Feds Must be Part of the Climate-Change Equation

The problems associated with climate change can’t improve without collaboration between federal, state and local governments.
July 2013

On May 4, instruments that track carbon dioxide concentrations at the Mauna Loa Observatory atop a volcano on the big island of Hawaii recorded a landmark level of 400 parts per million (ppm). That’s a 25 percent increase from the levels recorded when the observatory opened 55 years ago, and it’s the highest concentration of CO2 the earth has experienced in the past 4 million years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that 2012 set a record for high temperatures in the contiguous United States. That trend is rapidly accelerating. While U.S. emissions have fallen slightly in recent years -- due mostly to the recession and an increase in the natural gas supply -- the U.S., at this rate, likely cannot meet international commitments to reduce emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

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In the end, the solution to this challenge, locally, nationally and internationally, is political. What has been worrisome in recent years is how detached the scientific community has been from the debate, but that is changing. Climatologists increasingly are beginning to assert themselves. In early April, for example, James Hansen, a 46-year veteran of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, quit his job to become an advocate for quick and bold action on climate change. He warned Congress 25 years ago that man-made greenhouse gases were causing temperatures to increase.

In the spring of 2007, it appeared we were about to take on the challenge. A group of motivated states sued the feds over how much pollution could be tolerated, or whether states could set auto emission standards or require energy utilities to generate as much as a third of their power from renewable resources. With California taking the lead, 31 states representing 70 percent of the U.S. population announced that they had signed onto a new national tracking system designed to measure, independently verify and publicly report emissions by major industries. It was a significant move because such a system was seen as a precursor to administering market-based regulations like a cap-and-trade system. An existing federal program did not require third-party verification, which states saw as a fatal flaw.

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The states weren’t alone. As the registry plan was being made public, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced what was perhaps the most ambitious, far-reaching plan for any American city to reduce emissions. He also hosted the Climate Summit for Mayors, which brought together 30 of the world’s largest urban centers under the premise that it is cities -- with less than 2 percent of the world’s land mass but which produce 80 percent of its carbon emissions -- that can make the most immediate difference. Since then about 500 cities have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement to reduce carbon emissions by 2012 to 7 percent below 1990 levels.

So, despite Washington’s obstinacy, things were looking up. States and localities had proven in the past that national policy could flow uphill, that when enough jurisdictions approved laws and regulations with the same general theme, it would not be long before Washington lobbyists were insisting on uniformity instead of a patchwork of rules.

Then along came the Great Recession, the election of 2010 and the rise of the Tea Party. President Obama had initially pledged to take action on carbon emissions, but as his first term progressed, hopes for any meaningful legislation faded. In his second inaugural, he repeated his commitment to address the problem, through executive action even if Congress refused to budge.

If there is a solution to be had, that’s probably what we’re looking at: sweeping federal executive orders mixed with state and local initiatives of all sorts -- laws, regulations and a lot of creative programs and alliances. Fortunately, the worst of the problem is in the hands of people who would most like to fix it. So it may not be the most efficient solution, but it does allow for a something we will need to meet this challenge: collaboration and ingenuity.

An example of just that is a foundation-funded nonprofit called Clean Economy Solutions that for the past five years has approached climate action as an economic development opportunity, engaging target communities like Silicon Valley, Denver, St. Louis and Portland, Ore., to provide the tools to build the civic infrastructure necessary to shrink the carbon footprint. It’s being run by Andre Pettigrew, the former director of economic development for the city and county of Denver. (Disclosure: I sit on the nonprofit’s board of directors.)

These “learning laboratories” must show results that define both demand and supply opportunities in the clean economy. The way they’re transitioning local climate action plans into regional economic development strategies is gaining traction in a number of communities.

Silicon Valley has developed a best practice solar purchasing model that allows governments, businesses and universities in the same region to collectively negotiate purchase agreements, saving money by joining together to buy solar power. The St. Louis Regional Chamber has developed a Green Business Challenge by engaging more than 125 companies and institutions, including 105,000 employees, in providing a competitive education program to adopt sustainable business practices that reduce environmental impact and improve business profits. Metro Portland is the national leader pioneering EcoDistricts, an integrated sustainability approach at the neighborhood level that engages residents, businesses, city planners and researchers on land use, transit, smart building and clean energy to improve environmental quality.

These community programs are examples of how ingenuity and collaboration at the local level can get us started.