Overview of the Report on Confronting Warming

John Coleman concentrates on cutting energy use for the city of Fayetteville, Ark., as if his job depended on it. In fact, it does.

“I got the City Council to let me hire this person based on the promise that we would reduce our energy consumption to more than cover his or her salary,” recalls Fayetteville Mayor Dan Coody.

Coleman has found easy pickings all over town -- even at City Hall: inefficient thermostats, wasteful light-bulbs, computers that are left on all night. In 2007, Fayetteville budgeted $1.9 million for utility costs, but thanks to Coleman ended up spending about $180,000 less than that. “You just barely covered my salary,” Coleman joked at an end-of-year meeting. “I get to stick around for another year.”

Actually, they more than covered his salary of $57,000. Coleman is one of dozens of so-called sustainability directors now employed by cities around the country. (Coody got the idea from a similar program in Seattle.) By switching police departments from paper tickets to electronic ones, or looking for dramatic savings by putting municipal utilities on an energy diet, these environmental specialists are helping city officials like Coody make good on their promise to cut down on emissions that cause global warming.

Scientists say a buildup of six types of heat-trapping gases in the Earth’s atmosphere are beginning to cause potentially dramatic climate changes, such as planetary warming, melting ice caps, rising sea levels and intensified droughts, floods and hurricanes. The gases -- called “greenhouse” gases (GHG) because they act as a greenhouse by retaining the sun’s heat in Earth’s atmosphere -- are emitted when carbon-based fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas are burned. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, industrialized countries were asked to reduce their GHG emissions -- often referred to as “carbon” emissions because carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most abundant greenhouse gas -- by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The U.S. reduction target was set at 7 percent.

Although the U.S. government is not bound by the treaty, hundreds of mayors, including Coody, have pledged to abide by the protocol, even though it was never ratified by the Senate and has been explicitly rejected by President George W. Bush. But local officials believe it still provides a good guidepost for their own efforts in the fight against climate change.

During the Bush years, global warming became an increasingly pressing topic -- yet growing public concern never translated into serious policy breakthroughs in Washington. While Congress and the White House slept, however, state and local governments throughout the country have come up with their own methods for limiting pollutants that scientists believe are contributing to climate change.

“I was one of many Americans who were outraged when my country would not sign the Kyoto Protocol,” says Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak. “The federal government dropped the ball on a critical environmental issue.”

Cities are not only tightening their own energy belts but increasingly issuing new rules, such as stricter building codes, to make sure that residents and businesses cut back as well.

Among states, California has been leading the way. A 2006 law imposed the first statewide cap on carbon emissions. California also adopted the first statewide green-building code last summer, and the state has long been the leader in setting fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles.

Numerous states -- but not all -- have engaged in other serious efforts to address climate change. About half the states, for instance, require utilities to generate a significant share of their power from renewable, non-carbon-based sources such as wind and solar. And many states are encouraging greater use of biofuels, such as ethanol. Groups of states in the Northeast, Upper Midwest and interior West have formed regional compacts to create “cap-and-trade” systems.

Under cap and trade, large polluters such as power plants are issued permits for each ton of carbon they emit. Companies that reduce the amount of pollution they spew are able to sell, or “trade,” permits they don’t need.

“States have been tripping all over themselves to show national leadership on this issue,” says Barry G. Rabe, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Michigan. “California, I would argue, has made as heavy an investment in time and treasury into climate change as any government on Earth, including the European Union.”

President-elect Barack Obama has said he will approve a waiver for California and 19 other states to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. California passed a law in 2002 to do just that, and it has been widely imitated by other states. But states have not been able to enforce the policy absent a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which the Bush White House has blocked.

Obama has promised to do more than just sign off on state actions, though. “When I am president, any governor who’s willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House,” Obama said in a videotaped address to state leaders gathered at a climate change summit in California in November. “Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America.”

As a candidate, Obama pledged to pursue a national cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions. Prominent supporters of cap and trade now hold key committee posts in Congress, including Henry A. Waxman, the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Both are California Democrats.

But attempts to pass cap-and-trade legislation have failed four times over the last five years, and it’s not clear the outcome will be different this year or next. Even if federal lawmakers do act, so much momentum has built up in this area among state and local leaders that it’s unlikely they’ll suddenly concede the issue to Washington.

At the November climate change summit, California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and leaders of more than a dozen other states and provinces from other countries pledged to work together to slash greenhouse gas emissions. Fighting global warming, Schwarzenegger declared, couldn’t be just a matter of national policy but must go “province by province.”

Not everyone has climbed on board the limited-carbon bandwagon, however. In November, Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, argued strongly against a national cap-and-trade policy, warning that it would “cripple the Texas energy sector, irreparably damaging both the state and national economies and severely impacting national oil and gas supplies.”

And not everyone who supports limiting greenhouse gases believes state and local efforts are effective. “Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas that is fairly well blended in the atmosphere around the world,” says Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-enterprise advocacy group. “If California does something and China and India don’t, then what we do is virtually useless.”

Ebell and other critics also argue that the efforts undertaken thus far may have been good public relations but are not effective at reducing carbon emissions. Often, public officials have done little more than pledge to reduce emissions or increase use of alternative fuels at some distant date in the future. In a way, Ebell suggests, their actions have been reminiscent of a famous prayer of Saint Augustine: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

But the policies pursued by state and local leaders have been evolving rapidly. A decade ago, few people thought they even had a role in addressing an issue that was global in scope. State and local laws, however, have quickly changed from being mainly symbolic to having real teeth, with penalties for noncompliance for entities ranging from utilities to developers, all in the span of a few short years.

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