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New Report: The Way Forward on Global Warming

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The U.S. Senate’s failure to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation in 2010 was a crushing blow in the effort to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. It was also unsurprising.

Even in the heady days immediately following President Obama’s inauguration, I could never quite piece out how legislation strong enough to address global warming was going to surmount the 60-vote filibuster barrier in the Senate – especially given the number of key Democrats representing states with large fossil fuel industries. I believed then, and still believed now, that despite those long odds and the lack of a clear path to victory,  the attempt was worth it, given the tremendous benefits that victory would have delivered.

Today, of course, there is a far different landscape in Congress. The Nancy Pelosi-led House that passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act has given way to one that seems hell-bent on rolling back, not expanding, environmental protections. To make real progress in curbing global warming pollution in the next couple of years – and likely beyond – the best place to start appears to be anywhere but Congress.

Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities beyond Capitol Hill to implement clean energy policies that curb global warming pollution. Our new report, The Way Forward on Global Warming (co-authored with Environment America Research & Policy Center) concludes that the adoption of a suite of state and local policies could curb U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by more than one-third by 2030 – not enough to prevent dangerous global warming, but still a sizeable down-payment on the emission reductions science tells us we need to achieve.

The report also presents detailed estimates for the emission reductions possible in each of the 50 states – the first time (to my knowledge) that such an analysis has been undertaken. It wouldn’t be right to write a single additional word in this post without calling out the heroic efforts of Frontier Group’s Elizabeth Ridlington, Rob Kerth, and Travis Madsen, who toiled for months in the data vineyards to bring The Way Forward to life.

But the most important thing about The Way Forward isn’t the numbers. After all, we in the climate protection movement have spent years crunching numbers and making the rational case for curbing global warming pollution without ultimate success.

Rather, the thing that is potentially game-changing about The Way Forward is the acknowledgment that we really face two concurrent challenges when it comes to global warming: a climate system that is out of whack and a political system that is ill-equipped to deal with the problem.

The choices that climate protection advocates make as to which policy approaches to prioritize need to move the ball forward in addressing BOTH challenges if they are to succeed. We need policies that curb global warming pollution, yes, but we also need policies that inspire people, that build long-term power, that engage individuals in the fight, and that build broad, long-lasting coalitions for sustainability.

The experience of the last decade is a reason for hope. Countless local and state governments adopted innovative clean energy policies that are right now – today – keeping global warming pollution out of the atmosphere. Those policies have also – slowly in some places and more dramatically in others – created new industries, new consumer awareness of clean energy options, and new appreciation for the benefits of clean energy among decision-makers, all changes that auger well for the adoption of more aggressive policies in those areas in the years to come.

Ultimately, the United States and the world will need to adopt comprehensive solutions to global warming. Implementing practical clean energy policies wherever we can is not only a smart way to reduce emissions while we’re waiting for our leaders to get their act together, but it is also a way to change the politics to bring those comprehensive solutions closer to reality.