Here’s a Policy Playbook You Can Use to Fight Climate Change

The fossil fuel industry has long been crafting state-level legislation. Now it’s our turn.


Photo by iStock/Sean Pavone

The gap between the scale of climate change action we need now and the climate change action we are witnessing from corporations and governments is growing. Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned, “Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” This is another urgent reminder that we have no time to waste when it comes to ratcheting down greenhouse gas pollution. 

One major challenge for US climate policy makers and advocates, especially at the state and local levels, is the lack of expertise and resources to draft smart and ambitious climate-action laws. Until recently there has not been a comprehensive source of model laws that address climate change. Meanwhile, the Charles Koch–backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has for years drafted and aggressively promoted model laws to impede climate action. These include an “electricity freedom act” that would repeal state laws requiring utilities to increase the percentage of their electricity from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower, as well as an “environmental literacy improvement act” that requires public schools to teach “both sides” on climate change science.   

For too long there has been no single source of model laws to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Now there is. 

It’s called the Legal Pathways for Deep Decarbonization in the United States (LPDD) project, an important resource for state and local governments, as well as federal legislators, that want to adopt new laws to slash carbon pollution. This guide can equip policy makers and concerned citizens with legally sound and peer-reviewed model laws and other resources consistent with a whole-economy decarbonization effort. It is, in short, a policy playbook for maintaining a livable planet.   

The project is designed to appeal to policy makers of every political stripe, regardless of party affiliation, who seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It offers a wide range of approaches to decarbonization—from utility-scale solar to zoning to carbon capture and sequestration. 

The LPDD website features an easily searchable database with more than 50 model laws for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, along with more than 2,000 other resources, including laws that state and local governments have adopted (or proposed) to cut greenhouse gas emissions—laws that can be models for adoption in other jurisdictions. New model laws and other resources are continually added to the database.   

“Find model laws that are important to you or to legislators you know. Share them, tailor them to meet your circumstances, and work with your local and state elected officials to get them introduced and passed.”

The project began with a book that law school professors Michael Gerrard and John Dernbach (one of the authors of this article) co-edited, Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States, published in 2019. The book has 60 contributing authors, mostly practicing lawyers or law professors, and its 35 chapters cover a wide range of topics, including energy efficiency, buildings, industry, transportation, decarbonization of the electricity sector, carbon capture and negative emissions, non-CO2 pollutants, finance, materials consumption, and carbon pricing. Together, the authors recommend some 1,500 new or modified laws that could reduce US greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 or earlier. While the book is long (1,100 pages), it has a simple and positive message: deep decarbonization is possible using laws that exist or could be adopted.

To spur the adoption of the book’s recommendations, Gerrard and Dernbach assembled a small team to turn the slate of ideas into model laws. Some two dozen law firms, as well as individual professors and practicing attorneys, volunteered to draft these model laws on a pro bono basis. Each drafter wrote a model law for a particular recommendation from the Legal Pathways book and an accompanying explanatory memorandum. These documents were then peer-reviewed by legal subject matter and legislative experts. After this review, the model laws were posted to the LPDD website.

Some policy makers are already making use of LPDD resources. Last year, for example, the Oregon legislature reviewed the model law for decarbonizing electricity generation and ultimately enacted a similar law. Part of another proposal, the federal model law on electric vehicle (EV) charging interoperability, was incorporated in concept into the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Biden signed into law in November 2021.

The LPDD proposals also have been used by legislators and advocacy groups to spur ideas and critique pending bills in specific states. The model law on community solar power was shared recently with legislators in Pennsylvania, and it earned praise from one leading legislator there. “The Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization model law project is an invaluable resource for state and local legislators seeking practical ways to address urgent decarbonization goals,” said Representative Greg Vitali, the Democratic chair of the Pennsylvania House of Representative’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. 

Many of the model laws concern EVs—an especially important area for progress, since transportation is the number one source of US carbon pollution. One model state law requires utilities to develop transportation electrification plans to dramatically increase the number of EVs. Another requires parking lots to have an increasing percentage of EV charging stations over time. There is a model law for point-of-sale rebates for new and used EVs, and one to establish a “green fleet transition” program for procurement of EVs, plug-in hybrid vehicles, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. 

One model local law would allow homeowners to install EV chargers at the curbs in front of their houses and to have exclusive access to overnight parking at those stations for their EVs. An additional model local ordinance would require new or significantly modified buildings—commercial, industrial, and multifamily residential—to have EV-ready charging infrastructure. Requiring the basic infrastructure to be available today makes it much cheaper to install EV chargers later.            

Other model laws focus on workforce protection in the energy transition. They include a model law that would incorporate occupational wage and benefit standards into energy efficiency and renewable energy laws while providing tax incentives to developers of renewable energy projects that use specified labor standards. They also include a law creating a framework for promoting local employment in greenhouse-gas-reduction policy that does not contravene international trade law. 

Other model laws:

  • provide a statutory framework that states can adopt to accelerate the development of community solar projects;
  • authorize state or local “green banks”—financial institutions that use public or philanthropic money and government backing—to finance a wide range of zero- and low-carbon projects that also reduce costs for consumers; 
  • commit states to the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions in their electricity supply by 2045 while remedying long-standing inequities that many communities have experienced; and
  • provide a menu of options states can employ in adopting “healthy soils” legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, increase carbon storage in agricultural soils, and increase the profitability of farms and ranches.

And that’s just a partial list. The LPDD website highlights thousands of best-in-class resources that policy makers and activists can use, including model legal language from other organizations, white papers, and actual laws adopted by specific jurisdictions that address every sector of the economy and major source of emissions in the United States. Because the database is so large, the team has created “top 10 lists” to help people quickly find the most interesting model laws and other resources—on new buildings, existing buildings, and light-duty vehicles, among other topics.             

Since its inception, the project has integrated social equity and environmental justice concerns as essential to a holistic decarbonization plan. Every drafter and peer reviewer is asked to include or highlight aspects of the model law that address these issues. Similarly, all drafters are asked to identify whether their measure would impact jobs—even though that information is often hard to come by—since social equity demands that the potential incremental and transformational changes that will occur with each change in law also include thinking about how their application will impact the economy and job creation.  

The drafters and peer reviewers are diverse in geography, ethnicity, age, and gender. The team has collaborated with major nongovernmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund, and major trade associations, such as the Edison Electric Institute and the Solar Energy Industries Association. The team has engaged with a range of stakeholders, including the NAACP, Native American nations, faith-based organizations, the Elder’s Climate Network, and the Sunrise Network. The project has also partnered with the Climate Xchange and the Climate Cabinet, two organizations that work directly with state legislators from all political parties.            

Some of this might sound wonky. Above all, though, the LPDD database is intended to empower you, your friends and neighbors, and others to make a difference in fighting climate change. Find model laws that are important to you or to your legislators. Share them, tailor them to meet your circumstances, and work with your local and state elected officials to get them introduced and passed. Yes, there is a lot to do, but now we have legal tools for action.