Speaker: Global change requires state, local action
By Josh O'Gorman
Herald Staff | February 23,2008
SOUTH ROYALTON — The changes that need to be made to reverse global warming will come not from the upcoming presidential election but from initiatives made at the local and state levels.
That was the theme of Bruce Babbitt's keynote address at Vermont Law School's symposium "Confronting Global Climate Change: Using the Law to Protect Future Generations" on Friday night.
Babbitt served as attorney general of Arizona from 1975 until 1978 when he became governor, an office he held until 1987.
Babbitt negotiated passage of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act of 1980, which today remains the most comprehensive water regulatory system in the United States.
Babbitt later served as Secretary of the Interior under former President Bill Clinton from 1993 until 2001. With degrees in geology, geophysics and law, Babbitt seemed like the ideal speaker to discuss the intersection of global warming and politics.
"Many people say that a year from now hopefully we will have a president who will deal with global warming," Babbitt said, citing the Senate voting records of Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain. "However, it is not that simple."
Babbitt said that a change of the executive branch alone would not be enough. He referred to his own tenure under President Clinton during the 1990s.
"During that time global warming made the transition from theoretical speculation to factual consensus," Babbitt said. "Eight years went by and very little was done."
Babbitt placed the blame for lack of action to halt global warming squarely on the shoulders of Congress, which he repeatedly referred to as "extraordinarily dysfunctional."
Babbitt spoke of former Vice-President Al Gore's efforts to create a worldwide initiative to reduce the output of carbon emissions that became the Kyoto Treaty.
Babbitt said that six months before Gore went to Kyoto, senators Robert Byrd and Chuck Hagel introduced a bill that eliminated the possibility of different timelines for first world and developing countries to reduce their output of carbon emissions, and in doing so undermined the effectiveness of the treaty.
Babbitt saw the bill as a sign of the United States' inordinate suspicion of international agreements.
"Yield some sovereignty to others? Never," Babbitt said.
Babbitt said whoever is president in 2009 will have a hard time negotiating internationally to combat global warming without congressional support.
"The challenge for us isn't so much an international issue but our own conduct as a nation," Babbitt said.
Babbitt said that the change, if it isn't coming from Washington, must come from city and state governments.
"Perhaps it's the genius of our government that when the center goes dead the surrounding countryside comes alive and brings life back to the center," Babbitt said.
Babbitt pointed to the Clean Air Acts of the 1970s. Babbitt noted that Congress dragged its feet and refused to consider the acts, which were born not in Washington, D.C., but in California.
"Here we are 30 or 40 years later and again innovation is coming from the states," Babbitt said.
Babbitt said Vermont is one of a few states that has attempted to adopt more stringent limits on automobile emissions, a move that has led to lawsuits from automakers.
"Like the Clean Air Act, Congress must be shamed by the cities and the states and dragged kicking and screaming into acting," Babbitt said. "I invite you to use Vermont as a laboratory to facilitate democratic change."
Contact Josh O'Gorman at email@example.com.