A Midterm Lay of the Land: Global Warming

When it comes to U.S. action on global warming, the glass is both half-empty and half-full.

The 2014 election has come and gone. New state legislators, governors and members of Congress are waking up to the fact that they are now in charge of running the country and planning their transition to power.

There’s no better time to take a step back and take stock of where we are as a country on the issues that will shape our future. Over the coming weeks, Frontier Group analysts will be providing their take on the lay of the land on the issues on which they work in 1,000 words or less. Previous entries covered transportation, food policy, water policy and solar energy. Today, Senior Policy Analyst Tony Dutzik provides a lay of the land on global warming.

Conventional wisdom holds that the United States has done very little right when it comes to global warming. On the global stage, for sure, the United States has been far from a profile in courage, from Bush 41’s scuttling of mandatory emission reductions at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to the U.S. Senate’s rejection of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to Bush 43’s decision to renege on his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant … all the way to the lackluster results of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference under President Obama’s watch.

But, it is too simplistic to view America’s response to global warming only through the lens of failed international leadership or Congressional dysfunction. Indeed, the last decade or so has seen the adoption of hundreds of policies at the local, state and federal levels that are bending the curve on greenhouse gas emissions. Our 2009 report America on the Move found that state and federal policies adopted as of that date would reduce global warming pollution by more than 500 million metric tons per year – or 7 percent of 2007 emissions – by 2020.

Since then, the nation has taken additional steps forward. In 2012, the Obama administration adopted strong fuel economy/carbon emission standards for cars and light trucks, a policy that the Economist recently estimated to be the sixth-biggest step ever taken worldwide to reduce global warming pollution. Local, state and federal governments have pushed forward with strong energy efficiency standards for appliances, ambitious energy efficiency programs, fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles, and much more.

Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States fell by 10 percent between 2005 and 2012. And while the nation may not yet be on track to meet President Obama’s commitment of reducing U.S. emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, we’ve come a long way. A decade ago, the talk was of an impending “Coal Rush” that would blow any real chance of containing global warming; today, the Obama Administration EPA is proposing a 30 percent cut in carbon pollution from power plants.

It’s a different world in many ways. Fracking, advances in digital technology (which make possible things like this and this), reurbanization, and, perhaps most significantly in the long run, the dramatic reductions in cost for renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power, leave the United States with a new set of options and challenges than existed even just a few years ago.

At the same time, the creeping special interest dominance over politics that has made global warming a political lightning rod has begun to find its way into clean energy politics as well. In the 2000s, expansion of renewable energy was a bipartisan affair, benefiting both the environment and rural, red state economies. Over the last several years, however, fossil fuel interests have waged war on clean energy measures, convincing Ohio to roll back its successful Clean Energy Law and winning changes in several states that make it harder for consumers to “go solar.” (The Tea Party, interestingly, has emerged as a major defender of solar energy in a few states.)

So, we’re at sort of a strange moment. On one hand, U.S. actions to date have been inadequate to prevent the worst impacts of global warming and America’s reputation as a recalcitrant actor on the global stage is well-deserved. On the other hand, the steps the U.S. has taken on clean energy thus far have generally worked, they haven’t broken the economy (if anything, they’ve added new sources of economic vitality PDF), they’ve often come at either only a mild cost or a net benefit to consumers, and they’ve left the nation more secure and more energy independent. The glass is both half-empty and half-full.

Filling the rest of the glass can start by doubling down on the clean energy policies that have gotten us to this point while taking advantage of new opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Expanding state renewable electricity standards (RESs) would be a start. Renewable energy goals that seemed ambitious several years ago are now being met or surpassed – California, for example, is well on its way to meeting its 33 percent renewable electricity target for 2020. With solar and wind prices falling and resources like offshore wind yet to be tapped, there is ample room for growth.

We should also adopt policies to continue to transform our buildings, requiring more new buildings to achieve “zero net energy” status through energy efficiency and renewable energy. We might look at ways that public policies can curb growth in vehicle travel – building on the trend toward declining per-capita driving. We might also investigate ways to clamp down on non-CO2 pollutants, as the Obama administration has already begun to do.

Eventually, we will need to adopt a national system of carbon pricing (either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade) if we truly hope to meet the challenge of reducing U.S. emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050. But the past decade has shown there is much we can accomplish even without congressional action, and one can hope that the continued success of cap-and-trade systems like the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, California’s AB 32 cap-and-trade system, and British Columbia’s revenue neutral carbon tax  will convince policy-makers to ignore the fearmongering of the fossil fuel lobby and take the sensible step of putting a price on carbon.

With world leaders gearing up for a December 2015 conference in Paris to develop a new international agreement on global warming, the United States brings a record of demonstrated achievement in reducing energy use and greenhouse gas pollution, as well as the potential to do so much more. Let’s hope that leaders at all levels of government – local, state and federal – recognize the benefits of a clean energy future and take the lead in protecting the world from the threat of global warming.  


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.