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Michigan is failing to control emissions

By Marjorie Kauth-Karjala
Ann Arbor News
04/12/04

Barry Rabe recently wrote "Statehouse and Greenhouse: The Emerging Politics of American Climate Change Policy." The book, published by the Brookings Institution Press, details the efforts of several states to reduce greenhouse gases, thought to cause global warming, despite the lack of federal or international efforts in this area.


Q. Can you briefly explain global warming and its effects?

A. In essence, it's the possibility of significant climate change stemming from the gradual accumulation of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide and methane. Rises in temperature is one aspect of those changes but other changes involve sea level, habitat, disease transmission and agriculture.

Q. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was intended to combat the problem. What is the international agreement and how effective has it been?

A. It really is not in operation yet. The agreement is an effort to bring together most of the developed nations of the world to begin to set different reduction goals (for greenhouse gases) for different countries. As less-developed countries, China and India are not a part of it.

In 2001, President George Bush withdrew the U.S. from it. A substantial number of the remaining participants would have to ratify the international treaty for it to go into effect. That has not happened. It can't be evaluated or assessed because it doesn't exist.

Q. What about the federal government's approach to the issue?

A. The U.S. federal government has really taken few significant steps to try to reduce greenhouse gases. Most of the efforts went into Kyoto - which isn't in effect. In Kyoto, the U.S. goal was to reduce 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent by 2012. The U.S. emissions have increased by 15 percent.

Q. Your book cites the success of several states in finding ways to reduce greenhouse gases. What states have been most successful and what techniques have they used?

A. Fifteen of the states, representing one-third of the population, have taken some fairly substantial steps to reduce greenhouse gases. About 25 states have some preliminary programs. A small subset of the remaining states, like Michigan, has done little or nothing. Notable states include the six New England states who are working together, (and) New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California and Oregon.

New Jersey is a strong example of state action. 1n 1998, former Republican Gov. Christine Whitman, (until recently Bush's) director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, issued an executive order setting a goal of reducing the state's greenhouse gases by 3.5 percent by 2005. New Jersey is on its own trying to implement the Kyoto protocol. Numerous methods include reducing emission of methane gas by capping landfills, industrial and utility regulations and requiring all schools and churches in the state to look internally at how to reduce the emissions.

Texas has not made a coordinated effort to reduce greenhouse gases, but reduction has come as a side benefit of another regulation - an effort to increase production of electricity from renewable energy sources. The 1999 law was passed by a Democratic legislature and signed by a Republican governor, Gov. George Bush, now President Bush.

Q. How does Michigan rank in controlling the emissions?

A. There is almost complete disengagement on this issue. At one time, there was a legislative bill that failed that would have prevented any state official from spending any amount of time or effort on reduction of greenhouse gases. Michigan is one of a small number of states who refused to take federal money to study the greenhouse gases in the state.

Clearly, in the Engler administration there was tremendous skepticism towards this issue. Also, the states that have not taken action tend to have very large industries that contribute to greenhouse gases. Michigan has the automotive industry. Ohio burns coal. West Virginia mines coal.

Q. What is driving the push to reduce emissions in certain states?

A. The impetus for reducing greenhouse gases in many of these states has come from unusual and bipartisan coalitions. In the Great Lakes, shippers are concerned about lower lake levels. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, the ski industry is concerned. If you run a ski equipment shop and your ski season is cut in half, that's a problem. New Jersey has a tremendous amount of development along its coastline, which is being hurt by increases in sea level. It also has many small islands, which in effect are disappearing as sea level rises.

Also, many of the policy innovations are coming from within state agencies. Proponents within the agencies quietly build a bipartisan coalition for the specific regulation or technique.

Q. One technique cited in your research is to allow companies to trade credits so that one company can obtain the right to emit carbon dioxide from another company. Does this really reduce emissions, since the company providing the credits may not have been going to emit the gases anyway? Also, in New Jersey companies are allowed to trade with the Netherlands. How does this help air quality in New Jersey?

A. Trading or buying emission credits can work to reduce emissions but it's crucial to really understand the source of greenhouse gases and establish measurement techniques before a trading policy is put in place.

The trade with the Netherlands is valid because the effect of greenhouse gases is cumulative and global. It's different than other forms of pollution that have a direct effect on a specific area.

Q. How can the success in some states be emulated by the federal government?

A. There is a long-standing tradition that federal environmental policy is based on what has been tried in the states, so the federal government can monitor what the states are doing. Many of the programs are relatively new. Some may work and some may not. One advantage of using the state programs as models is they are more concrete. It's so hard to get your hands on conceptual goals without specifics.

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