-- U.S. state and local governments, businesses, NGOs, and individual citizens are taking the initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move towards alternative "clean energy" options. OneWorld concludes this month's three-part "IN-DEPTH" series on climate change from its new treeless magazine, Perspectives, which offers more background and context on the issue, viewpoints from non-profit organizations, and ways for individuals to get involved.
In the Vanguard: Local Initiatives to Address Climate Change
"There is a consensus in the scientific community that we need to be doing something on global warming. There is a consensus among the public. Sooner or later, the politicians are going to have to react."
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences is among 11 national science academies that released a statement in early June 2005 noting that there is "sufficient scientific understanding of climate change" for all nations "to identify cost-effective steps that can be taken now to contribute to substantial and long-term reductions in net global greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming." It especially called on world leaders meeting at the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Scotland in early July to "address its causes and to prepare for its consequences."
To date, the deliberations over climate change have largely focused on "high politics," or what different countries have been required to do to lower their emissions by even relatively small amounts. The Kyoto Protocol has been the central mechanism in this discussion.
While there is no question that the laws and policies of nations remain paramount in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and supporting cleaner alternatives, many of the most promising ideas and efforts are now coming from state and local communities. In the United States, scientists, activists, local politicians, and scores of individual citizens have stepped in where the federal government has failed to take the lead in combating the causes of climate change.
U.S. Cities and States Taking the Lead
In the U.S., 165 mayors from 37 states (as of June 15) have joined a bipartisan coalition to fight global warming on the local level. Initiated by Seattle's mayor, Greg Nickels, the coalition aims to reduce heat-trapping gas emissions in various U.S. cities to the levels called for by the international Kyoto treaty, or 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012--even though this treaty is not supported by the federal government.
Executive orders signed by the governors of California and New Mexico have set aggressive greenhouse gas emissions targets at the state level. And, in North Dakota, the governor signed a legislative package into law that encourages the development of several types of renewable energy. Over one-third of U.S. states mandate an increase in the states' share of electricity generated with renewable energy. These are just a few examples among many of state and local governments in America taking their own actions on climate change.
Some charge that these efforts are too minimal to make a difference at the global level, especially in view of the fact that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide--the gas largely held responsible for much of the atmospheric changes causing shifts in climate--have risen 16 percent between 1990 and 2002. Others assert that the political symbolism and momentum generated at the local level are vital. "Local government is in many ways much more nimble than other levels of government," said Seattle's Nickels in a recent interview, "so historically one of its roles is to experiment and show that things can work and then have it embraced at state, regional, and ultimately national levels."
Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in this field believe that long-term change must be sparked by an accumulation of local initiatives. On the assumption that "local action moves the world," an organization called the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) enlists local governments worldwide to make improvements in global sustainability. Over 600 municipalities, including many in the U.S., participate in its Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, which helps local governments develop strategic plans to reduce air pollution.
Businesses are taking the lead too. Dupont has reduced its own greenhouse gas emissions by 67 percent below 1990 levels; Shaw's supermarkets in New England offers green power to its customers by selling renewable energy; and, General Electric has committed to doubling its investment in environmentally friendly technologies.
One major initiative that bears watching is DestiNY USA, a planned mega-mall in Syracuse, New York. The proposed 800-acre shopping and entertainment complex is expected to house shops, restaurants, theaters, hotels, and a climate-controlled recreational biosphere--a massive "retail city"--all without any dependence on fossil fuels.
Despite numerous positive advances among businesses and local communities, however, U.S. national efforts still lag behind similar steps being taken in Europe, Canada, Japan, and other countries. Considering the well-documented ties between the George W. Bush administration and the oil industry, many are skeptical of any major U.S. progress on cleaner energy options in the upcoming term. The U.S. House of Representatives has also tended to adhere to the status quo. Although the Senate rejected greenhouse gas limits in a major energy bill in late June 2005, there has been more leadership in the Senate to provide incentives for developing alternative technologies.
Individual Actions Make a Difference
Even though the infrastructure and tax incentives are not yet in place to facilitate extensive use of renewable energy (see article on energy independence in this edition of Perspectives), there are many things that individuals can do to use less energy in their daily lives. Using public transportation, purchasing energy-efficient appliances, insulating one's home, and using compact fluorescent light bulbs are just a few ideas. And, Americans are increasingly interested in buying hybrid vehicles for their fuel economy and environmental benefits.
In addition to these efficiency measures, many more Americans are opting for "green power." Eco-friendly homes are becoming more popular, for example, in places like Charlotte, North Carolina and Phoenix, Arizona. Despite higher up-front costs to do things like install solar panels, there are lower operating costs over the longer term. Some forward-thinking utility companies, like Portland General Electric in Oregon, are reimbursing home owners who generate more power than they use. (For a comprehensive list of ways that you can save energy and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, see our "Action Page" in this issue of Perspectives.)
The environmental movement worldwide has consistently campaigned on the Three Rs, or "reduce, reuse, recycle." Educational institutions and local governments have been at the forefront of encouraging consumers to be more aware of wasteful packaging and to think more carefully about what's going into burgeoning landfills.
Some NGOs, like the Integrative Strategies Forum, have taken these mandates further by advocating more sustainable patterns of production & consumption. Building alliances among NGOs and others promoting sustainable lifestyles is central to their work, as is persuading the world's governments to place these ideas at the heart of economic policy. They, and other environmental groups, point out that the earth's delicate ecosystem cannot sustain the patterns of consumption and waste that have become hallmarks of modern society.