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Green America

Latest update : 2008-01-11

The U.S. government angered environmentalists by refusing to ratify the Kyoto protocol. But some American states, politicians, and firms are keener to fly the green flag.


Five minutes. That’s how long George W. Bush and John Kerry spent discussing the environment during the three televised debates of the 2004 presidential campaign. It doesn’t seem to be an issue that keeps American politicians awake at night.


Indeed in March 2001, only a few weeks after he became president, Bush announced that the United States would not ratify the Kyoto protocol, signed by his predecessor, Bill Clinton. The United States is the world’s greatest polluter and releases, according to estimates, between 21 and 25% of total emissions of carbon dioxide. 


But things have changed today. Protection of the environment has climbed up the political agenda and regularly hits the headlines of U.S. newspapers. The devastation left by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has certainly raised awareness among voters. Despite federal opposition to plans to reduce gas emissions, local and state initiatives are popping up across the U.S. And California and states in the Northeast are pioneering a new approach to the environment.


California Ahead of the Curve


In less than a month this autumn, California took two ground-breaking measures which could have an impact on national politics.


On Sept. 20, 2006, the Californian justice minister announced that he was taking six Japanese and American car manufacturers to court. He accused the companies of being a public nuisance and of manufacturing “cars which release massive quantities of carbon dioxide.” The importance of this decision cannot be underestimated: in California there are 32 million cars, for a population of 35 million. Los Angeles often leads the list of America’s most polluted cities. The emissions released by cars represent 30% of the state’s total pollution, 10% more than the national average.


And on Sept. 29, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Global Warming Solutions Act which legally binds California to cut its gas emissions by 25% before 2020, and to comply with the Kyoto protocol.


It is far from surprising that California should be the first to adopt such measures. The most populated state of the U.S.A. has always led the way on environmental issues. The federal Clean Air Act of 1963 –

a landmark measure aimed at improving air quality nationwide – was the fruit of campaigns fought over pollution in California.


Other States Coming Around


But California is not alone. Other states are also pushing green policies on the agenda. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont have formed a venture called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The participating states agree to limit the gas emissions of their electric power stations. Inspired by the Kyoto protocol, they have made the right to emit greenhouse gases a tradeable commodity. The agreement is expected to be extended to other polluters and types of gas.


State governments are not the only forces in American society to take action on the environmental front. The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) illustrates a growing trend among private companies. Its members include Rolls-Royce, Motorola, IBM, the local governments of major cities such as Chicago and Oakland, and large universities. The members have voluntarily and legally bound themselves to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and follow a strict calendar of targets. The first threshold of cuts must be reached by December 2006.


Companies usually oppose restrictions on emissions, saying they could make them less competitive. But participants in the CCX say their reduced emissions actually made them more competitive, because they were able to reduce their energy consumption and improve productivity. 


The Bush administration has argued that ratifying the Kyoto protocol could cost 5 million American jobs. Environmental activists question such estimates and content that laws like the one passed in California should stimulate the economy. A recent study from Berkeley University projected that reducing California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels would generate 74 million dollars and create 89,000 jobs. Some company owners believe that the new legislation will lead to a boom of the alternative energy sector.



Some politicians have also taken up the cause. Bush’s entrenched stance on Kyoto has encouraged leading senators of both parties to suggest solutions. One man in particular champions the issue of global warming: Al Gore, former vice-president and Bush’s rival in the 2000 presidential race. 


Gore’s film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, was widely seen and became the third-top-grossing documentary in American history (after Fahrenheit 9/11 and the March of the Emperor.) Gore’s re-emergence in the public eye has given rise to speculation that he might run for the presidency in 2008. It’s unlikely he would be able to convince the Democratic Party to nominate him instead of Hillary Clinton. But if he did become the Democratic candidate, you can bet he’d spend more than five minutes on environmental issues during the debates.


Date created : 2008-01-11