"This obsession with a legally binding treaty [to tackle climate change] is an obstacle for countries achieving targets they have committed to," declared Paul Bledsoe, a climate change advisor to President Clinton. "What we need is national will to reach stated goals."
Given that the only international agreement so far, the Kyoto Protocol, expires in 2012, and that greenhouse gases have been rising instead of falling, we clearly need a new obsession - - or a way to pay for the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
In a world facing economic meltdown, the question for many is not "how?" but "why?" Even with carbon caps and emissions trading systems limited to Europe, parts of the US, and a voluntary market, the value of carbon trades in 2011 will top $140 billion. That's already a big tax imposed on the economy, even if offset by benefits that are less obvious. So, could we stimulate economic growth (which would certainly answer the "why?") with policies and technologies that emerge from something other than those being considered around the United Nations' table in Durban this week (thus answering the "how?").
"The answer is yes!" For example, according to a report from Environment America, California's "Million Solar Roofs" initiative helped homes and businesses install one gigawatt of rooftop solar in just five years. This cost-effective program has put thousands of people to work all around the state, stimulating the economy in one of the few bright spots of the construction sector these days. Twenty-nine other US states have followed suit, establishing targets for all types of renewable energy for themselves, which collectively will create new local businesses and jobs, contribute sales tax to state treasuries, and cut carbon emissions dramatically.
Even more impressive - and a more immediate boost to the economy - are energy efficiency measures begun by states, then transferred globally. California once held the crown of "most energy efficient state in the nation" at 40% more efficient than the national average. Recent figures show that Connecticut and New Jersey have adopted many of the same efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, propelling them into the lead in this competition to see who can get the most out of the least. Using similar measures, along with tough new limits on inefficient smelters and industrial facilities, China reports an improvement in energy efficiency of almost 20% in the past five years, helping it usher in a period of unprecedented economic growth.
Of course, carbon emissions also come from transportation fuel, but again it is the regional governments that are making a difference. California set carbon pollution standards for new vehicles, which were adopted by thirteen other states and finally by the Obama administration as federal rules. The result? Automakers are already delivering less-polluting, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks of all sizes to showrooms, which save money for owners, improve air quality, and help to solve the climate crisis simultaneously.
Some quick calculations show that if the world followed these examples and became a third more energy efficient, switched at least a third of its energy supplies to renewables, and improved vehicle emissions by the same standards set in the US today, we would achieve half of the long-term carbon-cutting goals set by many experts to avoid the most costly impacts of climate change. And all of these measures would be paid for with savings and sustainable economic growth.
Realizing that this is their time, regional governments are helping each other to do just that - - in new organizations like former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's R20 Regions of Climate Action - - with policy, technology, and finance to build a low carbon economy and harvest these benefits. More can be done over time as technologies improve even further and as a rebounding economy recognizes that it can afford a global cap-and-trade system or carbon tax to deal with the remaining carbon cuts that are needed.
There's nothing wrong with an obsession, as long as it's focused on clear goals with proven methods of accomplishing them. By looking to regional governments instead of obsessing over new treaties, the goals pursued in Durban are well within reach.
 America on the Move: State Leadership in the Fight Against Global Warming, and What it Means for the World, Environment America, December 2009