What a difference a year makes. Last summer, climate policy experts working to get the federal government to take meaningful action on global warming were cautiously optimistic. They sensed a sea-change in the policy debate. Increasing numbers of people, witnessing or hearing about severe or unusual weather events of the past two years, began to reflect on the climate and came to the conclusion that climate change not only was happening but also required a robust response.
Since then, the policy landscape surrounding global warming has shifted with a suddenness and intensity that has stunned even the most optimistic experts arguing for action. After decades of delay and denial, a confluence of events—the policy equivalent of the perfect storm—has put climate change at the top of the national agenda.
“We are really in the phase of designing a response, rather than discussing whether we are going to have one or not,” says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Climate Change in Washington. “We had no idea that it would be tackled with such ferocity.”
Over the past year, federal officials have heard from almost every quarter on this issue: mayors, governors and state legislatures, sportsmen and religious leaders, scientists and retired senior military leaders, the CEOs of many of the nation’s largest corporations, overseas allies, and even a majority of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even though the 2006 midterm elections changed the leadership of key congressional committees to those more sympathetic to taking action on climate change, the attention and urgency that policy leaders have given the issue has surprised many observers. At the G-8 summit in June, U.S. House majority leader Nancy Pelosi said that she regarded the issue as one of her leadership’s top priorities after the war in Iraq, while presidential candidates from both parties have called it one of the most important issues facing the next occupant of the White House.
“We went from a state of affairs that kept any debate in Congress about limiting greenhouse gas emissions off the table to one committed to doing something,” says Angela Ledford Anderson, vice president for climate programs at the Pew-supported National Environmental Trust (NET) in Washington, D.C.
The high priority given to climate change is the result of a confluence of events in the past year, many of them originating in state capitols coast-to-coast. Following the lead of the European Union, the six New England states, plus Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, have created the Northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which establishes a cap-and-trade system for the region’s power plants. The system allows market forces to achieve required reductions at the lowest cost and aims to reduce emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2009. Five western states—Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington— are creating a similar system, and Colorado, Utah and the Canadian province of British Columbia are considering joining it.
“Governors are really championing the issue,” says Lea Aeschliman, a former public utility commissioner who advises the Trusts on developing state climate programs. “You can see it just snowballing in the states.”
The most dramatic moves have taken place in California, where Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and leaders of the Democratic-controlled state house have taken bold action to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. In September, Schwarzenegger signed legislation requiring the state to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020; mandatory caps will begin in 2012 for all major industrial sources.
“The governor was motivated by the science, which clearly indicated that global warming was going to have very significant consequences for our environment and natural resources,” says Eileen Wenger Tutt, assistant secretary for climate change at the California Environmental Protection Agency. “We did analysis on what the economic impact would be of mitigating emissions, and the study indicated that, rather than a cost, there would be a slight economic benefit from increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions on cars.
“This is a living example of how caring for the environment can actually benefit economic growth,” she adds.
The effect on federal decisionmakers has been significant. “States and cities are saying that they don’t think taking action on global warming is going to bankrupt their economies,” says the NET’s Anderson. “The clear message was that it’s safe for politicians to take action on this.”
Rob Sargent, senior policy analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Group, agrees. “It’s the action in the states that’s been the major factor behind the momentum in Washington,” he says. “Water has been building up behind the dam for some time, even though in Washington things were pretty dry. This confluence of factors has resulted in it beginning to spill over the dam.”
The states’ actions were bolstered by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in April ruled, 5-4, that the federal Environmental Protection Agency does indeed have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, contrary to the arguments of the Bush administration. The decision removed a major roadblock to state efforts to impose such regulations on automakers, a move which requires the agency’s permission. “It was a resounding victory for the states,” says Frank Gorke, director of Environment Massachusetts. “We’re in a different scene now.”
Meanwhile, automakers have sued Vermont, one of 11 states that wish to regulate vehicular greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that it is impractical for them to deliver the required improvements in fuel efficiency. The ruling, which is expected later this summer, will have considerable implications for efforts to reduce emissions, as transportation accounts for a third of the total.
Rather than resisting action, however, much of corporate America has started pushing for something to be done. In January the top executives of 10 of the nation’s largest companies called on Congress and the administration to impose mandatory emissions cuts, create a national cap-and-trade system and invest in alternative-energy research. The companies—including Alcoa, BP, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, General Electric, Lehman Brothers and Pacific Gas & Electric— developed the plan in cooperation with the Pew Center on Climate Change and three environmental groups within a group known as the United States Climate Partnership, or US-CAP, Webaccessible at www.us-cap.org. Two more environmental groups have joined, plus 12 companies, including Dow Chemical, General Motors, Shell, Siemens and Xerox.
“When you have a group of CEOs saying not only that they want a mandatory system, but here’s what it should look like, complete with targets and timetables, the effect is just incredible,” says the Pew center’s Claussen. Her organization serves as a bridge between the companies and environmental groups within US-CAP. “They all believe that there are going to be regulations in the U.S. and a framework internationally, and they would like to be part of the efforts to design those systems.”
“Industry is realizing that it doesn’t want a messy patchwork of state policies and that a mandatory [national] system is the right place for America to be, for both economic and moral reasons,” says Eric Heitz, president of the Energy Foundation, based in San Francisco and created by Pew and the Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations. The Energy Foundation supported the economic analysis behind California’s groundbreaking policies. The effect of the US-CAP announcement, he said, was “seismic.”
The world’s scientists have weighed in as well. The International Panel on Climate Change, comprising more than 1,000 scientists from 113 countries, began issuing its latest assessment in February. It makes sobering reading. New research over the past six years suggests, with 90 percent certainty, that human-generated greenhouse gases caused most of the rise in global temperatures over the last 50 years and that average temperatures will rise by 2 to 4 degrees Celsius by century’s end.
The likely results: an increase in deaths, diseases, injuries and malnutrition due to more frequent, severe and expansive heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts; the forced displacement of millions of people in low-lying areas and small island states; profound food shortages in many African countries; and the loss of tropical rainforests in the eastern Amazon, winter tourism in the European Alps and homes and infrastructure to hurricanes in the United States.
Add to that the combined public impact of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning global-warming documentary, and the conclusions of the Stern Report, an official British study released in October 2006 that concluded that acting on the issue could be almost 20 times cheaper than doing nothing.
And add this: In July 2006, a National Wildlife Federation survey found that more than 70 percent of U.S. hunters and anglers believe global warming is a serious threat to fish and wildlife, that it has already affected hunting and fishing and that the nation should act to reduce emissions.
And, finally, this past April, a study by a panel of 11 retired four- and threestar generals and admirals warned that climate change presents a serious threat to national security. “We will pay for this in one way or another,” says retired Marine Corps General Anthony C. Zinni, either by reducing greenhouse gas emissions today or “later in military terms, and that will involve human lives.”
Evangelical Christians are also calling for action, with more than 100 of their most prominent leaders having signed on to a major initiative calling for federal action, including mandatory emissions reductions. Signatories to the Evangelical Climate Initiative, first unveiled in February 2006, include megachurch pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life; and the leaders of the Salvation Army, the National Association of Evangelicals and 39 Christian colleges. Previously, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had called for action on global warming, as had Pope John Paul II and the senior figure in the Orthodox Christian world, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew II.
“Climate change is crystallizing a deeper, broader awakening among religious Americans to the peril of God’s creation on Earth, and raising the very most fundamental tenants of scriptural and religious faith,” says Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a coalition of more than 60 Catholic, Jewish, evangelical and mainstream-Protestant organizations working to enact a faith-based response to the issue.
“Our mandate is to be good stewards of creation and to have responsibility for future generations,” he points out. “These are perennial religious themes that were in place long before we knew there was a globe, much less global climate change.”
This year, partnership members launched a campaign to mobilize their adherents to compel decision-makers to action, not only on curbing emissions but also on developing a more secure and sustainable energy supply. “The dialect of faith and values is one where mainstream citizens can find a more familiar, resonant and comfortable way of looking at this issue, as they might feel insufficiently informed about the science and put off by the partisanship,” Gorman says.
While the religious leaders are motivated by spiritual and moral concerns, their political influence is considerable. “The evangelical climate statement had a huge effect on a lot of members of Congress,” says Anderson of the National Environmental Trust. “It shows that this is not some elitist environmental issue, but something that reaches people from all walks of life.”
The public is clearly awakening to the issue, she says, pointing to recent national polls in which energy has emerged as a top concern, surpassed only by the war, security and health care. “We’ve never seen energy take that high place in people’s minds,” she says. “People see that it’s linked to their personal economics and security.”
Challenges remain, not least of them the thorny issue of coal, which is a plentiful domestic energy resource but releases more greenhouse gases than other sources. “The coal industry has tremendous power in the legislature, and they have yet to see a future for themselves in a carbon constrained world,” says Heitz.
Yet he also notes that there are solutions. The Future of Coal, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study supported by Pew, concluded that the United States must take the lead in developing carbon-capture and sequestration technologies to reduce coal’s carbon emissions.
Nonetheless, most climate-change policy advocates think federal action is around the corner. “It seems almost certain that some kind of comprehensive global-warming emissions limits will be put into effect in the next three or four years,” says Sargent of the U.S. Public Interest Group. “We are all pushing to get it done as soon as we can.”
Colin Woodard is an award-winning journalist and the author of Ocean’s End: Travels Through Endangered Seas and the newly-released The Republic of Pirates. He lives in Portland, Maine, and has a Web site at www.colinwoodard.com.