Environmental threats today require action at all levels of government, yet polarization is making it increasingly difficult for federal and state agencies to work together.
SPA Professor Dan Fiorino and Carley Weted, SPA/PhD ‘21, recently published an article in State and Local Government Review that examines the changing dynamics between the federal government and states on environmental policy. The researchers noted that in the 1980s, the federal government provided about 43% of all funding received by state environmental agencies; by 2015, this proportion had dropped to 19%.
“The federal-state partnership is not as cooperative as it used to be. It’s actually sometimes disruptive,” Fiorino said.
The paper reviews four case studies that reflect the continuum of federal involvement, from the highly centralized Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), to natural gas fracking policy, which is controlled by the states. The Clean Power Plan and handling of non-point source water pollution represent instances of a combination of federal and state level authority.
“We highlight the need for partnerships. Yes, the federal government is important -- and so are states. There has to be some collaboration,” Weted said. “That’s how our country was meant to be and how it works, if it’s done right. There needs to be some flexibility, some innovation, and a lot of sharing.”
Four trends are challenging this ideal system: political polarization in Congress, increasingly divergent state policies, an erosion in federal funding, and federal policy instability, the researchers wrote. Attitudes toward environmental issues and the roles of government evolve as problems and politics change. Some issues requiring national response are under the authority of state and local governments.
Political constraints can make higher-level collective action more difficult. Polls show that the environment is among the most divisive issues, and with polarization rising, agencies are increasingly limited in their ability to act in the public’s best interest.
“The success of our whole system depends on a working relationship between the federal government and state environmental agencies,” Fiorino said. “To the extent that is not working well, it’s a problem for the quality of environmental policy and big, looming issues like climate change and water pollution.”