by State Representative Denise Provost for Science First
First of all, what is climate change – does it even exist? Often linked with – or hidden behind – the expression “global warming,” “climate change” refers to a set of measurable, related phenomena which greatly increase the likelihood of unusual and even violent weather. The main driver appears to be increasing amounts of certain gases, particularly carbon dioxide, in the earth’s atmosphere.
The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in earth’s atmosphere has risen from 290 parts per million (ppm) around the time of the American Revolution, to ppm in the early years of the Industrial Revolution (circa 1850), to 394 ppm in 2012 – a 41% increase. These increasing amounts of CO2, methane, and certain other gases trap increasing amounts of the sun’s heat in our atmosphere, with the expected overall effect.
Here’s what the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) says about the effects of these increasing levels of “greenhouse gases” in earth’s atmosphere:
“The global average temperature increased by more than 1.4°F over the last century. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the decade from 2000 to 2010 was the warmest on record, and 2010 was tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record.  Rising global temperatures have also been accompanied by other changes in weather and climate. Many places have experienced changes in rainfall resulting in more intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet's oceans and glaciers have also experienced changes: oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising.  All of these changes are evidence that our world is getting warmer.”
There’s widespread consensus on the science, based on world wide data, from multiple sources. If you’re interested in the consensus science, there are many sources of information. Right now, though, I’m taking the consensus science as a given – as do most of the governments in the world – and returning to my original question: who cares?
Caring about Climate Change, and Combating Climate Change
Most governments in the world both understand the science of climate change, and are experiencing, to some extent, its real-world effects. For one poignant example, look at the 2009 report of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, and think about its implications in light of the subsequent damage inflicted there by Hurricane Sandy. Generally, however, governments have been slow and cautious in their legislative reaction to climate change, and there has been little progress in the realm of international agreement.
There are exceptions, however, to the slow rate of government response. Massachusetts, for instance, enacted two historic pieces of climate change legislation in 2010: the Global Warming Solutions Act, and the Green Communities Act. Both pieces of legislation passed with overwhelming and bi-partisan support.
The Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions bill, however, was modeled on the groundbreaking Climate Change Act adopted by Great Britain in 2008. This first-in-the-world, national-level legislation set caps on emissions of greenhouse gases, and required that growing percentages of the nation’s energy supply be supplied from renewable sources. Although the bill was filed by a Member of Parliament from the Conservative Party, it was adopted with wide support, across political party lines.
Why Does Great Britain Care about Climate Change?
Great Britain’s 65 million people live in four countries, on two large islands in the North Atlantic. There are smaller islands in the South Pacific which are simply disappearing as sea levels rise. While Britain is being buffeted by changing weather patterns, it at least has the expertise, economic, and political resources to do something about its predicament.
What is that predicament? In early January, 2014, most of Great Britain was either under flood warning or flood alert – and significant parts of it were flooded. In some places, people were being evacuated by boat; in others; supplies were being brought in by boat to villages which had become islands. Exceptionally violent winter gales washed away parts of the coast of Wales, and of the southern coast of southwestern England. The Thames barrier had to closed for eleven successive tides (as of January 8, 2014) to keep London from flooding.
Faced with destructive changes in its weather patterns, and aware of the underlying science, Britain has gone beyond enacting its own legislation, to help drive climate change and energy policy for the European Union, an entity composed of [41?] countries with a combined population of . It has participated in the ongoing meetings aimed at negotiating international climate change agreement. And in January, 2014, Britain for the first time, and at the expense of its taxpayers, invited state legislators from the USA to talk about climate change.
The Global, the National, and the Local
In January, 2014, I joined legislators from Maine, Michigan, Washington, and Oregon for a week’s worth of meetings and briefings, mostly in London. We met with officials from Britain’s cabinet-level Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), to learn about Britain’s programs and policies, as well as with officials from the Climate Change and Energy Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We met with officials from the cabinet-level department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), and executives from businesses both global and local, and from business organizations, including Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the nation’s largest such organization.
Both the national government and the private business sector in Britain see the transition to a low-carbon economy as an engine of tremendous economic growth, as well as a change essential to maintaining the nation’s security and quality of life. This message was repeated time and again. Nor is it merely the top-down policy of the national government; it is being embraced by local government on its own initiative.
Our US delegation traveled by train to the Bristol, a port city with a population about the size of that of Boston, Massachusetts. (As it turned out, our journey took us through shockingly flooded parts of the county of Somerset; while the flooding had not yet taken place when the trip was planned, it provided us with some indelible visuals.) Bristol was our destination because it had recently voted by the EU to be its next European Green Capitol, and it showcased the many ways that local government can save money and become more attractive to its residents and to business through a variety of “green” initiatives.
It’s worth noting that Britain’s climate change laws are more than well-intentioned aspirations. It has an aggressive energy efficiency program which is both creating savings on energy bills and is projected, by 2020, to have saved enough energy to equal the output of 22 power stations. It has the world’s sixth largest offshore wind energy production sector, which has created 32,000 jobs in 150 supply chain manufacturing companies.
Britain has managed to cut its own carbon emissions by more than 25% over 1990 levels, and generates about one third of its electricity from low-carbon sources.
Legislative Responsibility: A Call to Action
Returning to London, the US delegation met with representatives from another sector of government – fellow legislators. Parliamentarians from both houses and across parties generously spent hours speaking with us about their efforts, domestically and internationally, to combat climate change. This group of parliamentarians included founders and members of an organization called Global Legislators Organization for a Balanced Environment - GLOBE International.
One of GLOBE’s initiatives is to make an annual world-wide inventory of national and state level climate change legislation. Even as international negotiations have stalled, this arena is one where real progress is taking place. It may not be making the news in the US, but governments all over the world are taking legislation action in the face of climate change.
Mexico has just enacted comprehensive climate change legislation; Columbia is very interested (Why? The cool areas conducive to coffee production are moving further up their mountains; farmers who can no longer grow coffee will plant coca.) South Korea, among other Asian nations, is concerned about climate change (Why? For every degree of increase in average temperature, rice yield drops by 5%). Although the national government of China has remained non-committal about international climate change agreements, some of its provinces are taking action.
Where do State Legislators Fit In?
It’s well known abroad that some US states – Massachusetts notable among them – have much more advanced climate change laws than the US as a nation. Nations concerned about climate change view this kind of state-level leadership as a global asset. Positive action by enough states in a nation can go far to counteract inaction or vacillation at the national level.
“After all, some US states have larger populations and gross domestic products than many of the nations of the EU, “ remarked the Right Honorable John Gummer, the Conservative peer who is President of GLOBE International. “It makes sense,” he said, to engage legislators from the US states in international efforts to combat climate change. “After all, we represent the will of the people,” he concluded, speaking generally of all legislators elected by constituencies everywhere.
My own constituents, like most folks in Massachusetts, are interested in having a healthy economy – and the innovations required to adapt to climate change offer great economic benefits, especially for early adopters. My constituents would like to have their part of the world continue to be habitable; not underwater, or rendered intolerable through extremes of temperature or storms. To do justice to my constituents, I’m going to continue taking action against climate change – locally, at the state level, and internationally.