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On the issue of climate change, significant progress begins at home

Speaking before colleagues on June 9, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl criticized an ambitious bill that would create carbon-emissions limits, an "Efficient Buildings Grant Program" and a cap-and-trade system for polluters. Rather than lauding the measure for its lofty goals, Kyl called it a backdoor tax increase.

"At a time when the Senate should be looking at ways to reduce rising energy prices," he said, "it is considering legislation that would do the exact opposite."

Kyl then spoke in favor of opening more federal lands for oil drilling to "address the rising cost of energy that is straining Americans' budgets."

Then there's Arizona Sen. John McCain, a rare Republican to actually acknowledge global warming—he even introduced his own cap-and-trade bill in January 2007 before largely downplaying the threat during his recent presidential bid.

By April 2009, McCain was even criticizing President Barack Obama's strategy to fight global warming as "beyond irresponsible" in a sluggish economy, and referring to current cap-and-trade proposals as a "giant government slush fund."

Two months after Sen. Kyl's withering speech, and with Sen. McCain's blistering remarks still in the air, the Pima County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution urging Congress to move on global-warming legislation. And on Sept. 22, the Tucson City Council passed a "memorial" requesting Congress to pass legislation aimed at reversing global warming.

According to experts, this ideological chasm clearly reveals why nearly all true progress on climate change begins at home. They also suggest that local efforts are having an impact, regardless of stances staked out by Beltway politicians.

"The way that local governments have been able to influence and drive the dialogue has been in their symbolic and real actions," says Annie Strickler, a spokeswoman for ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability, based in Boston. "Signing the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (Tucson Mayor Bob Wallkup is a signatory), joining ICLEI (and/or) passing these resolutions locally—either in support of particular legislation or actions—are extremely important.

"Part of that is because, for the last 20 years, the federal government has not been moving on any sort of federal climate or energy policy," Strickler says. "In that void, local governments have really stepped up to the plate."

Such efforts are meant to send a message, says Richard Elías, who, as chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, introduced the recent resolution. His goal was "to influence the legislation that's before Congress and continues to be before the Senate," he says.

In April, Southern Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva introduced the Climate Change Safeguards for Natural Resources Conservation Act, meant to provide protections for natural resources and wildlife. In the Senate, meanwhile, there are no fewer than six committees currently fashioning climate-change legislation. Whether anything will move to the Senate floor remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Elías and other local leaders watch the Washington, D.C., snail's race with dismay. "It's somewhat frustrating," he says. "But I think that a lot of great ideas in government come from local jurisdictions. Social Security was a program in a small county in Kansas before the (Franklin D. Roosevelt) administration took it and made it one of the banner programs for the United States of America."

Elías also insists that local climate-change efforts go far beyond mere proclamations. For instance, he cites Pima County's recently passed sustainability initiative, which, among other things, emphasizes green-building practices, equipping the county with fuel-efficient vehicles and reducing water consumption at all county facilities. In turn, signing that August resolution "was meant to back up our own actions," says Elías.

Similar sentiments are found at City Hall, where Ward 2 Councilman Rodney Glassman points to municipal programs encouraging more public transportation, and an extensive rainwater-harvesting program which he hopes will reduce the high-energy pumping of Central Arizona Project water to Tucson. Glassman calls these efforts a win-win.

"It's like chicken soup, in that it can't hurt," he says. "It provides just another demonstration of the commitment by Tucsonans to this issue."

Not coincidentally, Glassman has formed an exploratory committee for a possible U.S. Senate bid—a move he says is largely driven by the inaction of McCain and Kyl on this issue.

Kyl's office didn't return a phone call seeking comment. However, McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan says that, rather than seeking gridlock, McCain is just waiting for legislation he can support, such as a measure that includes nuclear power. "The senator's not going to support something just to get it done. He wants to make sure it's done right."

Still, over in Ward 5, outgoing Councilman Steve Leal concedes that a different dynamic drives debate in D.C., often drowning out local voices. "The fact is," he says, "that money and lobbying interests have more power in Washington than we do."

As that power continues to stifle national discourse, state and local jurisdictions continue picking up the slack, says Patrick Hogan, a regional policy coordinator for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, based in Arlington, Va. "At the end of the day," he says, "all politics are local."

To Hogan, those hometown politics are one of many forces pushing Congress to act. "Other pressure comes from the international community, and the increasing certainty of science surrounding climate change, and threats of drastic action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

Still, he admits that the gap between Capitol Hill and the folks back home can seem vast.

"Sometimes, we're surprised to find that members of Congress aren't really aware of what their own states are doing. I think there is sometimes a disconnect going both ways, in which the desire for action at home doesn't real translate through to action in Congress."

That leaves state and local governments in a crucial position, says Strickler of ICLEI. "Local governments have proven that when Washington fails to act, they can act. They can prove the benefits; they can find the solution; they can really make things work in their community and in communities across the country."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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