U.S. States Combat Climate Change on Their Own

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, November 15, 2002 (ENS) - With the U.S. federal government dragging its feet on addressing the Earth's warming climate, some states are not waiting for the feds to tell them what to do. State action on the issue has been intensifying in the past few years, according to a new report from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change released Thursday.

The report, "Greenhouse & Statehouse: The Evolving State Government Role in Climate Change," examines case studies of nine states that have taken efforts to mitigate climate change. The case studies examined in the report are Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin.

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Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Still, the positive momentum of these states should not overshadow the federal government's failure to take the lead on the issue, says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

"State initiatives are getting us started on the path of reducing greenhouse gases," Claussen said, "but state action is not a substitute for a comprehensive national strategy."

There is little sign of a national strategy, Claussen added, despite the latest proposal by the Bush administration to further studying the effects and causes of global warming. The administration's draft plan, released on Monday and available online at: www.climatescience.org, is a broad outline for new research aimed at clarifying the human role in global warming.

It calls for exploration of temperature trends in the upper and lower atmosphere as well as improvements in monitoring systems that track global warming and in computer models that simulate climate change.

Many environmentalists blamed the Bush administration for undermining progress at last month's United Nations conference on climate change and see this proposal as more of the same. There are lots of uncertainties with global warming, Claussen said, "but it is very important to balance that with the certainties."

"The administration is clearly focused on the uncertainties," she said.

The continued reluctance of the U.S. federal government to tackle the issue tends to dominate the debate, said the report's author Barry Rabe, and the role of states is often overlooked.

State activities should not be ignored, he said, as individual U.S. states are contributing more to climate change than many countries. Texas, for example, annually emits more greenhouse gases than France. Wisconsin tops Uzbekistan in its annual emissions.

"There are obviously limitations to what can be done at the state level, but there are some very interesting possibilities," said Rabe, an environmental policy professor at the University of Michigan. "All of this could provide potential models for future action at the federal level."

Rabe found that states have a variety of interests in addressing climate change, including the potential for rising sea levels, the effect of changing climate patterns on agriculture and the need for stable, renewable energy supplies.

Linking climate change policies, either explicitly or incidentally, to economic development strategies is a common feature across the states.

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Wind turbines at the new Southwest Mesa project in Crockett County, Texas. A total of 107 units produces 74.9 megawatts, enough to power about 74,000 homes. (Photo by Todd Spink courtesy NREL)
In Texas, for example, climate change policy has emerged from the state's promotion and development of renewable energy sources, primarily wind power.

The development of renewable energy was not driven by a specific policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, rather it was part of a larger energy restructuring bill that included renewable portfolio standards (RPS).

These standards require that 2.2 percent of the state's electricity portfolio must come from renewable energy sources by 2009.

The program has been so successful, Rabe said, that the state "is thinking it didn't set the bar high enough." Some 16 states now have enacted legislation similar to the Texas model.

In Wisconsin, mandatory reporting for large carbon dioxide generators, which began in 1993, has given the state and reporting firms a clear measure of their emissions. Wisconsin is the only state with this requirement. It has provided a basis for the state to develop a registry, Rabe said, that will allow any firm in the state to report reductions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, with the prospect of future credit for action.

New Jersey offers a look at a comprehensive, multi-sector strategy largely driven by fear of how sea level rise might affect this low-lying state on the Atlantic Ocean.

New Jersey’s long-standing concern about climate change took new shape in 1998 when Robert Shinn, then Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, issued Administrative Order 1998-09 that established a goal of reducing the state’s total greenhouse gas releases to 3.5 percent below 1990 levels by 2005, the Pew report explains.

This order was supported by then Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who is the current federal EPA administrator, and endorsed by what Rabe calls "an unusual coalition of industry representatives and environmental groups."

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Houses on the New Jersey shore (Photo courtesy B&K Realty)
To combat climate change, New Jersey officials have pursued a variety of initiatives, including the creation of covenants. Under these agreements, organizations sign a pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the state goal. Although voluntary, several private companies as well as all of New Jersey's 56 colleges and universities have signed on to the covenant.

Yet there are clear limitations facing state policies, Rabe said. Funding is a primary barrier facing state led efforts, and increasing budgetary pressures could imperil future climate change policies. U.S. state governments are mandated by law to balance their budgets, and many used an array of last gasp measures to bridge revenue shortfalls last year.

Fragmentation is another fundamental concern for policies originating at the state level, Rabe said. There is the potential that a "patchwork quilt" of state regulations and policies could increase compliance costs and create reporting and monitoring difficulties.

Some states remain hostile to policies on climate change. In 1999, 16 states passed legislation or resolutions highly critical of the Kyoto Protocol and opposing its ratification.

The increase in state activity detailed in the report does, however, reflect a positive shift in the American public's view of climate change.

A common feature among the nine states studied in the report, Rabe said, is a "remarkable amount of bipartisan support" for the policies.

"This is not an issue dominated by one party at the state level," he said.

This shift, Claussen explained, is the result of greater public support, increased confidence in the science behind global warming and a growing belief by the business sector that this issue cannot be ignored.

"It is now okay to talk about climate change," she said.

In a related, but separate effort, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the National Association of State Energy Officials have collaborated on an online database of state led energy programs that deliver emissions reductions. It can be found at: http://www.pewclimate.org/states/index.cfm

"Greenhouse & Statehouse: The Evolving State Government Role in Climate Change," is online at: http://www.pewclimate.org/projects/states_greenhouse.cfm