Climate Change-Makers

The TakeAway: While Federal climate change policy action sputters, state and local initiatives continue to offer opportunities for progress and engagement.

Climate change has triggered long-standing power struggles in the US between federal and state rights reminiscent of Civil Rights in the 1960s and Roe v. Wade in the ’70s, when states balked at ensuring racial equality and access to abortions.  Climate turned the tables, though, as state-level action filled the void of Congressional dithering over the legitimacy and impact of global warming.  Here’s a review of where things stand in the federal/state tussles on climate policy.

Federal Slowdown and Showdown | On January 2, 2011, the EPA will finally begin regulating greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act, in accordance with the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency.  Accordingly, last week the EPA announced plans for issuing a new round of GHG emissions standards for fossil fuel power plants and petroleum refineries—two of the largest industrial sources, representing nearly 40 percent of all GHG pollution in the US.  According to Politico, the EPA took a low-key stance due to opposition from Congressional Republicans (and even some Democrats) and industry lobbyists, who were quick to blast the EPA’s proposals.  Nevertheless, “we’re setting up the process to work as smoothly as possible under existing law,” an EPA official told Politico.

Texas and several other states fought back against this so-called “unconstitutional power grab”, bucking the trend of progressive state-level climate action.  Just before Christmas, the EPA put Texas on notice that it stands ready to take over permitting of power plants, refineries, and other GHG sources because Texas “has no intention of implementing this portion of the federal air permitting program,” according to Gina McCarthy, Assistant Administrator to EPA Chief Lisa Jackson.

Above this fray, the Department of Defense (DoD) continues to march forward after declaring last February in its Quadrennial Defense Review that climate change presents a long-term threat to national security and international stability.  DoD exerted a strong presence at the Cancún climate conference, particularly with its discussion of the interagency Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), a collaboration among DoD, EPA, and the Energy Department.  SERDP’s mission: “harness the latest science and technology to develop and demonstrate innovative, cost-effective, and sustainable solutions”.

State Traction and Action | Climate policy garnered most traction among states, who got tired of waiting around for federal action—despite limitations to what states can do to reverse overall GHG emissions.  Earlier this month, research firm Clean Edge reported that California, Oregon, and Massachusetts lead the list of top 10 clean energy states.  Massachusetts released its Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020 on Wednesday, with commitments to sharply curtail emissions, improve efficiency, and curb driving through an innovative insurance plan.  The Pew Center for Climate Change reports that, across the country, cities, states and regions have adopted climate mitigation and adaptation policies, developed regional GHG reduction (so-called “cap-and-trade”) markets, and increased renewable energy generation.  They’ve done so to reduce their vulnerability to energy price spikes, promote state economic development, and improve local air quality.  Many activists believe that state and regional climate policy will provide models for future national efforts to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

The November elections brought some changes to governor’s offices, in ways that may impede positive climate action.  Exceptions: California (Governor-elect Jerry Brown) and Massachusetts (incumbent Deval Patrick) will continue to lead the way, while observers expect new governors in Vermont (Peter Shumlin) and Colorado (Denver mayor John Hickenlooper) to make headway on green policies.  Experts consider New York’s Interim Plan, issued in November, as thoughtful and comprehensive, likely to gain support from incoming Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Global Picture | As the United States lumbers along, ensnared in intergovernmental squabbling despite pockets of positive change, the international community surges forward.  Last week, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said it’s time for nations to establish a “new era of international cooperation on climate change” by enacting higher global emissions cuts and new climate organizations and funding.  Her remarks, in the aftermath of the Cancún Agreements, may fall on deaf ears in Washington, but other actors take them very seriously—particularly China, which puts the US to shame in the clean energy race.

What will it take for the US clean up its act?


Addendum: As the daughter of a mayor, I should know better than to give cities short shrift in combating climate change.  As The Nation points out, Eugene, Oregon mayor Kitty Piercy, “Most Valuable Local Official” in this year’s Progressive Honor Role, is one of 800 mayors that have backed the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.  Proof positive that all politics is local, and the change we seek is within our reach.  Thanks, Dad!

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