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Global-warming fight goes grass roots

Mayors from around the world met this weekend to cut emissions.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 2005


Sunday, when mayors from around the world gathered in this most environmentally aware of American cities to mark World Environment Day, they hoped to make a clear statement: Local communities - even more than nations - can be the pioneers of environmental reform. The choice of place and time could hardly have been more auspicious.

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In recent months, it has become increasingly obvious that a critical mass is developing around perhaps the most nettlesome issue of modern American environmentalism - climate change - and that states, cities, and even some businesses are the ones taking the lead. While the Bush administration insists that human impact on climate change is far from certain, a growing number of policymakers disagree and are now taking decisive steps that the federal government has so far shunned.

Mayors of more than 150 cities ranging from Los Angeles to Atlanta have signed an agreement pledging to move their communities toward the greenhouse-gas reductions laid out the Kyoto Protocol. And last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - a pro-business Republican - proposed cutting the state's greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent, proclaiming:

"The debate is over ... and we know the time for action is now."

In this context, California can have a profound influence - not only on the environment, but on shaping public policy. As the 10th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and a crucible of environmental policy, California's decisions could again lay the groundwork for the future path of the entire nation.

"If this continues, when you add it all up, it will be significant activity on climate change even without a national policy," says Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Very often that is the way policy works: When enough major states take action, then eventually the central government follows."

That action has already begun. Nine states in the Mid- Atlantic and Northeast have already established a regional greenhouse-gas emissions-trading program. The mayors of 158 American cities - including 10 of the 30 largest - have signed the United States Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, an initiative launched by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Yet, as usual, it is California's plan that has generated the most attention.

Part of that is because the mayors' agreement leans toward the symbolic. Though mayors can guide land use to minimize sprawl and limit daily car commutes, the ultimate authority for shaping and enforcing policy lies with states and Washington. Yet California also demands particular attention because "it has a track record over the past four decades of setting environmental precedents that are followed across the country," says Jason Mark, state director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It's one reason the United Nations chose to hold World Environment Day here. The purpose of the event was to get away from previous massive environmental conferences that yielded grand ideas but few results. It did yield its own accord - distinct from the US mayors' agreement, and, at only three pages, far more pithy and practical than the epics of past UN conferences. And it gave Governor Schwarzenegger the perfect opportunity to unveil his new proposal.