By Julian Smith and Lisa Bramen
Sometimes it feels as though the United States’ response to climate change is stuck in neutral, but it’s actually moving forward at the state level. If national commitments to last year’s Paris Agreement are met, a decade from now the country will be producing 28 percent less greenhouse gas than it did in 2005. Getting there won’t be simple, and since energy policy can vary dramatically from state to state, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
U.S. leadership is crucial. But even though polls show a majority of U.S. citizens agree this should be a priority, political gridlock in Washington has made decisive action on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy a challenge.
“To move the issue forward in the U.S., we can make the biggest contribution today by engaging at the state level,” says Tim Sullivan, the Conservancy’s North America climate director. “That’s where we have the political relationships and on-the-ground projects to demonstrate what can be done.”
That is why the Conservancy has launched its 50-State Climate Change Strategy initiative. Right now, the Conservancy is working in every state—engaging business leaders, scientists and government leaders—to develop and implement steps toward clean energy and sustainable land use. The Conservancy is perfectly suited for the task, says Sullivan, because each of TNC's state chapters can test and adapt local solutions to unique opportunities and challenges. It doesn’t hurt that the Conservancy has an almost-65-year track record of fostering bipartisan dialogue and producing tangible results.
A state-level approach involves taking many paths, only some of which overlap. But that is an advantage, says Sullivan, when the causes and consequences of climate change are so diverse. Each state offers its own opportunities for action, whether it’s through scientific research, policy engagement, industry collaborations, outreach and education, or conservation programs that provide nature-based climate solutions, such as forest restoration.
For example, the Conservancy in Oregon is bringing together local business owners to discuss how climate change affects the state economy and to build consensus on where to go next. In New Hampshire, the Conservancy is working with both parties in the legislature to bolster the state’s Renewable Energy Fund, which invests in wind and solar projects and other energy efficiency programs. Staffers are engaging policymakers in New York on how to revamp the state’s energy grid to better integrate renewable energy technology, like rooftop solar. “We’re at a critical moment in the evolution of America’s energy infrastructure,” says Sullivan, and the transition offers the opportunity to cut carbon emissions while increasing energy reliability and consumer choice.
In other states, including Pennsylvania and Iowa, the Conservancy is partnering with farmers and landowners to encourage new projects that employ nature-based techniques like biosequestration—capturing greenhouse gases in plants and soils rather than letting them escape into the air.
As part of this climate strategy, the Conservancy is engaging with new partners in new ways, such as the Environmental Defense Fund. With support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the groups are working together to encourage bipartisan leadership to accelerate the country’s transition to clean energy. “In the United States, a lot of what happens (in addition to what already happens in Washington) is determined by state-level policies,” says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “The Nature Conservancy has networks of people both at the grass-roots and grasstops that are important to developing the state policies we need to reduce pollution. My view is that it’s an ideal partnership.”
Another partnership, with the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, has resulted in a public database for tracking clean energy policies state by state. “State legislators and governors fly a lot closer to ground than Congress,” says Bill Ritter Jr., former governor of Colorado and the center’s founder. “They know what has to be done.”
This isn’t a short-term effort, Sullivan says, and national goals for greenhouse gas reductions are just the beginning. State-level action can also forge a foundation for national action—50 bricks in a wall against climate change. Yet as distinct as they are, these state strategies all have the same goal: to create a new low-carbon future for the United States and the world.
Making the case for collective action on greenhouse gas emissions may sound like a tough proposition in a state known for its libertarian streak, but it’s not impossible. When The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund conducted focus groups to better understand conservative audiences in this state, they found that self-sufficiency and energy independence—along with clean energy’s potential for job creation and long-term cost savings—are big priorities for conservatives as well as liberals. “At the end of the day, both sides support the advancement of renewable energy,” says Jim O’Brien, director of external affairs for the Conservancy in New Hampshire.
Good relationships with lawmakers across the political spectrum have been helpful in building support for clean energy programs. These include the 25 by ’25 Renewable Energy Initiative, which aims to source a quarter of the state’s energy from clean, renewable sources by 2025. The bill’s 2007 passage in the state legislature was near-unanimous. More recently, when budget shortfalls in 2015 threatened to divert money from New Hampshire’s Renewable Energy Fund, the Conservancy worked with Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, and Republican Jeanie Forrester, the chair of the state senate finance committee, to defend the fund from massive cuts.
Twenty-seven percent of Iowa’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture, and that’s not counting fossil fuel use. Carbon dioxide may be the best known of the greenhouse gases, but nitrous oxide—a byproduct of using too much nitrogen fertilizer—is also a contributor to climate change. In Iowa, which has about 26 million acres of cropland, The Nature Conservancy is educating farmers on soil management methods that reduce their carbon footprint and keep nitrogen where they need it: on their fields. The Conservancy and its partners are launching a marketing campaign to promote the prudent application of fertilizers and other techniques that help store carbon and prevent nitrogen runoff, such as planting cover crops in the off season and minimizing tillage. The Conservancy is also part of the Soil Health Partnership, operating 22 demonstration farms in Iowa that reach decision-makers covering an estimated 2 million to 3 million acres. Information packages the Conservancy provides to seed company sales.
The tip of the Florida peninsula is a harbinger of the changing climate. “It’s not hypothetical here. We’re already dealing with these impacts,” says Lauren Ordway, climate director for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “We’re already seeing flooding on sunny days. We’re already seeing some of our freshwater aquifers contaminated by saltwater intrusion.”
It all adds up to urgency on two fronts: action to prevent the worst-case climate scenarios from happening, and smart planning that helps communities adapt to the changes that have already begun.
Since 2010, the Conservancy has been working with the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact to coordinate mitigation and adaptation activities among four counties. The Conservancy also recently partnered with the risk modeling firm RMS, CH2M Engineering, Miami-Dade County Office of Resilience and the South Florida Water Management District on projects to demonstrate effective natural wave breaks such as coral reefs, mangrove forests and sand dunes. These can be incorporated into the counties’ development planning for the coming decades.
“Decision-makers in these communities are at a point now where they’ve actually seen the change in the environment, and they’re very aware of their vulnerability,” says Chris Bergh, the Conservancy’s South Florida conservation director. “They’re focused on solving problems.”
That includes helping to slow climate change through lower emissions. Lawmakers in the southeastern counties, together with Republican elected officials, are stepping up the call for clean energy policies—including support for a recent bill to reduce taxes for businesses and homeowners who wish to install solar and other renewable energy.
Peatlands—which are made from the accumulation over centuries of partially decomposed leaf litter and fallen trees—are superstars of carbon sequestration. Despite covering only 3 percent of the land on Earth, they hold twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forestlands combined.
In North Carolina’s coastal plain, domed peatlands, called pocosins, were long ago drained for farming and forestry. The result is dried peat, which releases its carbon and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. It is also vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire. Rewetting the peat reverses the effects: it makes the land less prone to fire, halts peat’s decomposition and restores the pocosin lands’ value as a carbon sink. With around 500,000 acres of drained pocosin in North Carolina, the potential for emissions reduction is substantial.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of rewetting pocosin land, The Nature Conservancy is partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore 1,300 acres in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and quantify the carbon that will stay underground. The hope is to validate the sequestration potential of rewetting projects that, when conducted on non-federal lands, can be sold for carbon offset credits on California’s carbon market. “We would love for private landowners to have another incentive to restore the land,” says Christine Pickens, restoration and adaptation specialist for the Conservancy in North Carolina.
Oregon is already ahead of most states when it comes to reducing emissions. To help build on this progress, The Nature Conservancy has assembled the Oregon Business Leaders’ Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Task Force, which represents diverse sectors of the state economy.
The task force is helping the Conservancy understand how emissions reduction policies affect different types of businesses. “One of the challenges they are tackling in Oregon is that policies that might work in urban areas can cause problems for rural businesses,” says Catherine Macdonald, director of external affairs for the Conservancy in Oregon. The members also weigh in on how to design incentive programs and regulations that work best for Oregon’s economy. The Conservancy will use task force findings to identify policy recommendations to achieve the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
More than three-quarters of the Lower Mississippi Valley has been converted to cropland, leaving only small patches of forest. Now, some of the marginally productive farmlands are being reforested as part of a collaboration between the Conservancy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Disney. The Lower Mississippi Grouped Afforestation Program aims to plant trees on more than 1,500 acres of marginal farmland to provide uninterrupted habitat for black bears and birds, reconnect the floodplain and capture carbon dioxide. The Conservancy uses USDA funding and contributions from Disney to secure conservation easements and complete the reforestation work, including preparing the sites, purchasing trees and hiring a carbon accounting firm to monitor emissions reductions. It’s a win for all involved: The carbon credits accrued through the increase in biomass help Disney reach its carbon reduction goals, landowners are compensated for the restoration of less-profitable cropland, and by conservative projections, this conservation work means the atmosphere will have 70,000 fewer metric tons of carbon to absorb over the next 30 years.
The same flat, fertile expanses that have long made the central Great Plains an agricultural powerhouse are also a boon to a different kind of farmer—one who harvests the wind to generate climate-friendly electricity. But poorly sited wind turbines have the potential to fragment the landscape, displace native species and disrupt the flight paths of migratory birds. As part of the Central Great Plains Grasslands Initiative, The Nature Conservancy has helped wind farm developers and utility companies identify locations that have the least environmental consequences and that make good business sense. “This approach has been successful because most of the people who are out there developing wind energy want to do it right,” says Rob Manes, director of the Kansas chapter of the Conservancy. The Conservancy recently led partners in the development of a GIS-based tool that pinpoints low-risk wind development areas in the Great Plains.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy gave the Empire State a wake-up call, knocking out parts of its antiquated electrical grid for weeks. Rather than simply rebuild it as it was, New York is radically overhauling the entire system to help decentralize power generation away from giant power plants and encourage reliance on solar and wind energy. “Microgrids” will isolate power outages, and the grid will more efficiently deliver power where and when it’s needed.
Since 2014, The Nature Conservancy has participated in state energy planning meetings to ensure that renewable energy is maximized—and energy is used efficiently—in the final plan. With electricity generation responsible for more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions nationally, the transformation of New York’s power system is an opportunity to make a huge difference—one that other states are watching with great interest, says Cara Lee, senior conservation manager for the Conservancy in New York.
New York is also home to some of the largest swaths of wilderness in the East, plus numerous other ecologically sensitive landscapes that could be harmed by poorly sited wind energy projects. The Conservancy developed an interactive online mapping tool that guides developers to the sites where turbines will cause the least damage. “Protecting landscapes and wildlife is our hallmark, so we’re balancing the promotion of renewables with protecting the landscape,” Lee says, adding that it requires careful siting and good science.
A renewable energy future will require significant investment and support, so communicating the risks and opportunities of climate change is critical. The state chapter is consulting with experts in the communication of science and climate change—from Yale, the University of Connecticut and other organizations—to determine how they can reach targeted constituencies.
To make investment in solar and wind projects attractive, the Conservancy is working to strengthen the nation’s first Green Bank, established to provide financial incentives for renewable energy. The Conservancy and partners are promoting a bill that would allow homeowners to pay off clean energy loans through property taxes, and advocating to expand a program to permit shared solar projects that provide access to people who are unable to install their own panels. The partners and the governor’s administration also significantly reduced legislative cuts to the Green Bank and other energy efficiency programs that were proposed in the latest state budget.
Not all working forests are equal when it comes to affecting climate change. Proper management can help timberlands store tons more carbon from the atmosphere.
In Pennsylvania, where nearly 12 million acres of forestland is privately owned, The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands program is partnering with woodland owners to teach them how to maximize their forests’ carbon uptake through sustainable management plans that help them decide which trees should be harvested and which left to grow. “The underlying goal is creating a more resilient forest,” says Josh Parrish, Working Woodlands program director. The Conservancy offers owners of tracts larger than 1,000 acres free enrollment. Participants receive Forest Stewardship Council certification under the Conservancy’s group certificate, making their timber more marketable, and their land becomes eligible for carbon credits. The Conservancy also obtains conservation agreements to keep forests as forests.
So far, more than 27,000 acres in Pennsylvania have been enrolled, with another 40,000 expected in the next five years. And the program is expanding to other states.