Cities, states take lead on climate

Before the fiscal crisis, there was the global climate crisis. After the fiscal crisis, we'll still have the global climate crisis – for the rest of our lives.

A nightmarish future awaits our children unless we can forge international accords, with teeth, to cut carbon emissions.

Top-down isn't enough: Thousands of adaptive low-carbon strategies must be fashioned from America's grass roots.

The severity of the threat is underscored by new reports indicating worldwide carbon emissions rose almost 3 percent last year. That trajectory would lead to a temperature rise of 11 degrees Fahrenheit by century's end. Among the likely consequences: large-scale melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers and the Arctic's summer sea ice.

A surge in emissions from rapidly industrializing China, India and Brazil makes the challenge tougher. Those nations aren't likely to cut back significantly unless nations with the biggest per capita emission rates – especially the United States – make serious, sweeping efforts themselves.

But on state and regional levels, this country has started significant efforts.

Meaningful carbon controls

On Sept. 25, six Northeastern states held the first “auction” of carbon permits, in the nation's first cap-and-trade system. The Western Climate Initiative will soon launch a cap-and-trade system covering manufacturing and vehicles as well as power plants.

While imperfect, such measures set the precedent for a meaningful nationwide carbon control system.

California has been America's champion in setting major carbon reduction goals. Its latest breakthrough: a law to cut emissions by rewarding cities and counties whose development rules limit carbon dioxide-spawning urban sprawl.

There's significant action at city level. The U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, to aim for Kyoto Protocol carbon reduction goals, now has 884 mayors onboard.

But goals are one thing, comprehensive carbon-cutting programs another. What's dawning is a recognition that a central city is just one part of a metro area. For climate steps to make a difference, an entire region, suburbs and satellite cities included, must help in planning and action.

Recognizing that, King County, Wash., encompassing Seattle, took an early lead under County Executive Ron Sims. The Puget Sound Regional Council is on board, with an imaginative plan to protect 1.3 million acres of farm and forest land.

Chicago's plan

In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley and civic leaders recently unveiled a broad climate action plan, 29 actions to curb greenhouse emissions from an updated energy building code to public transit. The respected Center for Neighborhood Technology identifed specific emission sources and potential impacts. But it took blogger, Kaid Benfield, to note how insufficient Chicago's effort may be if it doesn't include suburbs and edge cities where the most people live – and where carbon emissions are highest.

There is hope: Regional planners in recent years have laid out a “Chicagoland” vision – guiding growth into city and town centers and along transit corridors, protecting open space and farms, promoting walking and biking.

True regionalism is perking in Northern California, where three mayors – Chuck Reed of San Jose, Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, and Ron Dellums of Oakland – have forged, with business and civic leaders, a Bay Area Climate Change Compact with goals ranging from 20,000 “green collar” jobs to big boosts for renewable energy.

Goals and true carbon savings aren't synonymous. As Dellums trenchantly noted: “At the end of the day, we're at the margins of an enormous problem that dwarfs us all.”