States Matter

October 27, 2020



NCEL Point of Contact


When it comes to ensuring clean air and water, equitable climate action, and a sustainable recovery that benefits all, states will play a central role in the years ahead, regardless of how power will continue to shift in Washington, D.C. 

States are considered the laboratories of democracy because they can move much faster than the federal government, gauge the impacts of their policies, and create models for Congress to consider. Additionally, multiple states working on similar issues creates more pressure for the federal government to act. Many of America’s most effective federal environmental laws were modeled after or inspired by state policies, and many effective state policies have spread to other states and cities. Because of this, empowering state legislators to advance forward-thinking policies yields tremendous benefits at the local and federal level for the greater health of people, wildlife, ecosystems, and the climate.

States matter because the action happens in the states.

Throughout history, states have taken the lead on advancing bold environmental protections: 

State actions inspire federal action.

As states pass many of these landmark bills, they inspire and push action forward in Congress. State progress has led to federal action on a variety of issues:

Microbeads – Beginning in 2013, 25 states passed or introduced legislation, prompting Congress to take action in 2015. The Microbead‐Free Waters Act directed cosmetic and soap companies to phase out the production of microbeads 2017.

Wildlife Corridors – To date, nine states across the country have passed legislation promoting wildlife corridors and connectivity. This action in part inspired the federal Wildlife Corridor Conservation Act which was modeled after state laws.

Plastic Pollution – In 2019, at least 34 states considered over 200 bills to reduce single-use plastics. Of those states, six passed legislation including bans on polystyrene, plastic bags, and straws. This momentum resulted in Senator Tom Udall and Representative Alan Lowenthal introducing the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act in 2020.

States provide a balance to the federal government.

States fill in the gaps.

States fill in remaining gaps in federal legislation. State momentum and action around wildlife trafficking and endangered species protection are clear examples.

While the federal government banned wildlife trafficking for interstate trade, the ban does not cover intrastate trade. It is the responsibility of states to control wildlife trafficking within state boundaries. As a result, states across the country have stepped up to protect wildlife with 12 states plus Washington, DC enacting wildlife trafficking bans. 

While the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the national law protecting endangered species, states have the ability to pass their own State Endangered Species Acts that can go further. Furthermore, states are the chief stewards for the wildlife within their borders. Passing State ESAs allows for states to set more specific and topical priorities for the species within their borders.

States step up when the federal government steps back.

In addition to filling in gaps, states also step up when the federal government steps back from its role of environmental protection.

When the federal government announced a plan to increase offshore exploration and drilling, states united to protect their coastlines. In 2018, over 225 state legislators signed a letter opposing this threat on coastal states’ environment and economies. Since that letter, 10 states have passed legislation (or a constitutional amendment) to restrict offshore drilling and its enabling infrastructure. 

When the U.S. announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, states stepped up their action on climate. In 2017, over 550 state legislators from 45 states committed to state climate action. As a result, nine states have committed to 100% clean energy. Action on climate also includes putting power in the hands of constituents. In 2020, Vermont passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which mandates the state meet carbon emission reduction targets and allows individuals to hold the government accountable to these goals.

Investing in the states is investing in the future and consistent action on the environment.

While the federal government’s commitment to environmental protection may ebb and flow with changing administrations and Congressional majorities, states have shown a consistent track record of furthering environmental protections. Investing in states ensures America’s laboratories of democracy continue leading the world on bold environmental, conservation, and climate policy. 

Building proactive state legislatures and well-informed legislators ensures our country continues to have effective, impactful environmental policies that will create a healthier world for all.