The profound connection between the environment and human health makes headlines primarily when things go wrong: when air pollution triggers asthma attacks, water is tainted by toxins, and tick- and mosquito-borne diseases spread, propelled by a changing climate. But some state leaders see the health of the environment as a critical and continuous state policy priority.
A recent analysis by the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) showed that at least half of the nation’s governors called for environmental protection measures in their 2019 inaugural or state of the state addresses. In addition, 23 state governors signaled their commitment to addressing climate change by joining the US Climate Alliance. Clean water, climate change, and clean and renewable energy goals topped the list of environmental priorities articulated by governors across the country. For example, the governors of Maine and Florida both addressed the environment in their speeches:
- Maine Gov. Janet Mills: “The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other saltwater body in the world, driving our lobsters up the coast. Our coastal waters are growing acidic, temperatures are fluctuating, and sea levels are rising, endangering our shellfish industry. Our forests are less suitable for spruce and fir and more suitable for ticks. Climate change is threatening our jobs, damaging our health and attacking our historic relationship to the land and sea.”
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “Our economic potential will be jeopardized if we do not solve the problems afflicting our environment and water resources. …We will fight toxic blue-green algae, we will fight discharges from Lake Okeechobee, we will fight red tide, we will fight for our fishermen, we will fight for our beaches, we will fight to restore our Everglades and we will never ever quit, we won’t be cowed and we won’t let the foot draggers stand in our way.”
State leaders are also taking action on concerns about the environment and climate change through executive orders and budget and legislative proposals. Here is a snapshot of some recent actions state leaders have taken.
A number of new governors have issued executive orders that seek to address climate change, protect clean air or water, and protect residents from toxins:
- Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued Executive Order B 2019-002, “Supporting a Transition to Zero Emission Vehicles.”
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order 19-12, “Achieving More Now for Florida’s Environment,” which directs the state departments of environmental protection, health, and economic opportunity to protect the state’s water resources through a range of actions, including “adamantly oppos[ing]” all off-shore oil and gas activities, including fracking.
- Florida is not the only state concerned with extraction off its coastline: South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson filed a motion on Jan. 7, 2019, to block seismic testing and drilling off South Carolina’s coast. The state joined a lawsuit against the federal government filed by some of the state’s local governments and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
- Maine Gov. Janet Mills’ executive orders include 5 FY 19/20, “An Order to Study the Threats of PFAS [Per- and polyfluoroalkyl] Contamination to Public Health and the Environment,” which creates a task force to study the risks posed by certain industrial chemicals that have been found in water and soil. Executive Order 3 FY 19/20, “An Order Concluding the Maine Wind Advisory Commission and Wind Permit Moratorium,” ends a moratorium that had prohibited the state from considering new wind turbine permits.
- New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued 2019-003, an “Executive Order on Addressing Climate Change and Energy Waste Prevention,” which establishes a Climate Change Task Force. It also directs all state agencies to evaluate the impact of climate change on their operations and integrate into their programs strategies to mitigate climate change.
- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive orders include “Increasing Virginia’s Resilience to Sea Level Rise and Natural Hazards,” which directs state agencies to plan for increases in extreme weather and natural disasters attributable to climate change.
Some state legislators across the country are introducing bills designed to protect the environment by promoting clean or renewable energy. A small sample of the bills include the following:
- Colorado’s HB 19-1261, “Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution,” would establish greenhouse gas reduction targets, and specify considerations for the state air quality commission to take into account when setting rules and policies to reduce greenhouse gasses. At the time of writing, the bill was awaiting the governor’s signature.
- Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed “An Act to Prohibit the Use of Certain Disposable Food Service Containers,” which bans single-use food containers made of polystyrene, which is also referred to as Styrofoam. She also signed LD 216, which protects water quality in shoreland areas.
- Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed the Clean Cars Act of 2019 (HB 1246), which expands the tax credit for purchasing electric vehicles, and doubles the funding for the program to $6 million.
- In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed SB358 into law on Earth Day. It requires that 50 percent of electricity generated, acquired, or saved by 2030 come from renewable sources or efficiency measures.
- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed SB 1355 “Coal Combustion Residuals Impoundment; Closure,” into law on March 19, 2019. It requires owners or operators to close coal ash ponds at certain locations within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
A number of state budget proposals aimed to ensure funding for the environmental priorities governors outlined in their speeches. A small, non-representative sample of these proposals includes:
- The Florida budget, which was awaiting the governor’s signature at the time of writing, includes $682 million to protect the state’s water resources, including Everglades restoration, according to the chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.
- Maryland’s enacted budget includes a $20.2 million special fund appropriation for renewable and clean energy programs and incentives, and requires reporting on Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.
- Utah legislators appropriated more than $28 million for air quality initiatives, according to the state’s department of environmental quality.
- The Wisconsin executive budget act (SB 59), pending at time of writing, would increase general obligation bond authority for the Safe Drinking Water Loan Program for municipal drinking water infrastructure, and for the Clean Water Fund Program, which funds local government pollution and sewage projects.
Cross-Agency Environmental Initiatives
A number of states are establishing environmental task forces or committees that draw on the expertise of a number of agencies and disciplines within each state:
- Florida’s Executive Order 19-12 calls for a Blue-Green Algae Task Force.
- Maine introduced LD 1284/HP 926, “An Act to Create the Science and Policy Advisory Council on the Impact of Climate Change on Maine’s Marine Species.”
- New Mexico’s Executive Order 2019-003 established an interagency Climate Change Task Force.
- Virginia’s Executive Order 29 established the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice.
- Wisconsin established the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality.
These examples demonstrate how states are taking concrete policy steps to further environmental protection agendas. They also illustrate how states can use their policy levers to tackle one of the thorniest health issues facing states, the nation, and the world.
This is the first in a series exploring how state leaders can improve the upstream factors affecting health, such as clean air, safe housing, and quality early education.
This series is produced in partnership with the de Beaumont Foundation.