Our most broad-reaching environmental protections in the U.S. – and attempts at holistically addressing climate change and environmental injustices – are implemented via federal legislation. Yet, we are now seeing Build Back Better, keystone legislation in the Biden-Harris Administration efforts to address climate change stalled in the Senate, and critical air protection measures set to be tested in the Supreme Court with the advancement of West Virginia vs. Environmental Protection Agency. Executive Orders can rapidly turn over decades of environmental progress and leave federal agencies tasked with environmental protection and management mired in situations where legacy conditions must be addressed before forward movement can be made.
This uneasy balance has been present since the establishment of EPA. State inaction around the Cuyahoga River in Ohio pushed Nixon to set up EPA. Two administrations later, Reagan waged the first war against the agency, effectively whittling it down. While progressive administrations have generally been more respectful of the important role of environmental agencies, the push and pull continues today, when administrations like Trump undercut previous progress.
Environmental health, justice and prosperity should not operate as pawns in political battles, but this is the unfortunate history of environmental politics in the U.S. There is a critical role for non-federal environmental governance to provide a backbone for stronger environmental actions and practices in their localities. When the federal government fails, state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments can be places where work continues. This can be seen in the carryover from the Trump era when cities and regions focused on participatory planning processes in light of federal government inaction.
The OpenGov and CivicTech movement of the last decade(+) modeled and built foundational partnerships with government actors at these local levels. This was possible in part because they are better equipped to work with civil society to test new innovations in their own communities. Community solution identification and development happens when government falls short. These spaces of community innovation can be important starting points for government investment in workable climate and environmental solutions.
Non-federal government can also face fewer barriers to interacting with models and frameworks for collaborative planning centered on communities. For instance, citizens/residents having leading roles on task forces or planning committees to build city and county climate plans. Look from state to state and you’ll find examples of local governments producing responsive impact (e.g., the New York state ban on fracking) or making plans for action when the federal government isn’t moving quickly enough (e.g., Michigan’s 2050 carbon-neutral plan) .
In February 2022, Open Environmental Data Project (OEDP) is articulating the role of data and information to strengthen models of participatory development and governance in non-federal government. We are bringing together a Brain Trust to examine how data and information can enhance the ways that SLTT governments work on behalf of communities, while also navigating potentially competing priorities in environmental governance decisions. We’re also interested in understanding how local communities are innovating outside of formal governance procedures or perceived community scientist or volunteer roles to identify and advance environmental solutions.
In OEDP’s first Opportunity Brief, Environmental Data as a Public Good, we built on the ideations of a Brain Trust to identify opportunities for further consideration. These included models for how data use and collaborative processes strengthen each other through structures such as community review and advisory boards, placement of environmental data officers, and training programs to support interaction between SLTT governments, and communities. We’ve also started to articulate models of collaborative community data governance while others have explored and modeled best practices for local climate action planning and the necessity of a workforce ready to put climate information into practice. In our next Brain Trust, we’ll ask the following questions to dig deeper into how data-informed participatory governance can lead to better climate and environmental planning:
- What models work and why? How can community-developed solutions enter policy conversations?
- How can these models be scaled up or built into existing approaches?
- How can environmental data better support these approaches? What stops this data from supporting them and where are the entry points for environmental data use?
 State action can also have adverse environmental consequences, such as the case of the Texas Railroad Commission who, while legally entitled, doesn’t exercise control over methane leaks and production, and thus authorized almost 7,000 flaring and venting expressions in 2019.