Monday, May 21, 2007

States' Rights

Today's Washington Post included a remarkable op-ed on climate change policy. The Republican governors of two states in which I resided for about 80% of my life are asking the federal government to lead on climate change or get out of their way. In their first sentence they use the word "malfeasance" in their assessment of inaction. This is strong stuff, indeed, particularly coming from members of President's own party. However, the ironies involved here are dwarfed by the prospect of fragmenting our response to this serious global problem into 50 little pieces, or even a few regional blocs or "coalitions of the willing." Climate policy is a poor application of the principle of states' rights.

The strongest arguments in the governors' op-ed rely on the facts and statistics of greenhouse gases, rather than the precedent of previous waivers for state action under the Clean Air Act. And those facts make it abundantly clear that we are dealing with a problem of global emissions, not local pollution. While I can appreciate their frustration with the time required for a federal response to emerge--and the emissions that are accumulating in the meantime--I don't believe we can create a cohesive approach to climate change one state-house at a time. Worse, this could lead to a truncated national response, in which federal leaders defer to the states, but the states never reach unanimity in their actions.

That doesn't mean the states are wrong about the urgency of action. We must have a comprehensive federal policy on climate change, at least, and preferably on energy and climate change, since the two are so connected. But the time when it was useful for states to experiment with local measures, the results of which could be weighed for inclusion in federal policy, is passing. We don't need regional cap-and-trade mechanisms to know that this is a leading option for the country as a whole to reduce its emissions. Nor do we need 10-state tailpipe rules to tell us that any federal response to climate change that ignores the contribution of personal transportation will fall short.

As I described last week, the Administration has served up an ambitious renewable-and-alternative fuel standard and a cabinet-agency planning process. The former is a solution to something--though not necessarily climate change--while the latter is being interpreted as foot dragging. The focus now shifts to the Congress, where legislation on climate change is making its way through committee. Although Governor Rell's and Governor Schwarzenegger's op-ed was addressed to the Executive Branch, it now falls to the Senate and House to address their concerns, while acting to prevent the balkanization of US climate change policy

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