Sunday, January 9, 2011

The future of federal climate change work

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Though I do not consider myself an expert, I have had the honor of advocating for efforts to fight climate change on-and-off for the past four years.  I do have a perspective that is not tainted by decades in the trenches, political or financial connections to powerful people with a dog in the fight, or even a personal history of traditional environmentalism, and with that in mind, and considering this is a new year with new challenges and government leadership, I'd like to offer some general suggestions for folks looking to get our governments to work fixing climate change:

1)  Don't spend a dime on getting any kind of positive climate change legislation passed in the House of Representatives

All of our House efforts need to go to supporting only the staunchest allies in climate change, and in fighting the horrific legislation that will come out of a House leadership, especially the Natural Resources Committee Chair who has specifically singled out the EPA's Supreme Court-mandated regulation of greenhouse gasses.

2)  Turn some federal energies to the EPA

For the past ___ years (fill in the blank with the number of years you've been working on climate change legislation), the federal legislature has refused to acknowledge carbon as a pollutant.  Meanwhile, due to a Supreme Court decision, the Environmental Protection Agency is mandated to regulate carbon as precisely that.  Focus all your efforts on EPA decisions about carbon.  My specific recommendation?  Look at the "cumulative impacts" condition that the EPA (and other federal agencies) must address through NEPA (the National Environmental Protection Act).  It is reasonable to assume that any government activity resulting in net carbon emissions into the atmosphere may exceed the cumulative impact threshold for carbon in the atmosphere.  At the least, this should cause the EPA to pick a number, and it may effectively eliminate Environmental Assessments (a common shortcut in NEPA) for a time, as agencies are forced to determine their carbon footprint per project.  The idea should be to get the EPA to enact actual regulatory measures.  We have frightened and imagined ourselves out of straight regulation, believing that we need a consensus in the House and Senate before we can accomplish anything.  But we can't achieve a system-wide trust in regulations unless we have regulatory agencies willing to regulate.  The environmental communities can help rebuild that trust by going to the EPA to get the ball rolling. 

Bottom line:  Don't waste time on the House and Senate.  Focus on where you have leverage.

3)  Turn the rest of your federal energies to get training from your state-level allies and advocates, to improve state and regional climate change efforts

Two regions are putting in place carbon prices and markets, and California has already set limits, determined many of its industries' carbon emissions, and begun enforcement of carbon-cutting programs.  Get on board here, and lobby and cajole other states to sign on to regional efforts.  I've been beat over the head with the "don't let the perfect get in the way of the good", and I've got one in response:  Don't let the dream of being in the room when the President signs carbon-capping legislation get in the way of actually cutting carbon emissions.  The current regional proposals are far from perfect, but if everybody were fighting on those fronts to improve them, we'd have better proposals and actions. 

It all comes down to this:  While the federal legislature fiddles, the executive has been ordered by the judiciary to regulate carbon.  Meanwhile, state and regional efforts are actually debating the numbers - tons of greenhouse gasses, allocation of allowances, etc. - that will determine the course of action in just a few months.  Many advocates who've been working on state and regional carbon regulations now have tremendous knowledge concerning actual working numbers.  The federal advocates can really learn from their knowledge and experience, and can bring extra weight to bear on getting the best possible decisions out of local and state policymakers. 

In California, for example, we have a new governor who is probably much more amenable to reading the vital economic analysis of our state's proposed carbon allowance trading program.  Considering CARB's recent decision, its staff still believes itself too vulnerable to follow the economically (and frankly, ethically) preferable action of auctioning allowances right away.  However, we probably have a Governor now who understands that this is really a carbon fee, and if we give away allowances, then we hand over fee collection to the companies who pollute the most, and this isn't right.  The environmental communities need to let the Governor know, every day, that there are better ways to cut carbon emissions, and every day spent in the House of Representatives is a day not spent in the Governor's office. 

It is time for the environmental communities to consider where the work is being accomplished, and focus our energies there.

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