States at Crossroads for Climate Action

Tom Banse is a Seattle-based public media reporter and a regular contributor to Climate Watch.

West Coast governors meet in Vancouver. Photo: Office of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

West Coast governors meet in Vancouver. Photo: Office of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

By Tom Banse

When two West Coast governors sat down with the head of British Columbia’s provincial government for a pre-Olympic confab today, the occasion brought to mind some things I’d picked up during a short fellowship in Denmark and Germany last week.

Two months after the chaotic United Nations climate summit ended, edgy “Hopenhagen” posters are one of the few visible reminders of the high-stakes gathering of world leaders, recently concluded in Copenhagen.  Ironically, the summit dashed the hopes of many climate activists for a legally binding treaty to reduce global warming emissions.

They’re not giving up, but in the aftermath acting locally may gain more prominence than acting globally.

“The Copenhagen hangover is over.  Now countries including the United States have to act,” said Denmark’s energetic Minister of Energy and Climate Lykke Friss.

The Danes are engaging other countries to try to revive momentum for international climate negotiations. “We should fight all the way for a deal in Cancun,” where the next United Nations climate summit will convene at the end of this year.  “But that depends on the will of the moment,” she said.  “There is no doubt this is a difficult process,” Friss acknowledged.

In European capitals, policymakers are eager for any clues or cues regarding the willingness of American lawmakers to regulate greenhouse gases. Cap-and-trade legislation has been stalled in the U.S. Senate for the past five months.

“If it’s not realistic that the U.S. would sign a binding international [climate] treaty, what is below this?” asked a German parliament member in Berlin.  The answer may not lie in Washington, DC.

“We do think the pendulum is starting to swing back to states,” said the former co-chair of the Western Climate Initiative Janice Adair.  In 2008, seven Western U.S. states and four Canadian provinces developed a framework to regulate greenhouse gas emissions independent of their national governments.  The plan has not taken effect.

“More and more, the UN and the national governments recognize that the ‘sub-national’ governments are really the ones that, in the end, can put the pressure on and create the action that is needed,” said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, on Friday.  Schwarzenegger spoke in Vancouver, Canada after a mini-summit of Pacific Coast leaders timed to coincide with the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics. British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell hosted the meeting to discuss common environmental topics. Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown also attended.

Gregoire said when it comes to cap-and-trade, she still maintains that a national program is better than a regional one.  Yet state and local governments can do other things to control emissions, namely what policymakers such as Adair call “complementary” measures. Schwarzenegger specifically mentioned California’s Million Solar Roofs Initiative, which seeks to attain that number of rooftop solar arrays by 2016.  Some other examples include creating incentives for consumers to buy electric cars, increasing recycling or improving rail service.  Oregon and Washington have recently toughened their building codes to increase energy efficiency in new construction.

Gerry Pollet, the director of the Seattle-based environmental watchdog group Heart of America Northwest, recently urged his members to write Oregon and Washington’s governors and legislators, “saying you want Northwest states’ climate change legislation put back on the front burner – which is a good investment for our economy as well as for the health of our planet and children.”

As in Congress, there is hesitancy in state legislatures. “Our concerns are very much is this going to put us at a distinct competitive disadvantage,” said Shelly Short, a conservative legislator from Northeast Washington. [Ed. Note: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer cited the same concern in her executive order ending that state’s participation in the WCI cap-and-trade plan]. Short says she is given pause by current controversies involving climate scientists, notably the one involving hacked e-mails that has been dubbed “Climategate” by global warming skeptics. “I’ll be honest and say some of the issues that have come forward really leave it up to whether this is something we need to be doing,” said Short.

Meaningful climate change legislation has not come up for debate this winter during the short 2010 sessions of the Washington and Oregon Legislatures.  But all the players on this issue expect global warming to return to the forefront in Salem and Olympia in 2011.

  • Dixon Cruickshank

    Thank goodness that Short lady and Gov Brewer came to thier senses, their residents will be better off for it. CA not so much