Talk is cheap

Certain prominent politicians have been touting their commitment to the environment (and thus to environmentally minded voters) by signing their governments up for carbon-cutting promises.

Of course, the instant those targets come due, the politicians have moved on to the next promise without any substantive action — because signing ceremonies are easy, but actually cutting carbon, the lifeblood of industrial economies, is not. Last summer, the Economist noted that California is nowhere near track to meet its self-imposed, easier-than-Kyoto targets, even though it does have a fairly thoughtful plan to achieve emissions reductions on several fronts:

Despite making some optimistic assumptions about future contracts, the public utilities commission has concluded that the state will miss its target for renewables. And the aim of cutting emissions from electricity production to 1990 levels by the end of the next decade may be just as unrealistic… It is a bad sign that California’s electricity suppliers are struggling, because electricity is something over which the state wields considerable control. It has less power over carmakers, who are fighting to prevent California imposing emissions standards on them. If they succeed, even temporarily, California’s goals will become unreachable… The state has even less power to slow the growth of its population, or to dictate where people live. It hopes “smart growth” policies (which encourage people to live closer together, and to take public transport) can get it a whopping 15% of the way towards its overall 2020 goal. But the news from that front is discouraging.

Even more off the mark, of course, is Chicago; the Tribune revealed city government’s energy use to be spiraling almost inexplicably, even as the mayor eagerly accepts awards touting his “pro-active steps to address climate change“:

Records show that officials fell well short of targets for curbing electricity usage by city buildings despite the construction of energy-efficient buildings and the installation of green roofs across the city.

Most recently hurricane-, drought-, and heatwave-stricken Florida has signed on to carbon reductions. We wish them the best of luck, but fully expect future journalists to expose the false promises therein.

Perhaps local action on climate change, while admirable, ultimately has to be ineffective; after all, the promises signed aren’t binding targets with penalties, and most state and local governments work in isolation, without control over broader issues like the electric grid or auto emissions standards. As Felicity Barringer in the Times points out, most localities don’t have the authority or resources to effect big changes requiring, yes, social engineering:

Constraints on budgets, legal restrictions by states, and people’s unwillingness to change sometimes put brakes on ambitious plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions… “It’s really hard,” Ms. Hancock said. “It’s like the dark night of the soul.” All the big items in the inventory of emissions — from tailpipes, from the energy needed to supply drinking water and treat waste water, from heating and cooling buildings — are the product of residents’ and businesses’ individual decisions about how and where to live and drive and shop.