The Best Way to Celebrate Earth Day

It’s that time of year again. Earth Day.

The 2010 edition marks the 40th anniversary. If Congress wants to score some environmental and economic “green” for the planet, it should declare its intention to let the states address climate change.

More than half the states have climate action plans to reduce carbon that would put them on a par with nations that are implementing the Kyoto protocol. While Congress dithers over whether to create a cap-and-trade system, cap-and-dividend, or carbon tax, ten northeastern states already participate in a cap-and-trade system that covers power plants, while twenty more are working to design an economy-wide market to do likewise.

And when the feds empower states to be living policy laboratories, good things happen for the planet and the pocketbook. The Clean Air Act, passed the same year as the first Earth Day, recognized that California was already regulating pollution and allowed states to copy those policies when they exceeded federal programs. Fifty times since then, California got ahead of the feds with things like catalytic converters on cars and measures that made industry cleaner and more efficient - - reducing pollution, but in 100% of the cases, also saving money for business and consumers in the process. And in each case, a growing number of states followed until the rules were “federalized”, the latest example being California’s carbon emissions limits on cars, which will save motorists money on fuel while meeting environmental goals simultaneously.

Around Earth Day 2010, Senators Graham, Kerry, and Lieberman will introduce legislation that nominally deals with carbon pollution and the inefficiency in our economy that it represents. Unfortunately, these Senators are planning to stall state efforts, regardless of how successful or cost-effective they have been already. This is not only wasteful and yet another example of pandering to a few fossil-fueled special interests, it is out of step with the direction the public is headed.

Two states recently passed laws taking control of some firearms that are otherwise regulated by the feds. At least six states are considering laws to exert their police powers - - including authority over National Guard troop deployment - - above those of the federal government. Several states are putting measures in front of voters to opt out of the new federal health care system, while others are considering laws to take control of federal lands using eminent domain. The Tea Party movement is fueled in part by the desire for more local control and the frustration that the feds often just get it wrong.

The Graham-Kerry-Lieberman proposal itself makes the best case for relying on the states. It would allow them to move ahead with energy efficiency programs and requirements for renewable energy deployment, for example, tacit recognition of the successful programs already underway in more than thirty states. These state programs are generating billions in savings and creating new sustainable jobs in a weak economy - - something Congress has largely failed to do on its own. 

While a federal program that coordinates state efforts is obviously necessary, including synchronizing regional carbon markets that will be underway years before any federal program can be launched, the proven success of state initiatives should be supported and strengthened, not stifled and stalled. Building on proven models - - and listening to the growing chorus of voters - - will result in a federal climate bill that even Mother Earth will endorse.