Speaking virtually to an audience of UConn law and environmental science students on Thursday, state Attorney General William Tong extolled the virtues of federalism — despite challenges of federal government — as a means to protect state climate goals.
Tong said he was hopeful that the administration of newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden will make more of an effort to address climate change than the administration of former President Donald Trump – citing the U.S. re-joining the Paris Climate Accords as a positive early step. Still, he said, states like Connecticut have been waiting a long time for meaningful action on the climate, and they’re tired of waiting.
Tong said part of his role as attorney general is to protect Connecticut’s environmental priorities. Sometimes that means working with other states against the federal government, other times it means working against states that are often partners, and in at least one case it means challenging one of the largest companies in the world.
Tong outlined how federalism allowed Connecticut to move forward with its efforts to slow climate change despite the administration of former President Donald Trump, who Tong described as hostile to those efforts.
“The Trump administration has tried to dismantle the regulatory infrastructure and to hollow out the EPA,” Tong said. “I was just counting this morning upwards of 175 deregulating actions that impair the ability of the states to protect our citizens from the effects of climate change.”
Tong said that’s when federalism came in, as mostly Democratic state attorneys general sued to stop rules like one that loosened limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants, which a federal court struck down this week.
Tong likened Connecticut to the tailpipe of the United States, because it sits at the end of the jet stream, so particles and emissions from coal burned in Illinois or Indiana can be carried over to Connecticut. That means emissions in other states impact the air quality here – and impacts on Connecticut are the “number one reason why I would engage” in a lawsuit with other states, Tong said.
“People sometimes ask, ‘Well, is fighting for the Migratory Birds Act that important to Connecticut?’ or seismic testing, or emissions standards in California,” Tong said. “Yeah, it’s all important, because we’re all part of a coordinated and connected system, so the environmental challenges in one part of the country can have impacts in Connecticut. We all know the wildfires out west impacted out air quality here. It’s hard to believe, but it blew through America’s tailpipe to Connecticut.”
Another reason Tong said he would join other states in a suit is if they shared a policy interest, like Connecticut and 23 other states did when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration moved to preempt California’s zero-emission vehicle standards in 2019, which Connecticut and 13 other states follow.
“We have a broad [shared] interest in the principle that cars shouldn’t pollute as much as they used to, or do today, and that we should move to a carbon-free or carbon-neutral form of transportation,” Tong said. “So, getting these broad principles is really important, and as part of that, there is the real important value in standing up for each other.”
In other cases, Tong said he has to fight against those same states to fight federal policies. One such lawsuit from New York seeks to bar Connecticut from depositing the material dredged up from the Long Island Sound near Fisher Island. Tong said Connecticut has a long running, “environmentally appropriate” program to dredge its waterways to enable the maritime industry in eastern Connecticut – especially submarine building.
Tong said he and New York Attorney General Letitia James work together on many issues, but on dredging “Connecticut is right and New York is wrong, and we’re going to win that case.”
In addition to challenging the federal government and other states to defend Connecticut’s environmental policies, Tong sued Exxon on behalf of the state last fall, accusing the oil giant of deceiving the public by lying about climate change and covering up the role of fossil fuels since the 1950s. In Tong’s eyes, it’s the strongest of any lawsuit a state has filed to attempt meaningful action on climate change.
“We think it’s a pretty straightforward case,” Tong said. “They knew about climate change. They knew about sea level rise. They knew about rising temperatures. They had the science.”
Tong said some of the damages that the state could potentially recoup from the Exxon lawsuit, and other possible climate-related lawsuits, could be put toward infrastructure for renewable energy.
“That is a really important priority of our litigation,” Tong said. “Priority number one is to get them to stop lying about climate change and do something about it. But to the extent that we’re able to secure damages or large settlements that can fund remedial action, protecting our environment, and making the sorts of investments in infrastructure that we need to stop or protect ourselves from climate change – absolutely that money will go to that.”
Tong said he hoped the Biden administration and the now-Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate would investigate the role of “big oil” in climate change, especially what information they knew and concealed from the public. Any information uncovered would “obviously help my case,” Tong said.
On a state level, Tong told the students that they need to lobby their state lawmakers if they want the climate to be a top priority. Tong said that when he was a state representative, almost everybody who was in the room during public hearings was a lobbyist.
“I heard from Millstone, and I heard from Eversource, but I don’t know if I heard your voice – I mean ‘you’ broadly,” Tong said. “So, I think that if I were really going to try to impact the way the state makes investments to address the changing climate and protect the environment, I would show up more at the Capitol and lobby directly the members of the legislature. Put real pressure on them, and don’t wait for them to come to you, because they’re hearing from the industry.”