Buried under the avalanche of coverage of Wall Street woes is a sobering news item: The world is pumping out climate-changing greenhouse gases even faster than predicted. But while Washington waits, enterprising US states are taking action.
Last week, two groups of states moved forward with plans to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in their regions. The Western Climate Initiative, a group of 11 states and Canadian provinces, said it will cut carbon emissions within its borders to about 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
A group of 10 Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), aims to scale back emissions from 233 power plants within its borders to 10 percent below 2009 levels by 2018.
States are acting because Washington has failed to lead. Though these regional plans are modest when compared with the scope of the problem, they show initiative that's lacking at the national level.
Each regional plan differs in its details, though all look to create a "cap-and-trade" system that would slowly, over many years, force polluters to either reduce their carbon emissions or buy ever-more-scarce allowances to pollute.
For instance, RGGI (pronounced "Reggie") announced it has sold $38 million in pollution allowances at its first auction last week. Member states will invest these proceeds in energy efficiency and renewable energy, as well as other programs that assist consumers of energy.
It remains to be seen if RGGI has set its emission cap too high, meaning it will take a long time before polluters feel a pinch and begin to use the allowances they buy.
Like the RGGI plan, none of the regional efforts directly discourages carbon output by taxing it, which would be the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gases. Europe's cap-and-trade program, now several years old, has had a checkered start. Such programs rely on setting allowances carefully, a tricky business that requires close monitoring for abuses and loopholes.
A simple tax on carbon (oil, gas, coal) is favored by many economists. To get political buy-in from cash-strapped Americans in a weak economy, the proceeds could be returned to citizens by lowering other taxes or targeted to provide help to poorer families.
They also could be invested in developing alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and biofuels.
New calculations show the world emitted 2.9 percent more greenhouse gases in 2007 than 2006. Projections for global warming are now above the highest estimate made by a Nobel Prize-winning international panel of scientists just last year.
If current trends continue, the world could be as much as 11 degrees F. warmer on average by the end of the century. The accompanying sea-level rise and harmful effects on wildlife and agriculture could bring immense challenges and carry huge costs.
The state-led plans may be timid and flawed. But they are a start. They show that states and citizens are ready to take action. The question then becomes: Can Washington follow up?