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Individual US States Try to Combat Global Warming - 2002-12-20

World Meteorological Organization scientists report that 2002 was the second hottest year around the world since weather record keeping began more than 140 years ago. This follows a significant warming trend over the last decade that most researchers now believe is leading to adverse global changes in climate.

The Bush Administration has pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, a United Nations sponsored treaty designed to mitigate climate change. The Administration claims the pact would harm the U.S. economy. But as individual U.S. states are working independently of the federal government to comply with the spirit of the climate change agreement.

In 1994, Bob Shinn made a trip to the Netherlands. The former New Jersey Commissioner of Environmental Protection was impressed with a Dutch plan to reduce the country's production of greenhouse gases the industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, or CO2, methane and other gases whose rising concentrations in the atmosphere have been linked to global warming.

The Netherlands, a country with one third of its lands below sea level, was taking steps to combat rising ocean levels, one consequence of global warming. That got Bob Shinn thinking about New Jersey. "About three fourths of our coastline is exposed to either the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware River and tidal [areas]," he said. "So sea level rise has a tremendous impact on the state in total, and we had already spent millions of dollars on beach re-nourishment, and that was a major issue. Ultimately, you lose that battle if you don't slow the increase of sea level rise over a long period of time."

In 1998, Bob Shinn announced that New Jersey would seek to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 3.5 percent below 1990 levels by 2005. Mr. Shin began soliciting covenants or voluntary promises from various sectors of the New Jersey economy to reduce their emissions. "We signed covenants with industry and environmental groups and all 56[state] colleges and universities," said Bob Shinn. "Not only [are] they integrating greenhouse gas efficiencies and renewable [sources of energy] in their plant operations like geo-thermal, fuel cells, lighting [and so on], but when you are thinking of energy conservation, you can do better, all you have to do is focus on it."

Bob Shinn says New Jersey is on track to reach its greenhouse gas emissions reductions target. "As a regulator you are talking about controls, and that costs money," he said. "There is no return on a control. There is a return on energy efficiency. You get a return every month because your energy bill is less, your heating, your lighting bill, your air conditioning bill [are less]. "

From a regulatory perspective, you are not commanding that people do this and such, you are looking for voluntary programs that make eminent sense and logic, and people are very willing do them. Absolutely nobody said that [they were] not willing to do this, period the end," continued Bob Shinn. "Everybody was starting to think about it."

New Jersey is one of a growing number of U.S. states that has taken action to mitigate the impact of climate change. A study released by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change reports that over the last decade, state action on climate change has intensified. The study's lead author, University of Michigan professor Barry Rabe, says reasons for these actions vary from state to state. "One [reason] is clearly some states are beginning to see some direct impacts of climate change that are tailored to their particular circumstance," he said. "During the course of this project I have talked to farmers and ranchers in Nebraska who can look back on generations of ownership of the family farm or ranch and say they are seeing drought or weather patterns unlike anything they have seen before. I have talked to people in New Hampshire [who] are beginning to say, 'The way climate is changing for us, we may not have [any] maple trees in 25 years. Imagine New Hampshire without any syrup or any maple trees!"

Barry Rabe says that while states differ in their approach to the problem of climate change, greenhouse gas reduction programs are most often linked to a greater economic development strategy. "[For example,] to provide opportunities for those farmers in Nebraska, to not only change their farming practices and to pursue soil conservation, but also possibly get credits for sequestering carbon in the soil," he said. "In some cases it is to be able to say to industries, five or 10 years out [in the future], what the rules of the game are going to be - especially in a game like electricity, where there is going to be a lot of change. A lot of power plants are changing hands. A lot of utilities don't want to be regulated for so-called conventional air pollutants and then three, five, 10 years down the road, in addition to this you have to think about carbon dioxide and fuel levels. They want to think about it in an integrative package. That has prompted states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire to put actual caps on CO2 emissions as they develop long-term strategies."

Can these strategies work without the federal government working alongside? "Ultimately there will need to be some sort of reaction or response from the federal government," said Mr. Rabe. "But even if a national or international strategy is developed it is going to be relying on state governments to implement these programs. Anything that would be involving a federal or international carbon trading arrangement will probably require states to play an active role. So in a sense it puts states in a very interesting position. [They are] potentially in the driver's seat testing what does or does not work, what is or is not cost effective, perhaps providing some models for the federal government to emulate, but ultimately probably a role for states to play in implementing long term strategies."

Barry Rabe says that despite advantages to climate change action at the state level, states also face many limitations. States have little or no funding for climate change initiatives, he notes. They face constitutional limits on agreements they can make with other countries. And Mr. Rabe says that without a coordinated national policy, one state's efforts to combat global warming can be negated by another state's inaction.