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  • Moshe Wander

Lessons from COVID-19: Why State Lawsuits Can’t Save the Planet

As the federal government has rolled back countless environmental protections, many people have looked to states to take matters into their own hands. In the past few years, states have filed lawsuits against the federal government in defense of environmental regulations, while some, such as California, have tried to bypass the federal government entirely. While this may be a good temporary response, over-reliance on state governments could lead to serious problems down the line.



Lawsuits (and a Separate Path)

In the past few years, state attorneys general have sued the federal government over several different environmental rules.


  • In July of this year, California joined 19 others states in suing the federal government over water rules. The states argued that a 2019 executive order making it easier to build pipelines prevented those states from protecting their water supplies.

  • In May of this year, 23 states sued the Trump administration for relaxing standards on tailpipe emissions. The states argued that the federal government was using bad information to come to its decision.

  • That same month, 9 states sued the Trump administration for failing to enforce environmental rules during the pandemic.


One lawsuit in particular dealt not just with an individual state’s objections to federal policies, but to that state’s own efforts to go beyond what the federal government was doing. California set up its own cap-and-trade system with the Canadian province of Quebec, and sued the federal government (successfully) for the right to maintain that system.


The Pitfalls

The recent pandemic has been characterized by a remarkably decentralized response. The federal government has given states a free hand to set their own policies, and the American people have participated in a live experiment in federalism. Unfortunately, the results have been nothing short of disastrous. States have had to compete with each other in order to get necessary medical supplies for their residents. Much of the equipment, such as PPE, is manufactured in China, meaning that individual states got into bidding wars with each other in order to buy China’s limited supply of PPE. These same bidding wars also played out in the struggle for ventilators.


The result was that the 50 states ended up paying considerably more than they would have if there was a national strategy to purchase the necessary equipment. Worse yet, the lack of a national strategy meant that PPE and ventilators were distributed to the states that bid the highest even if those states did not need the ventilators as much as some other states.


A Worst Case Scenario

The COVID-19 bidding wars might not seem like they have much to do with climate change, but it’s no stretch to imagine states getting into similar bidding wars over clean energy technology. If Americans rely solely on state governments to come to the rescue when it comes to challenging federal laws, then it’s also possible for those same state governments to waste billions of dollars trying to buy solar panels from China at the expense of other states.


This is also a key national security issue. A foreign country could use their leverage over any of the fifty states in order to exact concessions from those states. The events of the past few years have demonstrated why the federal government can’t deal with climate change. The events of the past few months should demonstrate why state action won’t be enough either.




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