COMMENTARY: States Take Lead to Curb Global Warming

States trump the federal government in setting strict anti-global warming legislation

Glacial retreat, species depletion, extreme seasonal weather. These are real indicators that global warming is happening now and clear reasons why we should be setting standards to immediately slow these effects. While industrialized nations around the world are making commitments to reduce greenhouse gas, the United States, which is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s emissions, is lagging behind and lacks strict federal regulations.

New Jersey"s Global Warming Response Act out-greens California"s.© Uris

Unwilling to wait for the federal government to act, some individual states including California, Minnesota, Washington and now New Jersey are taking the lead to curb greenhouse emissions. In an era where representatives in Congress favor big business interests over the environment, individual states are stepping up to set a precedent for change.

On June 21, the New Jersey legislature passed the Global Warming Response Act, mandating an ambitious reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to below the state’s 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below current levels by 2050. The act exceeds California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, approved last year, which only requires cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

These green efforts from individual states are nothing new. Maine Governor John E. Baldacci signed a bill on June 18 supporting the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a northeastern states cooperative to reduce global warming. Maine’s government was also the first to buy 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and has reduced its gas emissions by 8 percent since 2002, according the state website.

Oregon and Washington have laws requiring the largest utilities to use a set percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act, signed May 25, set emission reduction goals of 15 percent by 2012, 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050 based on 2005 emission levels. New Hampshire Governor John Lynch signed a bill May 11 mandating 25 percent of the state’s electricity must be derived from renewable energy sources.

At the local level, cities and even universities are making efforts to reduce their emissions. Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, is one of the top green power purchasers in the country, buying enough green tags to offset 100 percent of its electricity use through a student fee. Following the lead of the student initiative, the Bellingham local government now purchases 100 percent of its electricity for municipal operations from renewable sources, and is in the top ten of the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of Green Power Partners.

If the federal government would take these state initiatives as a basis for national greenhouse gas legislation, monumental strides could be made in combating climate change.

The transition to a Democrat-led Congress led many to believe that the U.S. would enact groundbreaking legislation to reverse the effects of global warming, but recent efforts on the House floor indicate otherwise. A bill crafted by two House Democrats at the beginning of June aimed to block California and 11 other states from requiring automakers to cut greenhouse gases. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) co-wrote the bill, included low fuel economy standards and proposed subsidies for coal-to-liquid-fuels, which emit more greenhouse gases than petroleum-based. Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to let the bill reach the floor June 5, saying she couldn’t support a bill that would thwart her home state of California’s landmark efforts in global warming legislation. Dingell and Boucher have since modified their legislation to include incentives for plug-in hybrids, renewable energy and other green initiatives.

While Pelosi’s resolve to keep state legislation intact is a step in the right direction, both houses of Congress remain dormant in their own greenhouse gas legislation efforts. While the nation and world call for the U.S. to make a commitment to drastically reduce emissions, politicians on both sides voice their favor for the American economy over the health of the planet.

Western Washington University is one of the top green power purchasers in the country.©

On Dec. 11, 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was introduced as a world treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The mandate would have required the United States to reduce its emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, and would put America in a position to lead the world in halting global warming. President Clinton signed the treaty in 1998, but the Senate decided unanimously not to ratify it until all developing nations committed. For the protocol to take effect, 55 percent of the nations emitting 55 percent of the greenhouse gases must ratify the treaty.

When the Bush administration took office, officials made it clear they would have nothing to do with the protocol or what it stood for, calling the treaty "fatally flawed" and burdensome to a country like the U.S. that relies so heavily on fossil fuels. So what are we left with? A few state and local initiatives, which, combined, will barely make a dent in reversing global climate change.

On April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can no longer deny its responsibility to regulate greenhouse gas (Massachusetts v. EPA). In response to the decision, the Bush administration proposed a "20-in-10" plan to reduce gas consumption by 20 percent in the next 10 years. With this weak response, it is clear the administration is not interested in taking serious action on global warming. It is up to Congress to propose serious national greenhouse gas legislation, using the New Jersey, California, Washington and Minnesota initiatives as examples for the sake of our country and our world.

CONTACT: Pew Center on Global Climate Change (703)516-4146

SHAWN QUERY is an intern at E.