States tighten rules, challenge feds to follow

  • The Los Angeles Pollution Control District was established in 1947, the first of its kind in the nation.

    California Air Resources Board
  • California got an air pollution wake-up call as early as 1943, when it documented its first case of smog. Visibility in Angeles was reduced to three blocks, and there were numerous complaints of watery eyes, nausea, vomiting and respiratory discomfort

    California Air Resources Board

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Save Our Snow."

During the summer of 1943, the streets of Los Angeles filled with a nauseating brown haze. Visibility shrank to three blocks, and residents endured smarting eyes, sore throats and spells of vomiting. The problem, it turned out, was a combination of growth and geography: The wartime building boom had dirtied the city’s skies, and the surrounding mountains trapped the pollution under a layer of warm desert air. It was L.A.’s first official encounter with smog.

The smog inspired California to pioneer a series of pollution-control efforts, which were eventually echoed by federal legislation such as the Clean Air Act. California isn’t the only state to incubate national environmental policies: The Clean Water Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and other landmark measures also grew out of state laws.

Some states now hope to set the course for national action on climate change. More than half the states have comprehensive climate-protection plans, and nine have specific reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions. Dozens of new laws and regulations cut emissions through energy-efficiency measures and renewable-power requirements.

Perhaps the most dramatic statehouse move to date came in the summer of 2002, when the California Legislature ordered the state to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks. Two years later, state regulators announced a rule giving automakers until 2016 to achieve an approximately 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by new cars, SUVs and light trucks. Nervous automakers have challenged the new standards in court, but both the Oregon and Washington legislatures have followed California’s lead.

In 2003, the three West Coast governors signed a pact agreeing to work together on climate protection, and Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., and Ted Kulongoski, D-Ore., have since announced ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets for their states that extend to the year 2050. Like many local efforts, these initiatives may help public coffers as well as the climate: In January, a report from the University of California at Berkeley concluded that Schwarzenegger’s 2020 targets would likely create jobs and translate into a net gain for the state economy.

Reform moves inland

State efforts on climate change are now gaining ground in the more conservative corners of the West, albeit with the leadership of Democratic governors.

Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico have both created advisory groups, which include builders, power utility executives, environmentalists, agricultural interests, academics and local officials. Richardson has also set emissions-reduction targets for New Mexico; Napolitano has stayed away from specifics in her state.

State advisory groups, as a rule, don’t have a lot of power; the governors are free to ignore their recommendations, and state legislatures can reject any new laws and regulations they suggest. But they can draw statewide attention to a particular issue, and help build broad support for particular policies and programs.

"We’re just getting to the point where we’re having fun," says Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust, a member of the Arizona advisory group. "Are we going to set carbon targets? Are we — God forbid in Arizona — going to do something about sprawl? We’re going to do our best to get language in that will make a difference."

Though neither Utah nor Wyoming have set emissions-reductions targets, Utah is considering a voluntary emissions registry, so that businesses can record their greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Wyoming officials are holding "very, very preliminary discussions" about possible statewide strategies, says Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality director John Corra.

With prodding from New Mexico, the Western Regional Air Partnership — a group of 13 states and a dozen tribes devoted to reducing regional haze — has begun to discuss some regional greenhouse gas reduction programs, and the Western Governors’ Association has launched a renewable-energy initiative. But Western states have yet to commit to a cohesive strategy for climate protection.

Washington still paralyzed

In the past, this kind of state-by-state hodgepodge has led Congress to enact overarching federal legislation. But if states are the incubators for a national policy on climate change, the results haven’t hatched yet.

Since 2003, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., have tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation setting modest, but mandatory, federal emissions-reductions standards. The strongest statement Congress has been able to agree on came last summer, in a nonbinding "Sense of the Senate" resolution that said "mandatory steps will be required to slow or stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere." The resolution was offered by New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D, and co-sponsored by fellow New Mexican, Sen. Pete Domenici, R, among others.

The chorus for action at the state level shows no signs of quieting, however. Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado, R, has offered no specific climate-protection strategy, but the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, founded by former deputy assistant Secretary of the Interior Stephen Saunders, is forcing the issue with the Colorado Climate Project, an effort to develop a comprehensive plan for greenhouse gas emissions reduction in the state. The project’s results, Saunders hopes, will be delivered to the state’s new governor, who will be elected in November.

"Climate change has already moved out of the realm of theoretical prediction, and into the realm of things that are on the ground, and in the air," says Saunders, who oversaw the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton era. "By taking action at the state level, we’re creating a tipping point for government action, and the federal government is going to tip. I don’t know exactly when, but it’s not that far away."

High Country News Classifieds