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A Convenient Truth: States Can Seize the Lead on Global Warming

In the groundbreaking film An Inconvenient Truth, Vice President Al Gore makes an impressive case that it is now essential that the world act to prevent the potentially catastrophic implications of global warming. The film could not come at a more critical time. While the planet warms, Washington dawdles. The nation's political elite remains mired in a debate manipulated by powerful energy interests. Fortunately, as happens so often, while the Beltway ignores reality -- the people of America have come around.

Polling indicates that over 70% of Americans believe global warming is a serious problem. A majority believe that warming is caused wholly or in part by human activities. Even better -- most Americans believe that it is possible to address our environmental problems without undermining our economy -- an optimism borne out from past experience and from coalitions emerging in California and Colorado to support global warming legislation.

Below, we highlight two particularly noteworthy efforts on global warming -- a legislative proposal in California and a multi-state effort on the East Coast. But it is not just traditionally progressive states that are addressing warming -- Alaska and North Carolina have legislative committees evaluating options. In the West, Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico have begun drafting plans for confronting global warming.

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CA: Strict Emissions Cap Enters Final Negotiations

With just days to go until the California legislature adjourns, negotiations over global warming legislation are heating up. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has publicly committed to taking serious steps to deal with the threat posed by greenhouse gases, but the question now arises: will Schwarzenegger fulfill his commitment?

The arguments are arising over AB 32 -- the Global Warming Solutions Act -- a proposal to reduce greenhouse emissions by 25% by the year 2020. Key points of negotiations relate to enforcement mechanisms and market-based incentives. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and the state's environmental groups are saying that for a bill to matter, it must have teeth. Schwarzenegger, facing pressure from some in the business community, is reportedly attempting to water the bill down by allowing an appointed commission to delay key deadlines for emission reductions.

Proposals to allow trading of credits has also raised concerns regarding environmental justice. Under cap-and-trade systems, pollution can become heavily concentrated around polluters who would rather pay than fix the problem. Supporters of cap and trade systems argue that the economic incentives spur faster reductions.

The negotiations have reached a fever pitch, with both sides pulling out the stops to pressure tighter or weaker standards. Some businesses are raising a cry about "leakage" and the threat of industries moving to other states to avoid the regulations. The argument would be stronger if the same businesses hadn't lobbied ardently against federal rules and international standards in the form of the Kyoto Protocol.

AB 32 is co-sponsored by Assemblymember Fran Pavley, a teacher turned legislator with strong credentials in the fight on global warming. During her first term in Sacramento, Pavley called for emissions cuts in automobiles triggering media attention, death threats, and litigation by the auto industry that is ongoing today -- all over what Pavley calls "off-the-shelf technology that automakers are already using in Europe." Despite the controversy, eight other states have followed California's lead on auto emissions -- demonstrating the power of taking initiative.

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The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative: Working Together on a Global Problem

California may be considering some of the strongest action, but they are not acting alone. Seven states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic are pursuing their own localized solutions to warming through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state initiative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

RGGI has brought together Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont together as participants with Maryland scheduled to join in mid-2007. A handful of other states and Washington, D.C., are observing the efforts.

RGGI would cap emissions from power plants at current levels from 2009 through 2015 before starting efforts to reduce emissions by 10% by 2019. These moves are praiseworthy, but relatively weak compared to European efforts and the limits outlined in Kyoto.

Even without being a profound step forward, the move may help trigger federal action. In response, at least one front group for the coal industry has responded by saying that global warming is best dealt with by Congress. Progressive States noted this phenomenon in its report Governing the Nation from the Statehouses earlier this year. The right is extremely fearful of how quickly action by a few states can help trigger federal action.

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Other State and Local Responses to Global Warming

Fortunately, state action on global warming is not limited to the coasts. Across the country, state and local leaders are stepping in to address this pressing problem. The states include a number not traditionally thought of as "progressive":

  • Alaska: Earlier this year, Alaska's legislature unanimously approved HR 30, creating the Climate Impact Assessment Commission comprised of elected officials and environmental experts to evaluate the implications of warming for Alaska and craft strategies to handle and prevent the threat.
  • Arizona: Governor Janet Napolitano created the Climate Change Advisory Group in order to craft strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Colorado: A bipartisan group of Colorado leaders has announced its intention of developing their own panel, modeled after similar advisory councils in Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico. While the other three Western states saw their councils created by Governors, this panel is being created by a coalition of mayors, non-profits, and business leaders concerned about the dangers posed by warming.
  • Montana: Governor Brian Schweitzer has formed an advisory panel to identify "concrete ways to reduce greenhouse gases produced in Montana by 2007."
  • New Mexico: Governor Bill Richardson created an advisory panel to recommend ways to cut emissions and also established firm goals, calling for emissions to be at 2000 levels in 2012, cut by 10% below 2000 levels in 2020, and 75% lower by 2050.
  • North Carolina: In 2005, by overwhelming majorities, the state legislature authorized creation of the North Carolina Global Warming Commission, a legislative panel charged with making recommendations about how North Carolina should respond to warming.
  • Oregon: This state is a member of the West Coast Governors' Global Warming Initiative, a collaborative effort between Oregon, California, and Washington to find common strategies to cut emissions. An advisory panel created by Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski reported recommendations in 2004.
  • Washington: Washington is a member of the West Coast Governors' Global Warming Initiative. In 2005, Washington's legislature passed and Governor Christine Gregoire signed a bill tightening emissions standards for automobiles -- based on similar standards previously adopted in California.

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Creating Green Collar Jobs: New Coalitions to Fight Global Warming

In the effort to find solutions to global warming, cutting-edge business leaders believe that the fight against global warming not only won't burden the economy but is an opportunity for investment and new jobs, an opportunity that states could lose if they fail to encourage the shift to new technologies.

In California, business leaders like John Doerr, the billionaire who helped launch Google, Intuit and a range of other high-tech companies, argues "Sustainable technologies are the next big thing. This is really the mother of all markets." Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a petroleum geologist and entrepreneur, believes that confronting the crisis is actually an opportunity for Colorado to create thousands of new "green-collar jobs."

And while some large businesses raise concerns over the short-term costs of the transition to more efficient and cleaner energy sources, economic concerns are also helping drive the push to find solutions to global warming in the Rocky Mountain West. As ski resorts face worse conditions season after season, farmers face drought with no end in site, and forest fires threaten to destroy tourism-based economies every summer, the economic implications of a warming planet are becoming clear to a region that already struggles with dry conditions.

Global competition is increasingly being driven by a race to produce technologies that use less energy and decrease contributions to global climate change.  Increasingly, the political divide in states is between those trying to subsidize old, polluting technologies and those demanding that businesses and communities step up  to create 21st century sustainable industries and new jobs that can compete globally.

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