Think Globally, Act Locally

No “¦ seriously. Because when it comes to climate change, Washington won’t help.

The smoke stacks at American Electric Power's (AEP) Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, October 30, 2009. In cooperation with AEP, the French company Alstom unveiled the world's largest carbon capture facility at a coal plant, so called 'clean coal,' which will store around 100,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide a year 2.1 kilometers (7,200 feet) underground. 
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
May 6, 2014, 8 a.m.

You’ve heard the phrase a mil­lion times. It’s be­come an en­vir­on­ment­al ear­worm.

Now, nearly 100 years after Patrick Geddes pub­lished Cit­ies in Evol­u­tion, the book many as­sert gave rise to the concept of “Think Glob­ally, Act Loc­ally,” that phrase now may have ac­tu­al, prac­tic­al mean­ing.

Among the most in­ter­est­ing parts of the Na­tion­al Cli­mate As­sess­ment is its em­phas­is on what loc­al and state gov­ern­ments can do to ad­apt to cli­mate change and min­im­ize its po­ten­tial rav­ages.

Con­sider this sec­tion: “Build­ing codes and land­scap­ing or­din­ances could be up­dated to im­prove en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, con­serve wa­ter sup­plies, pro­tect against in­sects that spread dis­ease (such as dengue fever), re­duce sus­cept­ib­il­ity to heat stress, and im­prove pro­tec­tion against ex­treme events.” The last time I checked, neither Con­gress nor the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment de­term­ined build­ing codes or re­worked or­din­ance on loc­al wa­ter sup­plies or en­ergy ef­fi­ciency.

The re­port also em­phas­izes the need for “flex­ib­il­ity and re­si­li­ence in the face of on­go­ing and fu­ture im­pacts.” As any­one who has been through a cata­stroph­ic weath­er event can tell you, FEMA can help, but what cit­ies and states must do in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math is be flex­ible and re­si­li­ent. Neither are pri­or­it­ies in Wash­ing­ton just now. Not on cli­mate change or any­thing else.

“The re­port does an ex­cel­lent job of mak­ing the point that cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing now,” Jerry Me­lillo, lead au­thor of the Na­tion­al Cli­mate As­sess­ment, told me. “It is not an is­sue you can think about 20 or 30 years in­to the fu­ture. All Amer­ic­ans in some way — either dir­ectly or in­dir­ectly — are cur­rently be­ing af­fected by cli­mate change.”

The re­port pays, as it must, prop­er de­fer­ence to “in­ter­na­tion­al treat­ies” and new “fed­er­al” laws and “na­tion­al strategies.” But it is worth not­ing that this re­port — the most com­pre­hens­ive of its kind — places no stress on new policy re­com­mend­a­tions or laws. It does sug­gest cit­ies and states get ahead of the game by judging the risks of cli­mate change and act­ing ac­cord­ingly.

Again, from the re­port: “Us­ing sci­entif­ic in­form­a­tion to pre­pare for cli­mate changes in ad­vance can provide eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­it­ies and pro­act­ively man­aging the risks can re­duce im­pacts and costs over time.”

It doesn’t ex­actly scream, “Hey, you’re on your own!” But it comes close.

Pres­id­ent Obama has not touched cli­mate-change le­gis­la­tion since the Sen­ate re­fused to con­sider a House-passed bill in 2010 that in­creased car­bon taxes. And Obama’s not go­ing to push for any new le­gis­la­tion to raise car­bon taxes now.

“We’ve made clear that we are not pur­su­ing that and have not and have no plans to,” White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney said Tues­day. “So I sup­pose that would make its vi­va­cious­ness a little lim­ited here.”

You’ve heard of death by a thou­sand cuts? Cli­mate-change le­gis­la­tion died from lim­ited vi­va­cious­ness. Talk about an in­vis­ible killer. Obama did, after months of elec­tion-year dither­ing, im­pose new reg­u­la­tions on fu­ture coal-fired power plants. The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency is pre­par­ing long-awaited lim­its on car­bon-based emis­sions from ex­ist­ing coal-fired power plants. The Su­preme Court re­cently up­held the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s power to im­pose these new reg­u­la­tions un­der the Clean Air Act.

But that does not mean the in­dustry will not fight the reg­u­la­tions in court or that con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, deeply skep­tic­al of cli­mate sci­ence and a fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ory re­sponse, will not seek to delay or de­rail the new pol­lu­tion lim­its. Re­pub­lic­ans call the reg­u­la­tions job killers. They also con­sider them in­ef­fect­ive in a glob­al­ized eco­nomy where coun­tries like China, In­dia, and Brazil con­tin­ue to belch out enorm­ous amounts of car­bon-based pol­lu­tion.

In this, sur­pris­ingly, Me­lillo at least par­tially agrees.

“The solu­tion to the cli­mate-change prob­lem is glob­al,” Me­lillo said. “We have to do what we can to make Amer­ica se­cure and sus­tain­able, but in or­der to ad­dress the root cause of the prob­lem, the emis­sion of green­house gases, coun­tries like In­dia, China, Brazil — they have to do their share as well.”

The pro­spects of glob­al ac­tion to re­duce car­bon-based pol­lu­tion are as slim if not slim­mer than con­gres­sion­al ac­tion. In the hier­archy of needs, de­vel­op­ing eco­nom­ies like China, In­dia, and Brazil have, at least so far, placed in­dus­tri­al and man­u­fac­tur­ing growth over pol­lu­tion con­trol. That may change in the years to come, but the Na­tion­al Cli­mate As­sess­ment placed new em­phas­is on what states and cit­ies can do to pro­tect them­selves and their res­id­ents.

As states and cit­ies be­come more nimble and re­spons­ive labor­at­or­ies of demo­cracy, reg­u­la­tion, and tax­a­tion, per­haps the time has come for the cli­mate-change de­bate to be­come much smal­ler, more loc­al, and less at­tuned to gran­di­ose aims.

And that might mean the death of the ear­worm but the re­birth of polit­ic­ally vi­able en­vir­on­ment­al­ism.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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