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America on the Move

As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to discuss global warming next week - and as the debate over comprehensive energy and climate legislation drags on in the U.S. Senate, there will be a lot of talk about emission reduction targets, i.e. "how much by when?"

As with any marathon, though - and the fight to stop the worst impacts of global warming is certainly that - it's just as important to keep track of how far we've come as it is to figure out how far we need to go. In the United States, the conventional wisdom is that we haven't come very far. Blame it on a lingering hangover from the Bush years, the continued prominence of deniers in the public debate on global warming, or the slow progress in Congress.

But our new report, America on the Move: State Leadership in the Fight Against Global Warming and What it Means for the World, shows that while America is far from doing what is necessary on global warming, we are taking meaningful, concrete steps in the right direction. To strain the marathon analogy a bit, we may not be leading the race yet, but at least we're off the couch and lacing up our sneakers.

The report found that state actions on clean energy and global warming - coupled with recent advances by the Obama administration - will cut America's global warming emissions by more than 500 million metric tons versus business-as-usual by 2020. That is more global warming pollution than is produced annually by Italy, France or Mexico.

The report has several important lessons leading up to the discussions in Copenhagen:

1) States matter - International, and even domestic, discussions of America's role in addressing global warming tend to focus on the federal government. Yet, our report shows that state actions on global warming are more than just "feel good" efforts to "do our part" to restrain global warming or to "set an example" for the federal government to follow. Rather, taken together, they are consequential on a global scale. Environmentalists sometimes fail to recognize the immense power vested in state governments in policy areas directly relevant to global warming - environmental regulation, utility regulation, transportation and land use policy, etc. "America on the Move" shows that, once states begin to exercise their power in these areas to address global warming, the results can be dramatic.

2) The American people are behind strong action on energy and climate - There's an saying in my old field of journalism that "two is a coincidence, three is a trend." If so, then the 100 or so individual clean energy policies adopted by states over the last decade are ... a movement? Poll after poll shows that Americans favor strong action to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency - key tools in the fight against climate change. As President Obama represents the American people in Copenhagen, he needs to remember - and articulate to the world - that the recalcitrance of the Bush administration and even the halting progress of Congress do not represent where the American people are truly "at" when it comes to responding to our energy and climate challenges. We have a far greater appetite for change than we are given credit for. Hopefully, that knowledge will embolden the president to stake out a more aggressive position for the United States. 

3) We've already taken an important first step - It is astonishing to realize that, after decades of nearly unceasing growth in global warming pollution, America is finally "bending the curve" of our emission trajectory. As recently as 2005, the Department of Energy projected that America's carbon dioxide emissions would increase by one-third by 2025. Instead, emissions are actually lower than they were earlier in this decade and are projected to remain reasonably stable until the mid-2020s. State and federal clean energy policies aren't the only reason for that leveling off, but they are a major contributor. Stabilizing emissions is clearly not enough, but it is a very good start and shows that the aggressive emission reductions science tells us are necessary - on the order of 35% by 2020 - are more achievable than might have previously been thought.

4) The feds matter - While the leading-edge states are due for praise as a result of their efforts on energy and climate, it's important to recognize that the change in leadership in the White House is having a big impact as well. President Obama has already implemented some of the best clean energy policies pioneered by the states (in contrast to his predecessor, who did everything in his power to block them). Reducing global warming pollution from vehicles in 14 states is nice; doing it in all 50 states is much, much better. While clean energy policies are increasingly being embraced around the country - the Midwest and Southwest being notable examples - there remain large chunks of the nation, responsible for vast amounts of global warming pollution, that are still on the sidelines. As important as state action is, we need an aggressive federal response to maximize the benefits of state policies and bring the rest of the country into the game.

If nothing else, I hope this report brings new attention to the role states can play in America's response to global warming. The environmental community needs to put as much analytical energy into figuring out how to measure the impact of state policies and develop replicable models as we do into, say, figuring out the ins-and-outs of cap and trade at the federal level. In so many areas of energy policy, governors and legislators (not to mention mayors and other officials at the local level) are developing innovative new solutions to our global warming challenges. If we hope to succeed in the fight against global warming, we are going to need all of the solutions we can muster.