D.C. dawdles, California leads on climate

October 26, 2011

Becky Kelley directs the Climate and Clean Energy Agenda at the Washington Environmental Council. Any opinions expressed are her own.

We could smell the sweet winds of change all the way up in Washington State last week, when California adopted final rules to implement a cap and trade program to reduce climate pollution across its economy, beginning in 2013.

California got it right. Cap and trade is a policy at the scale of the problem: big, complex policy to deal with a big, complex problem.

The state’s action to embark on cap and trade, along with a suite of other essential clean energy, energy efficiency and clean transportation polices, matters far beyond its borders.

It is especially important in light of national legislative inaction. With so much at stake, it is extraordinary to consider that Congress is not taking action on climate change to protect Americans’ interests across the country.

States like California, and my own Evergreen State, Washington, are left to take matters into their own hands.

Perhaps it’s more apt to call these winds of change bittersweet.

Here in Washington, back in 2009, Governor Chris Gregoire, legislators, and advocates unsuccessfully sought state legislation to join a regional cap and trade program with California.

Like California, Washington has climate pollution reduction requirements in state law, and a wide range of existing policies to drive the transition to cleaner energy.

Yet, a recent report by the state demonstrates that we aren’t on track to meet our 2020 targets for ramping down climate pollution. To do that, we need more transformational policies.

As EPA moves forward under the Clean Air Act requiring emissions reductions from big polluters like coal-fired power plants and oil refineries, California’s cap and trade program and Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative will serve as working models of a market-based alternative.

EPA’s continued action is essential to leveraging comprehensive national climate policy that can ultimately help bring about global policy at the scale of the global problem.

It seems likely that a healthy dose of reality may re-ignite the stalled conversation about climate policy in Congress.

Polluters will look to their left and see direct regulation: reduce pollution at your facility, period.

They will look to the right (pun intended) and see a flexible, market-based approach that enables lower-cost reductions. And if they get squeamish, there’s always the comfort that early versions of cap and trade were architected by an attorney in G.H.W. Bush’s White House.

California’s relevance to the national debate also derives from its size. As the world’s eighth-largest economy, its policies drive innovations that will ultimately find markets across the country.

We’ve already seen California leading the way on policies to clean up climate pollution.

In trickle-up environmental policy, the Clean Cars revolution begun in California was modeled by many other states, including Washington in 2005. This state-led pressure ultimately led to the Obama Administration in 2010 finalizing improved national fuel economy standards and a first-ever greenhouse gas emission standard for new cars.

In trickle-up environmental policy, the Clean Cars revolution begun in California ultimately led to the Obama Administration in 2010 finalizing improved national fuel economy standards and a first-ever greenhouse gas emission standard for new cars.

In fact, California’s climate policy revolution has been led as much by businesses and venture capitalists seeking clear government signals on which to base investments, as by its concerned populace imagining a cleaner future.

Tell us the destination and the rules of the road, businesses said, and we’ll chart a path to get there.

Citizens joined with businesses to tell Texas oil companies to take a hike when Valero, Tesoro and their ilk sought to roll back California’s foundational climate law in 2010—it went down with a 61 percent ‘no’ vote, a resounding show of support for California’s climate leadership.

It’s worth putting down the poms-poms for a moment to acknowledge a few inconvenient truths.

Will California’s cap and trade program work perfectly from the beginning? Owing to a combination of political realities and the pitfalls of being a policy pioneer, the answer is undoubtedly no.

However, its architects have sought to incorporate lessons painfully learned by Europe’s emissions trading program, and have committed to evaluating and addressing concerns by environmental justice advocates about the possibility of localized pollution harming poor communities.

And with opponents poised to eviscerate California for any missteps, officials’ motivation could hardly be higher to iterate, learn and make it work.

When the Centers for Disease Control, the insurance industry, and the U.S. military all identify climate change as a serious threat to U.S. health and security and begin the hustle for solutions, it is clear the winds of change are blowing. Those institutions are not partisan, and they are pragmatic to a fault. Health, national security, and billions of dollars of assets are on the line.

While DC dawdles, California leads. Let’s hope they get some company soon.

(Photo above shows a wind farm in Palm Springs, California, February 9, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

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