These days, there aren't many silver linings in the fight against global warming.
Headlines bring daily reminders of the impact human activities are having on the climate -- intense drought in California, record wildfires in Texas and Arizona, heat waves in the Gulf states, massive floods across Vermont, retreating glaciers, melting ice caps... the list goes on and on. And those impacts are just a teaser for what science tells us lies in store in a warming world.
Meanwhile, most of our political leaders seem to be asleep at the wheel. International negotiations to curb emissions are stuck in neutral and Congress is hell-bent on taking us backwards on clean energy and the environment.
How can we build momentum to stop global warming, and do so in time to prevent the worst impacts on the planet?
The first step is to recognize and accept that the big solutions -- a nationwide cap on global warming pollution or a meaningful international agreement to curb emissions -- while critical, are more likely to be the last steps in the battle to stop global warming rather than the first. Whether we like it or not, U.S. and world leaders lack the political will to adopt those steps. Our national leaders will only act after much of the groundwork for shifting the economy away from fossil fuels has already been done.
The good news is that the work of transforming the American economy has already begun and remains alive and well today. Over the past decade, thanks in large part to visionary work at the local and state level, as well as within the Obama administration, the nation has begun to experience a real shift in how we produce and use energy.
America now produces five times as much wind power than in 2004, with states like Colorado and Texas leading the nation. With states like New Jersey and California at the forefront, we have eight times more solar power as we did just seven years ago. Cars sold in 2009 were the most fuel-efficient and least polluting in history, thanks to fuel economy standards adopted by the Obama Administration and built on the foundation of 14 states' Clean Cars standards. Plug-in cars are coming off the assembly line in Michigan. Energy savings from utility energy efficiency programs have nearly tripled since 2004. Transit ridership has steadily grown 10 percent since 2004 with ridership in places like metropolitan Phoenix doubling in that period. And, terms like "green buildings" and "sustainability" -- virtually unheard of a decade ago -- have now become part of the common vocabulary.
The vast majority of this clean energy progress originates outside the beltway, at the local and state level, where officials, backed by strong public support, have adopted strong policies to drive clean energy forward, and a growing core of stakeholders have embraced the idea of reducing pollution from fossil fuels and shifting to clean energy. These actions have made a real dent in global warming pollution, with global warming emissions in 2009 as low as they were in 1995. According to the Energy Information Administration, about two-thirds of these emissions reductions can be attributed to reductions in the amount of energy used per unit of Gross Domestic Product; much of that through energy efficiency, and a transition to cleaner fuels; many of them renewables.
However, tremendous opportunities for further action remain. A recent analysis by Environment America Research & Policy Center shows that local governments and states, with an assist from federal agencies, can adopt a wide array of clean energy policies that would cut global warming pollution from 2008 levels by 20 percent by 2020 and by 35 percent by 2030.
But even these emission reductions alone, while dramatic, will not be enough to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. With the adoption of dozens or even hundreds of local and state clean energy policies, we will still need comprehensive national and international solutions. Winning these smaller battles, however, will help shore up the political base needed to make comprehensive solutions a reality.
Members of Congress will soon have to answer to disappointed clean energy employers and other clean energy stakeholders in their districts if they oppose clean energy solutions in Washington. And, public support for clean energy -- already high -- will grow as more people experience the benefits of clean energy accruing in their own homes and communities. As installation of new solar panels and energy efficient devices increases, the costs of those measures will come down even further -- making them more accessible to all.
The nation's current economic and fiscal woes need not get in our way. Many opportunities to curb our dependence on fossil fuels and put America on a pathway to a more sustainable future are cost effective today. By taking advantage of those opportunities in states and cities across the country we can do our small part to combat dangerous global warming now, while helping to build momentum for greater changes in the years to come.