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National Success in Addressing Climate Change

March 26, 2014 By Nicole Simms, Fellow

The notion that the U.S. has an obligation to address climate change is implicit in the newly released “Moving America Forward,” an Environment America Research & Policy Center report that assesses clean energy and energy efficiency policies across the country.

“American leadership in the fight against global warming is crucial," the report's lead asserts. "America is the world’s largest economy, the second-largest emitter of global warming pollution, and the nation responsible for more of the human-caused carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere than any other.”

In evaluating the impacts of policy decisions and clean energy programs on carbon emissions, the report’s authors are cautiously optimistic. They note that such emissions are currently at their lowest level in 20 years – a “change in America’s trajectory of global warming pollution [that] has come not a moment too soon.” This change has been accomplished through initiatives at the state and federal level, including energy efficiency programs, policies that contribute to reductions in fossil fuel consumption, and the increased use of renewable energy sources.

Minnesota fares particularly well in this assessment. The state is lauded as “one of the Midwest’s clean energy leaders” by virtue of the efficacy of its clean energy, energy efficiency, climate, and clean car policies, which have resulted in notable reductions in carbon emissions (over 7.2 million metric tons in 2012 – the equivalent of the carbon pollution produced by 1.5 million cars over one year). The state’s renewable energy standard (which requires that 25% of Xcel Energy’s power be derived from wind and solar by 2020) and energy efficiency rebates exemplify the kind of initiatives that are reducing carbon pollution in the U.S.

For the report’s authors, the success of these initiatives indicates that the country “has all of the tools necessary to do its part to provide a stable and healthy climate for future generations, and prevent the worst impacts of global warming.” They outline a variety of important ways in which state and federal leaders can build on existing momentum to “bring those solutions to a much grander scale,” including cutting carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, expanding renewable energy standards (in part through federal tax credits and solar energy policies), creating net zero-energy standards for new build houses, and investing in expanded public transportation options.

Finally, the authors emphasize the importance of international action on a significant scale in order to “fully avert the catastrophic effects of global warming in the long term.” In the United States, they conclude, we “have begun to reduce our own emissions, we know what additional steps will yield future emission reductions, and we can encourage the world’s nations to join us in making a strong commitment to cutting climate pollution.”

This insistence that the U.S. has a responsibility to serve as an example to other nations by curbing its own carbon emissions is important, but it fails to acknowledge the interconnected nature of the global carbon economy. When the distinction between the producers and consumers of carbon emissions is taken into account, a far more complex picture of culpability emerges – one that demands more from the U.S. than simply acting to address climate change within its own borders.

China is the largest producer of carbon emissions, followed by the U.S. But when historical and per capita carbon emissions are considered, China lags far behind. Moreover, a significant portion of the carbon emissions attributed to China and other growing economies is associated with the production of goods for U.S. and European consumers. Global CO2 emissions from the production of exported products are now similar in magnitude to emissions related to land-use change. Considering carbon emissions solely on a national level fails to account for this “outsourcing” of emissions.

Devising effective and fair solutions to climate change that extend beyond national boundaries is complicated. Some argue it is crucial that developing countries adopt higher emission standards, but this is a controversial argument given the many years developed nations were able to grow their industries and economies unencumbered by environmental regulations. Others make the case for adding a carbon tax to imports or exports, creating a global carbon tax, developing carbon labels for products, assigning individual carbon budgets, or requiring or encouraging people to purchase carbon offsets. On an individual level, some emphasize the importance of buying local, and/or buying less. In a global economy, it is clear that taking responsibility for climate change is not as cut and dry as the “Moving Forward” report suggests.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that the report is without merit. Addressing carbon emissions within the U.S. is hugely important, and the report offers compelling evidence that efforts to this effect are proving successful. Injecting this kind of positive feedback into a conversation that often seems hopeless can motivate lawmakers and citizens to continue to support such efforts, and the numbers on offer may persuade those who have been reluctant to do so to change their minds.

But very few of the initiatives outlined in the report actually require us to consider how our daily consumption habits contribute to climate change. Some would argue their success is rooted in this very fact – if we can continue to live our lives as we always have, and possibly even save money while doing so, why wouldn’t we want to implement energy efficiency measures? While these measures are certainly an important part of mitigating climate change, the reality is that until they can be implemented in all parts of the world, our participation in the global economy means we will continue to contribute to the production of carbon emissions – they’re just being produced “somewhere else.”

Our current efforts may help insulate us from the worst effects of carbon emissions for now, but the world shares one atmosphere, and we can only outsource our emissions for so long before climate change catches up with all of us in one way or another.

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  • Anne Morgan says:

    March 31, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Before we get too self-congratulatory, we should take a hard look at what is happening to the oil pipeline energy corridors in northern Minnesota. And at the groundwater contamination from nearly unrestricted use of agricultural chemicals. What happens on and below ground is just as important environmentally as the abuse of our atmosphere.