The Power of Small Steps

The U.S. could still make it to Kyoto—we're already partway there.

Editor's note: In the face of the monstrous challenge of global warming, a futility narrative has taken root: “For decades we’ve done nothing to address this problem, and there’s no way to stop it now.” We’ve gathered three sage strategists to convince you that both parts of that statement are dead wrong.

Read Jigar Shah's take here. Read Thomas C. Heller's take here.

During the Kyoto climate negotiations in 1997, I stood in a corridor in the U.N. negotiation complex with our congressional delegation as Stu Eizenstat, our lead negotiator, announced the President’s proposed U.S. emissions-reduction commitments for what would become the Kyoto Protocol. In what is now recognized as a worldwide standard—if still largely an aspirational one—President Clinton proposed cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a reduction so dramatic that at the time it seemed all but inconceivable.

Members of the delegation that received the news were dumbfounded. After a pause, two questions were universally raised: Where would all the carbon reductions come from? And what would the folks back home have to do to get there? I was working at the White House Climate Change Task Force on translating these sorts of international commitments into domestic policy. I think it’s fair to say that our response to those two questions was limited and lacking in specificity: The market would sort it out, we hoped; the profit-driven private sector would find the necessary efficiencies. Plus, clean energy technologies would inevitably emerge and expand.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality would later release figures saying that compliance with the Kyoto treaty would cost the U.S. $400 billion and lead to the loss of nearly 5 million jobs. Needless to say, a series of congresses and presidents struggled with how to process that sort of information—and where to go from there. A deep sense of futility permeated the media and public opinion for years, along with a feeling that the United States had done little to close its climate gaps and was unlikely to do much in the future. We still suffer from this legacy of doubt.

But is that the whole story? The evidence says no. The truth is that the United States has moved mountains on climate change. If we fast-forward from 1997 to 2012 (the most recent year for which figures are available), we now know that projected emissions trajectories have dropped steadily since 2005; in total, the gap between the 2020 emissions projected that year and the Kyoto target has narrowed by 75 percent. Those 1990 emissions levels are now within striking distance. We also know that this progress did not come about by some sort of happy accident. People tend to explain our declining national GHG emissions as a function of downward shifts in the economy and upward shifts in natural gas supplies. But an analysis of changes in our national carbon use conducted by my organization, the Center for Climate Strategies, shows the reduction was driven less by economic malaise than by policies implemented in our energy and transportation sectors. Our states and stakeholders, it turns out, did more than we expected.

And there are other opportunities ahead. More than half of U.S. states have developed comprehensive climate action plans since 2000 that were designed to meet or exceed national goals. At CCS, we helped develop more than 20 state climate action plans, and many of the proposals flowing from those plans have been successfully implemented. A 2012 review by CCS shows that it would take a small but critical set of new and expanded actions in each sector to close the 2020 Kyoto gap almost completely. 

We have a long way to go to solve our carbon problem. We need leadership from above and below. But it’s important to understand that while this diverse and evolutionary march of progress may have been lost on the American people, the international community did notice. The same collaborative, multi-objective formula that has achieved so much success in the United States at the subnational level is driving worldwide shifts toward secure and sustainable energy markets.

Tom Peterson is the President and CEO at the Center for Climate Strategies, which he founded in 2004 to assist governments and stakeholders with comprehensive climate-change and green-growth strategy development and implementation. He has been involved in the design and direction of 24 U.S. state climate action plans, and the leadership of many national and international climate initiatives and assessments.

Read Jigar Shah's take here. Read Thomas C. Heller's take here.