BOULDER, Colo. Here's what this affluent Rocky Mountain city of 100,000 does about a revenue shortfall in the darkest economic hour since the Great Depression:
It raises its carbon tax.
The city just west of Denver was the first in the nation to slap a levy on carbon emissions so it could meet Kyoto Protocol obligations. As it became apparent this summer the city was slipping and needed more cash to revitalize emissions-cutting programs, town leaders raised the modest tax - tacked to city utility bills - to its maximum.
With diplomatic efforts to seal a post-Kyoto accord approaching a decidedly uncertain fate this December in Copenhagen, state and local leaders pushing their own emissions reductions efforts see only one choice: Proceed.
The number of cities and regional governments undertaking this transition to a low-carbon economy is growing. These efforts, leaders vow, will continue whatever the outcome of political debates in Copenhagen, Brussels or Washington, D.C.
There are, in other words, two trains heading out of the station: Those driving local change are confident their programs will continue to accelerate even if global discussions get waylaid in Copenhagen next month.
"The community is on board with this," said Sarah Van Pelt, author of Boulder's climate action plan who is now a special projects coordinator for the city's environmental division. "Right now our biggest detractors are saying why aren't we doing enough."
San Diego is tying recycling, water use and energy efficiency to climate; Berkeley, Calif. has rewritten property rules to boost solar installations; New York and California are shifting state policy to encourage a new, low-carbon economy. Twenty-nine other states have some sort of a renewable fuel standard, requiring utilities to mix a certain percentage of those fuels into their power mix.
"If nothing happens on the federal level, it's unfortunate but it's not the end of the world," said Cara Martinson, legislative analyst for the California State Association of Counties. "We'll start to see a lot more of these regional activities. It'll start to be a bottom-up approach if the national framework breaks down."
Need for a global solution
Whether these local efforts can produce the reductions required to avert the worst climate disruption is much debated. Many climate experts are skeptical. The necessary cuts are substantial, they require economy-wide transformation and the initiatives need to be policed by a fixed, enforceable global treaty.
"It's hard to see how they could be sufficient," said Doug Boucher, director of tropical forests and climate initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Copenhagen talks are seen as crucial for several reasons. It's the date the international community - after years of negotiations - set as the time to draw up a comprehensive global solution to climate disruption.
Industry and governments need to know where emissions targets are headed post-Kyoto. December is the last chance to get a treaty ratified and in place before Kyoto expires in 2012, said Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Resources Institute's climate and energy team who has been involved in global climate talks for more than a decade.
Local efforts help, she agreed. But the global problem needs a global solution.
"It's a huge problem around the share of the commons in the atmosphere, and it's a very large economic issue," she said. "Countries need to have a sense that other main contributors to the problem - and their competitors - are moving together toward a solution.
"It's more than just the sum of the parts."
California, even more than Boulder, exemplifies local determination to curb emissions regardless of national or international stalemate. The state of 37 million people agreed in 2006 to tackle global warming. It has a mandatory greenhouse gas reporting system covering 90 percent of the state's industrial emissions. By law, the state has to ratchet those emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020 - a 24 percent cut from business-as-usual projections.
But scientists say the world needs to slash emissions 80 percent by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change. Boulder hasn't met Kyoto's modest target of a 7 percent cut over 1990 levels despite its tax and one of the nation's most eco-conscious populations, though city leaders say they expect to get close.
California faced a $26 billion spending hole earlier this summer that it filled in part by pulling money from local governments. While the state managed to protect many of its climate programs, local efforts aren't so lucky.