Case study of government response to climate change: USA

By Matt Burdett, 26 March 2018

On this page, we look at the United States as a case study of government-led responses to climate change.

Climate change in the USA: the solution?

Climate change responses can generally be split into two types: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means trying to reduce the impact of climate change, while adaptation means changing the response to climate change – either before, during or after it happens. As shown in the graph below, the US could have a major impact on the mitigation of climate change by reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases, which are amongst the largest in the world.

  • Tonnes of CO2 per capita, annually. Source: Datablog, 2009.

National level responses

The United States has had a varied response to the issue of climate change. It signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 but because Congress failed to ratify (agree) the deal, the US formally left the Protocol in 2001.

Under President Obama, the United States developed a policy that viewed climate change as a real threat that demanded governmental action. Policies of mitigation included a presidential executive order in 2013 that required federal agencies to prepare for climate change, and signing up to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 (Merica, 2017).

The US policy towards climate change was dramatically altered by the election of President Donald Trump and a Republican-led House of Representatives and Senate in 2016. Especially important was the reversal of the commitment to the Paris Agreement by the incoming administration early in 2017. The federal government’s reason for the withdrawal was that the agreement was bad for the US economy.

Though some agencies are continuing to prepare for the future effects of climate change (such as the US Navy – see Reinhardt and Toffel, 2017), responses are now mainly led by individual states, business and civil society.

State and local level responses to climate change

The United States has a federal system of government. This means that power is shared between the central government based in Washington D.C. and the fifty individual states of the union.

California’s state government response

The State of California has been one of the states leading climate mitigation in the US. The “California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 [Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32)]” in 2006 required the state to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. California aims to achieve this through the Climate Change Scoping Plan, which is the ‘roadmap’ showing how California will reduce emissions. The full Plan can be seen here and is updated every five years (ARB, 2018).

A major part of the Scoping Plan is the ARB Emissions Trading Program, more commonly known as ‘Cap and Trade’. It began in 2013 for electricity producers and some big industrial plants and is gradually expanding to more sources of emissions. It has two main elements (ARB, 2015):

  1. Cap: It limits the total emissions allowed in California. In 2013 emissions were capped at 2% below 2012; this declines between 2-3% each year to 2020.
  2. Trade: It allows companies to sell their unused allowance to others for cash.

Though some reports suggest that the Cap and Trade policy has reduced emissions by 4%, this is disputed and there are accusations that the policy will not work in the long term. For the first three years of the policy, very few emissions credits were successfully sold, which meant that businesses that had reduced their emissions didn’t get the benefit of the ‘trade’ element of the policy. In 2017 almost all the emissions credits were sold, suggesting the policy was succeeding. However, this might be because companies are buying up the credits so they have ‘spare’ emissions later on when the laws on emission are tightened. They could then use these emissions credits to avoid having to actually reduce emissions (Hiltzik, 2018).

Even so, this hasn’t stopped the desire of Californians to reduce their emissions. In 2017 state lawmakers passed a law to reduce emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 (BBC, 2017).

State leadership: the United States Climate Alliance

Following President Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, three governors of US states launched the United States Climate Alliance. The Alliance accepts member states that agree to have policies policies that will reduce greenhouse gas emission by at least 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 (US Climate Alliance, n.d.). At the time of writing there are seventeen member states. This is a significant group because in total the Alliance contains almost 40% of the US population with a GDP of over US$7 trillion, which would make it the world’s third largest country if it were independent (US Climate Alliance, 2017).

According to the Alliance, their policies have led to a 15% drop in emissions between 2005 and 2015, as shown on the graph below.

  • Net greenhouse gas emissions from Climate Alliance states in the US. Source: US Climate Alliance, 2017.


ARB [Air Resources Board], 2015. Overview of ARB Emissions Trading Program. Via Accessed 26 March 2018.

ARB [Air Resources Board], 2018. AB 32 Scoping Plan. Accessed 26 March 2018.

BBC, 2017. California votes to extend cap-and-trade climate law to 2030. Accessed 26 March 2018.

Datablog, 2009. Carbon emissions per person, by country. Accessed 8 February 2018.

Hiltzik, 2018. No longer termed a ‘failure,’ California’s cap-and-trade program faces a new critique: Is it too successful? Accessed 26 March 2018.

Merica, 2017. Trump dramatically changes US approach to climate change. Accessed 15 March 2018.

Reinhardt and Toffel, 2017. Managing Climate Change: Lessons from the U.S. Navy. Accessed 15 March 2018.

US Climate Alliance, n.d. Alliance Principles. Accessed 26 March 2018.

US Climate Alliance, 2017. U.S. Climate Alliance Annual Report 2017: Alliance States Take The Lead. Accessed 26 March 2018.

Case study of government response to climate change: USA: Learning activities


  1. Outline the US federal government’s policy response to climate change. [6]
  2. Why is there so little international involvement in climate change within the USA? (Why is the USA not receiving help from other countries?) [2]
  3. Describe the Cap and Trade policy of the state of California. [3]
  4. Outline the US Climate Alliance and explain why member states believe it is necessary. [5]

Other tasks

Complete the relevant sections of this table:


Other country

Climate change predictions

Potential problems of climate change

Mitigating strategies

© Matthew Burdett, 2018. All rights reserved.

All secondary material on this site is clearly referenced and may be subject to copyright restrictions by the original authors. All original material on this page is subject to copyright.