Texas sovereignty against EPA overreach.” Together with 10 other governors, including Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, he signed a letter to EPA saying the air is clean enough. One can only imagine the pressure this imposes on state employees.

In contrast to these states which deny climate change and resist further cleaning the air, California considers global warming to be a real threat. Its Climate Change Plan proposes monitoring, analysis and reduction of greenhouse gases. This encompasses agriculture, energy, transportation, forestry and wetlands. The California Plan accepts responsibilities like those put on nations in the Kyoto Protocol.

In addressing climate change states can both reduce and cope with the problem. California seeks to cure by reducing total greenhouse gases for its share of the total world effort. While this is laudable, one can make the argument that it is hopeless for a single state (or a single country) to sacrifice when others do not. This was the reason the Protocol failed. On the other hand, coping makes sense for every state. If the sea levels will rise, only a fool would ignore the threat. Florida needs to anticipate flooding and salt water intrusion into the drinking water aquifers. North Carolina needs to protect its Outer Banks.


Author: Davis teaches environmental policy at the University of Toledo. He has traveled to Washington, Brussels, Edinburgh, Berlin and Paris to interview officials for his research in global warming policy. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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