How decentralized, polycentric governing has led to innovation and progress in the fight against climate change.
Over the last two decades, one of the most frustratingly consistent aspects of federal climate change policy has been inaction.
The national Republican Party has set out to sow doubt and distrust among the public towards climate change, while stalling and ultimately stopping almost all meaningful climate policy.
This problem was exacerbated by a recent shift by the national Republican Party to actively dismantle climate research and aggressively block and ridicule any meaningful attempts at climate policy, notably pulling out of the Paris Agreement in 2017 and gutting the Clean Power Plan. The shift has raised the temperature and the resulting ‘hothouse’ climate politics produce
what appears to be inescapable political opposition to effective climate action.
Until summer 2022, the national Democratic Party, had largely failed to break through this Republican wall of opposition to major legislation. Even when in control of Congress or the
White House, Democratic efforts to pass climate legislation were often watered down in an attempt to gain Republican approval. Meanwhile, any successful policy initiatives had faced the
prospect of being removed in future political cycles by ardent political hostility.
And while the current Biden White House succeeded in passing a major climate policy inside the Inflation Reduction Act (2022), progress is limited when compared to state and local efforts.
The result of this conflict is a cyclical pattern of slow momentum towards inaction, leaving the U.S. behind when it comes to global climate policy.
FREE co-founder Dr. John Byrne, FREE research director Dr. Job Taminiau, and Dr. Joseph Nyangon of the University of Delaware, wrote about the pattern in their July 2022 article,
“American policy conflict in the hothouse: Exploring the politics of climate inaction and polycentric rebellion,” published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science.
“We have a repeating cycle in the U.S. case of Democratic Party attempts to fashion a national climate policy continually confronted by successful Republican Party assaults to prevent a
national policy from coming into being,” the authors write. “Unlike the envisioned power-sharing acquiescence under federalism, we recast the conflict as occurring inside a ‘hothouse’ where alarming increases in average surface temperature coincide, in the U.S. case, with loud vitriolic claims that a ‘greenhouse effect’ does not exist.”
Out of this cyclical conflict has emerged a third form of governing in recent decades – polycentricism.
In this decentralized form of governing, local leaders and municipalities negate national inaction and instead take it upon themselves to collaborate and create progressive climate policy.
Polycentricism occurs outside the federal government system, with decision-makers acting in a non-hierarchical manner with no central authority. The polycentric system also utilizes civic
groups with specialties in specific areas, promoting problem-solving and conflict resolution across multiple entities.
“A ‘polycentric’ strategy is developing a favorable politics and economics supporting greenhouse emissions constraint that is material and offers some hope of changing the
American policy landscape,” Byrne, Taminiau, and Nyangon write.
This glimmer of hope is apparent in some of the progress cities and states have made in recent years by coordinating efforts and pushing one another forward.
Competition between New York and California to decarbonize electricity generation has driven each to adopt increasingly more aggressive decarbonization targets. California’s 2015
announcement to generate 50% of the state’s electricity with renewable sources was quickly followed by New York’s 2015 announcement to reach 70% by 2030. In turn, in 2018, California
announced a 2018 goal for 60% by 2030 and 100% by 2045 which was followed in 2019 by New York’s new goal to reach 100% by 2040. The competitive back-and-forth has created a
cycle of rising ambition to the point where now 23 states, including New York and California, have adopted 100% renewable energy targets. As the Byrne-Taminiau-Nyangon paper indicates, progress has been seen at the city level as well.
For example, 468 U.S. mayors currently uphold the commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement, doing so even after Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2017 and before Biden reversed the policy.
In a federal system marred by distrust, vitriol, and overall inaction, a grassroots, decentralized form of governing has become the only way for leaders to make real progress on climate policy.
Byrne, Taminiau, and Nyangon estimate that the contributions of the ‘polycentric layer’ achieve a greenhouse gas emission trajectory that is 70% below a business-as-usual path.
“The formulation and roll-out of community-level action reveals a substantial contribution that is not only redirecting policy and constructing a new governance system, but is also expected to
contest injustice in the national political economy,” Byrne, Taminiau, and Nyangon write.
This record of action moves the U.S. toward a climate justice future despite 20 years of federal policy inaction, according to the researchers who believe that while policy progress in the fight
against climate change is and can happen in the U.S. It’s up to local leaders and civil society to make sure it continues.