Washington Plays Catch Up On Climate Change

States, localities and the private sector are already confronting climate change. Washington has just scratched the surface.
January 2010
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

If ever there was an issue for which "think globally, act locally" is more than just a cliché, it's climate change.

The world community has struggled painfully in recent months over what the goals should be in reducing carbon emissions; how strongly to press countries to meet them; and who should pay the lion's share of the bill. This year, Congress will argue about the appropriate national response, and we all will be smothered with coverage of the ups and downs of cap-and-trade legislation, as happened last year with health care.

There's a problem, though, with the way this is being presented to the public. As much as climate change is a global and national issue, the rhetoric out of Washington overshadows what is happening around the country, not just in states and localities but across a wide spectrum of the private sector.

It's revealing to consider, for example, the contrast between the role played by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington and regional and local chambers around the country. The U.S. Chamber is a lobbying colossus that spends more to work its will on Congress than any other organization in town. It is run by the combative Thomas J. Donohue, someone you might mistake for an old-time trade union leader. Last August, a senior official of the U.S. Chamber called for a "Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century" to evaluate the scientific evidence behind global warming, much like the one in 1925 that addressed the conflict between creationism and evolution.

Donohue later repudiated the remark, saying the Chamber didn't question the link between human behavior and global warming. But that was not enough, because soon afterward four large companies -- utilities PG&E, Exelon and PNM, plus tech titan Apple — dropped out of the Chamber, and Nike gave up its seat on the board.

Local and regional chambers, on the other hand, tend to be more flexible. A recent report on these chambers as the new civic players in environmental sustainability highlights what some of them in unlikely places are doing to promote new energy-efficient, carbon-conscious economies. The report was produced by Partners for Livable Communities (an organization whose board I am on), in cooperation with more than 1,200 chambers across the country that aren't affiliated with the U.S. Chamber. It doesn't focus on left-leaning towns such as Boulder, Colorado, but on more conservative places: Waco, Texas; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Knoxville, Tennessee, among others.

Meanwhile, an initiative called Climate Prosperity Inc., is being funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation and headed by Richard C.D. Fleming, president of the St. Louis regional chamber of commerce. Fleming argues that business groups such as his have begun to realize that "energy efficiency and renewable energy can create economic opportunities for their members." It has selected eight pilot communities to showcase how innovation and new strategies can shift regional economies to a low-carbon future, along with the state of Delaware, whose government is emerging as one of the most ambitious in the country in moving to make significant changes in carbon-emissions policy.

In the public sector, a majority of states and countless cities and towns have taken preliminary steps to confront the problem. California has just begun to institute its own broad-based cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gases from 600 power plants, refineries and large factories. Six other Western states have joined with California and four Canadian provinces to broaden the area covered by the program. Ten Northeastern states have organized their own trading scheme designed to cut power-plant emissions by 10 percent in the next decade, regardless of what Congress does on cap-and-trade. More than 1,000 mayors have now signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to reduce carbon emissions in their cities below 1990 levels.

According to John Byrne, the director for the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware, "most U.S. policies with respect to energy efficiency and renewable energy in the past 12 years have been enacted at the state and local levels without a national climate-change policy framework to guide their development." Perhaps that isn't so bad. Because factories, power plants and transportation account for most greenhouse-gas emissions, decisions made at the local level on zoning, planning and building codes are the decisions that really matter. "We cannot succeed globally," Byrne says, "unless we aggressively and effectively act locally."

To be sure, neither business groups nor states and localities are unanimous in their resolve to take on climate change. Most U.S. Chamber members are sticking with the organization in its opposition to strict cap-and-trade legislation; many local chambers agree with them. Some states, especially the smaller rural ones, haven't done much of consequence. But the trend in the larger states and metro areas clearly is in the opposite direction.

So in the coming months, as you hear all the huffing and puffing out of Washington, know this: The country is preparing to confront the climate control issue, even if its capital is not.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com