Statehouse and Greenhouse: The States Are Taking the Lead on Climate Change

By Rabe, Barry G. | Brookings Review, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Statehouse and Greenhouse: The States Are Taking the Lead on Climate Change


Rabe, Barry G., Brookings Review


Washington's role in greenhouse gas reduction remains as unclear today as it was in the late 1980s, when a convergence of research and steamy summers thrust the matter of climate change onto the national agenda. Although Vice President Al Gore personally negotiated key elements of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Clinton-Gore administration never seriously pursued Senate ratification of the treaty. George W. Bush entered the White House last year voicing general support for addressing climate change, but he quickly withdrew the United States from direct involvement in ongoing post-Kyoto deliberations. It took him more than a year to offer any indication of what might follow. His Valentine's Day 2002 recommendations may buy him some political cover but are at best a fig leaf, likely to have little impact on greenhouse gas releases even if approved and implemented.

Ironically, while Washington has continued to stumble on the global warming issue, a number of states have launched constructive efforts to lower emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. Independently the states have passed more than three dozen laws--many during the past two years--establishing specific strategies. These strategies involve formal commitments in virtually every sector that can influence such heat-trapping gases, including electricity generation, air pollution regulation, transportation, forestry and natural resource preservation, and agriculture. The action at the state level has received remarkably little attention from environmentalists, journalists, or scholars, yet it includes elements of a new "policy architecture" for reducing effluents that the new Bush proposals ignore.

Policy for a Different Kind of Environmental Problem

International environmental agreements have a very mixed track record, particularly when it comes to implementation. In general, the more stakeholders, the greater the difficulty of monitoring and assuring compliance; the larger the economic dislocations, the greater the likely resistance to implementation. The Kyoto Protocol's scope of intended collective action is truly stunning, making it as complex an international agreement as has ever been negotiated in any sphere of public policy.

Protocol tinkering has continued, without input from the U.S. government, most notably in 2001 meetings in Germany and Morocco. Representatives of some 165 nations are trying to carve out rules of engagement for the much smaller subset of industrialized nations that would pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Alas, American disengagement has provided a visible stage for widespread denunciation of the United States. At the same time, each round of international discussion results in more deal-cutting--on everything from more favorable measurement of "carbon sinks" to reduced targets for select nations--and exposes more potential loopholes. It also remains unclear whether, even if they ratify the agreement, many nations will take its implementation seriously.

Turning to the States: The Realm of the Possible

American states provide particularly fertile ground for policy innovation in climate change. First, many are quite large in terms of population, physical size, and resources devoted to environmental protection. They also spew a lot of harmful emissions. Indeed, if the American states were counted as sovereign nations, approximately half would rank among the top 60 national emitters of greenhouse gases around the globe. The annual carbon dioxide emissions of Texas, for example, exceed those of France. Indiana's exceed Indonesia's, and Georgia's exceed Venezuela's.

Second, states already have considerable jurisdiction over many spheres of environmental and energy policy with direct relevance to the climate change problem. State rules affect electricity rates, land use, waste management, and transportation. …

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