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Other Governments Not Waiting for D.C.’s Lead

By Josh Stephens

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

discusses AB 32, a state law that

mandates greenhouse gas emissions

standards stricter than the federal


Local governments cannot secede from the planet, but many have broken ranks with Washington, D.C., in the effort to stem climate change.  

Despite the near consensus on both the certainty and severity of global climate change, the federal government has issued what has been criticized as a passive response to it. The Bush administration has, until recently, cited scientific uncertainty and economic hardship as reasons for resisting the sort of nationwide action that many other countries have adopted.

“I think the United States is the only major industrialized country in which the leadership on these issues is coming from local governments and states,” Martin Wachs of the RAND Corporation said. “The federal government is lagging. I do anticipate that that will change. I have to believe it will, or else we’ll be in really deep trouble.”

While the federal government maintains its cautious approach, more local entities are implementing their own plans. Though their individual impacts may be small, this collective effort may offer some hope. 

“Any metropolitan area in the context of a global event or issue will probably have a fairly minimal effect in terms of what’s going on,” Georgia Tech Professor Michael D. Meyer said. “That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do it, because how we deal with things globally is how we deal with individual things on our own turfs.”

Twenty-eight states have adopted climate change action plans, and twelve have set targets. The most ambitious goals are those mandated by California AB 32, which calls for the nation’s largest state to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020—a reduction of about 25 percent—and then to reach a point 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Climate change has also inspired a host of nontraditional pacts and voluntary agreements. Over 200 cities have signed on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a nonbinding pact in which cities pledge to abide by the goals of the international Kyoto Accord, which the U.S. has refused to join.  Meanwhile, ICLEI, an international nonprofit that helps cities achieve climate change goals, has been working with over 300 U.S. governments. 

There are also no fewer than six regional multi-state pacts, such as that of the Western Governors’ Association, which spans 16 states west of the Mississippi, and the Regional Greenhouse Gas initiative, which extends from Maryland to Maine. Some states have even embarked on their own independent foreign policy initiatives through international greenhouse gas accords and informal partnerships.

Meanwhile, at the regional level, many metropolitan planning organizations, especially on the West Coast, have begun to incorporate climate change into their planning documents because of either state mandates or simply popular pressure.

UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Dignitaries from around the world met in Bali

in December to discuss global climate change.

The global response has been similarly vigorous. The United Nations reaffirmed its commitment to mitigating climate change at its December Climate Change Conference in Bali. Representatives of over 180 countries, including the U.S., created a “roadmap” that will guide the creation of policy, although it will not be actionable until 2012. The Bali roadmap addresses a wide range of issues, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and is especially concerned with the effects of climate change on less developed countries. The participation of China and India was a key to generating bipartisan support among U.S. lawmakers.

“Without China and India, any global warming treaty would simply be an invitation for manufacturers to move their operations to these unregulated economies. And then where would our economy and our environment be?” Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wis.), a member of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said. “I opposed the Kyoto treaty from the start because I knew what we were getting into with that flawed agreement. Hopefully, this roadmap from Bali can start us on the path towards a more realistic and effective global emissions reduction solution.”

Federal Action May Be Coming

At present, these efforts may amount to little more than experiments. They may, however, portend crucial federal legislation and a comprehensive, nationwide plan to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. emissions are currently estimated to account for 25 percent of the world’s total, though analysts are wary of China’s and India’s growing contributions.

“This is an area that cries out for federal leadership,” said Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “Until that occurs, the efforts we make around the United States are going to be sporadic and unpredictable.”

So far, the U.S. Department of Transportation has established a Web site discussing climate change in the broadest of terms, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a greenhouse gas inventory that accounts for emissions through 2005. The recent energy bill, which Congress and the president approved at the end of last year, marks the federal government’s most significant efforts to combat climate change. The far-reaching bill includes standards of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 and calls for development of alternative fuels (In nearly the same breath, the EPA denied California the right to set its own, tougher emissions standards. California filed suit against the EPA in January). 

More substantive measures, however, may be in the offing. By some accounts, up to 100 pieces of legislation are under consideration in Congress, seven of which are considered truly comprehensive. Most notably, the Warner-Lieberman bill would cut national greenhouse gas emission by 70 percent by 2050 through methods such as cap-and-trade and reduced carbon content of fuels. It has already passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Moreover, the next reauthorization of the federal surface transportation law (most recently incarnated as SAFETEA-LU in 2005) may include numerous provisions linking transportation funding to curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. 

“The same way that in the last century, from the late 1950s well into the 1980s, the federal government was heavily subsidizing the construction of freeways and beltways that dispersed populations and drove up [vehicle miles traveled], we have an opportunity with the next reauthorization and other federal possibilities to provide federal support for projects that reduce the carbon footprint,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said.

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