His first week on the job, Florida’s new Republican governor made a surprise announcement. In sharp contrast to the previous administration, Ron DeSantis signed an executive order with a host of new environmental policies, including spending more on Everglades restoration, appointing a chief science officer, moving to ban fracking and offshore drilling, and creating a resiliency office to prepare the coasts for rising seas.
“This is action that was requested regardless of your party,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Sarasota announcing the news. “I think this is something that can unite all Floridians.”
The bold policy, praised by several environmental groups, is part of a flurry of environmental commitments coming from governors this year, including in swing states like Florida and New Mexico.
“This is a top priority of this administration,” New Mexico’s new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, told BuzzFeed News. “We should be known as the clean energy state. It brings high-paying, productive, green jobs.”
Speaking with BuzzFeed News, she pledged to create a comprehensive plan to tackle the climate crisis, curb the state’s high methane emissions from oil and gas production, and make sure New Mexico schools teach climate science. Maine Gov. Janet Mills, another Democrat who replaced a Republican in November, has pledged to withdraw her state from a coalition of governors that supports offshore drilling. And just this Wednesday, Illinois’ new Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker, signed an executive order adding his state to a group devoted to meeting the US goal of the Paris climate agreement, called the US Climate Alliance.
“Every day there’s a new announcement,” Bill Holland, state policy director at the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), told BuzzFeed News. “We’re incredibly enthusiastic about the commitments governors are making all across the nation to really take on climate leadership.”
At least nine governors, in the lead-up to the midterms, signed the LCV’s pledge to move the country to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Many of them have followed up with related announcements since taking office.
This includes Maine Gov. Mills, who has said she wants half of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources, and that she plans to install solar panels on the governor’s mansion. Her predecessor, Republican Paul LePage, had blocked bipartisan legislation to help expand solar use three years in a row.
“This was an out-of-the-park, forceful, full-throated pledge to tackle climate head on,” said Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, about the new governor’s move. “It’s more than just night and day — it’s a complete change.”
In her State of the State address, Lujan Grisham committed to increasing the energy generated by public utilities to be 50% renewable sources by 2030 and 80% by 2040. New Mexico is now the third-largest state producer of crude oil, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
She’s also pledged to add New Mexico to the US Climate Alliance, a group of now 18 states committed to meeting the Obama-era pledge to the Paris agreement of cutting the nation’s greenhouse gases by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. In June 2017, Trump vowed to pull the country out of the historic agreement.
“For all his bluster and tweeting, Donald Trump cannot stop us from moving forward in our states,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a cochair of the US Climate Alliance, told BuzzFeed News. “He can’t stop me from proposing five new suites of policies that can have significant reduction of our carbon here.” Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak feels similarly. “The failure by the Trump administration to recognize the dire threats of climate change is unacceptable,” he told BuzzFeed News by email, “and I will not let Nevada go down the same path.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pledged to add her state to the alliance on the campaign trail. And several governors taking office in states that already were members of the pact, including California, Colorado, and Connecticut, seem likely to stay put.
“Some of the incoming governors have targets that are even more ambitious than their predecessors,” said Julie Cerqueira, executive director of the US Climate Alliance. She added that another big shift with the midterm elections was an influx in Midwest political leaders — such as the governors of Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin — embracing the issue.
As the Trump administration has systematically rolled back climate rules, such as Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from coal power plants, US carbon pollution has gone up. Based on preliminary data, US emissions from power generation, natural gas, and oil increased by 3.4% in 2018, according to an analysis by the Rhodium Group.
Although it’s unlikely that the US could meet the goals of the Paris agreement without buy-in at the federal level, action at the local and state level “is critical,” said Trevor Houser, who leads Rhodium Group’s energy and climate team. “The outlook for US emissions would be a lot worse in the absence of it.”
One of the most unexpected calls for climate action came in mid-January from Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, who said climate change was real and must be dealt with. And Florida Gov. DeSantis’s executive order has pleasantly surprised environmental groups, both with its timing and contents.
“It’s not perfect,” said Jennifer Rubiello, state director of Environment Florida, who added there could have been more around climate change. But “it’s certainly a pivot from the past administration.”
“It’s great that we have leadership trying to build resilience,” said Washington Gov. Inslee about the Florida news. But he wants to see more, too. “You’ve got to attack the problem at its source, which is the reduction of carbon pollution.”
Former Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who advocated for bipartisan climate action in the House, was more gushing with his praise, calling the executive order “historic for a conservative” and “a model for how Republicans can sincerely and effectively engage this issue.”
“He’s being sober about it. He wants to focus on the facts, on what’s happening,” Curbelo told BuzzFeed News, pointing to the creation of a chief science officer and resiliency office. “We don’t have to have a debate about climate change, per se, we can have a discussion on how to tackle the challenges our community are facing.”
The push to slow climate change isn’t limited to new governors either. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, proposed a mandate that 100% of New York’s power would come from carbon-free sources by 2040. If passed by state legislators, it would be the most ambitious goal in the country.
One sobering exception to the trend is Alaska, which is the fastest-warming state and one of the nation’s top producers of oil and gas. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy won the gubernatorial race in November, taking over from Independent Bill Walker. In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News on his first day in office, Dunleavy said: “The issue of global warming, in many respects, it’s still being debated as to how to deal with it, what exactly is causing it.”
The full name of New Mexico's new governor is Michelle Lujan Grisham. A previous version misidentified her last name.
This story has been updated to clarify that Maine Gov. Mills is aiming to get half of the state's energy from renewables. A previous version said she wanted to get half of the state's electricity from renewables. Although that is what Mills said in her inaugural speech, it that was a mistake, according to the governor's press office.