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United States of Climate Change

Even in the breathtaking absence of federal leadership on climate change, there’s been some very good news lately: states are stepping up with sound climate policy. And though it gets lost in the fever of election year politicking, states can play a huge role in addressing global warming. Consider this map I made that shows states labeled with nations that had equivalent greenhouse gas equivalents in 2003:

50 states

(There’s a bigger version of this map here.) Personally I find the map a bit overwhelming. Even more so when I realize that the population of the U.S. — less than 300 million in 2003 — has the same climate impact as the more than 1.5 billion people represented by the other countries listed on the map. (The map is mis-labeled: it should say "1.5 billion".) If you want to see a more conceptual version of this map, one that does compare the 50 states to 3 billion people, see here. A state-to-country population comparison is here.

So your state’s climate policy matters. A lot. And it’s somewhat comforting that, unlike the preznit and Congress, states are taking their responsibilities seriously. A couple of years ago, the northeast states formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Then a big batch of western states and provinces banded together to form the Western Climate Initiative. And now even the coal-dependent Midwestern states are in on the action, under the banner of the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Accord. These regional efforts don’t have the muscle-power that federal policy would, but they aren’t empty promises either. They’re executive-level commitments to putting a firm and enforceable cap on carbon emissions.

Last time I crunched the numbers, around half of all Americans now live in a state with serious climate policy. Someday this fact may dawn on the feds.

In the case of the western and midwestern agreements, these regional carbon caps are intended to be economy-wide, meaning that the policy should treat all the major sources of emissions, including coal, oil, and gas. (In the northeast, the agreement is confined to the electricity sector.) All the efforts intend to employ a "cap and trade" program, similar to what’s been proposed by Clinton, Obama, and McCain, as well as the Lieberman-Warner and Bingaman-Specter bills that are limping around Congress, and the European Trading Scheme that’s already up and running. The programs will probably allow trading with other regions and perhaps with Europe, which will tend to result in the cheapest and easiest carbon reductions getting made first. Many of the details are still in development — the Western policy is being hashed out this week in Salt Lake City — but we should see reasonably robust plans by autumn.

It’s cold comfort to American enviros, but Canadian national climate policy has been languishing too, thanks to Bush-like leadership from Stephen Harper. That hasn’t stopped a number of provinces from stepping into the breach with aggressive climate policy, particularly in the case of British Columbia. And if you hail from north of the border, you may be interested in the two comparative maps that I made for Canada, here and here.

The good news, however, is that we’re likely to see meaningful federal action soon. And if the regional agreements can set a high bar — comprehensive emissions coverage with built-in protections for consumers — then they can tilt the federal debate away from polluters and toward responsibility.

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Eric de Place

Eric de Place

Eric is senior researcher at Sightline Institute where he writes for the Daily Score blog. (But his writing for FDL represents strictly his own views.) He is also a contributing writer to Gristmill.