Solutions in Steps, Not Leaps: The Year in Review and a Look Ahead

By Eileen Claussen
December 20, 2010

2010 was a year of highs and lows.

On the high side were global temperatures; 2010 will mark the hottest year in recorded history. At the start of the year, there was also the short-lived high of thinking we might be on the precipice of meaningful action in the U.S. Congress to protect the climate. Finally, at year’s end the climate talks in Cancún delivered (surprise!) tangible results in the form of agreement on key elements of a global climate framework.

But alas, the lows won out for most of 2010 as a trumped-up email controversy, continuing economic unease, and growing anti-government sentiment in the United States undermined the effort to forge lasting climate solutions at all levels. 

Congress. Until quite recently, the Pew Center and many others were actively supporting cap and trade as the number-one climate policy solution. After the House passed a fairly comprehensive energy and climate bill in June 2009 that had a cap-and-trade system at its core, we actually thought that it might become the law of the land.

Before long, however, it became eminently clear that the Senate would not be able to pass a similar bill. The 2010 U.S. elections, which brought more doubters of climate change into the halls of Congress, only made it clearer that comprehensive climate action is off the table for now.

EPA. With Congress unable to pass comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, attention turned to what EPA might be able to do under existing authorities. And it turns out that EPA can do quite a lot by taking reasonable steps that have garnered critical support from the business and environmental communities. In late October, for example, the agency announced a sensible proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel efficiency for medium and heavy-duty vehicles. This was followed by a November announcement that will go a long way to making sure that new industrial facilities use state-of-the-art technologies to boost efficiency and reduce emissions.

Of course, opponents of these and other EPA regulations will surely raise a ruckus, and there will be loud cries in Congress to delay the regulations and even cut funding for the EPA. But the possibility remains that the agency could conceivably begin to chip away at U.S. emissions in the months and years ahead.

State Actions. Looking beyond Washington, state capitals were the focus of creative thinking and leadership on the issue of clean energy in 2010. Massachusetts, for example, set a statewide energy efficiency standard in 2010 supported by $1.6 billion in incentives. Meanwhile, California voters upheld the state’s greenhouse gas reduction law by defeating Proposition 23. This marked the first direct vote on addressing climate change in the United States, and it won in an overwhelming fashion.

But the overall story regarding climate action in the states was more mixed. While several regional climate initiatives continued to push forward, the November elections brought to the nation’s statehouses a group of new leaders who adopted strong stands against climate action in their campaigns. We will stay tuned to see how their campaign rhetoric translates into governing.

International. The agreement reached by international negotiators in Cancún in December closed out 2010 on a positive note. The Cancún Agreements import the essential elements of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord into the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, including a stronger system of support for developing countries and a stronger transparency regime to better assess whether countries are keeping their promises. The Cancún Agreements also mark the first time that all of the world’s major economies have made explicit mitigation pledges under the Convention.

Of course, the ultimate goal of the continuing international talks should be a legally-binding climate treaty, but in Cancún we saw countries agreeing on incremental steps that will deliver stronger action in the near term and lay the foundation for binding commitments down the road.

Looking Ahead. Looking ahead, I believe 2011 holds promise only if those of us who support climate action can learn from what happened in 2010. In recent years, domestic and international efforts largely centered on a “big bang” theory of trying to achieve everything at once. Instead, it’s instructive now to take a cue from Cancún and accept that a step-by-step approach to building support for climate solutions offers our best shot at progress. 

Calling on the new Congress to pass cap and trade or similarly comprehensive solutions will be a nonstarter, for example.  But there may be an opportunity on Capitol Hill for less sweeping steps to reduce U.S. emissions.  

Supporters would do well to spend the next several months laying the groundwork for incremental solutions by strengthening communications with the public. We need to do a better job of helping people understand both the risks and the opportunities presented by climate change. In the same way we buy fire insurance to protect against an event that has a statistically small chance of happening but would result in severe damage, acting now to cut emissions reduces our vulnerability to severe events that are likely to become more common in a warming world. And the success of the “No on Prop 23” campaign in California suggests that there remains a healthy appetite among the general public and in the business community (which provided substantial support for the effort) to back well-framed climate solutions. 

After a year of highs and lows, we still must aim high in our efforts to address one of the greatest challenges of our time. But we should also heed the lessons of the past year and work for more modest victories now that can keep us on the path to longer-term solutions.