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Shawn Vestal: As federal government stalls, Spokane takes its place among localized climate actors

In this Oct. 10, 2002, file photo, wind turbines produce energy at an Xcel Energy wind farm on the border of Colorado and Wyoming south of Cheyenne, Wyo. (David Zalubowski / AP)

When the City Council overrode the mayor’s veto of new climate change standards for the city, it put Spokane into the right zone.

The “non-state actor zone for climate action.”

Like London, Paris and Tokyo.

Like Austin, Portland and Boulder. Like Washington, Connecticut and California.

Like more than 600 cities around the world that have adopted clean-energy goals to fight climate change, according to CDP, an international organization that works with small governments and large businesses to reduce their carbon footprints.

Like the 2,500 cities committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that the United Nations tracks by different metrics. Like more than 2,000 businesses who’ve done the same.

On climate change these days, the nonstate actor zone is where it’s at.

But that’s only because bigger actors in bigger zones have been so soundly asleep at the wheel.

So, yes, it’s good that the city has joined the zone – good because it sets the important goal of the city’s shifting to all renewable energy by 2030, good because it does not quibble or quarrel with bad-faith arguments about the state of the science, good because it recognizes that Spokane is collectively responsible for lots of energy use and can make a difference.

It’s good because it answers the following proposition correctly: Can’t Afford To vs. Can’t Afford Not To.

And it’s good because – despite the concerns that the city’s new law will bankrupt us all – it created a structure that would require fiscal analysis and City Council votes before concrete changes. The law sets a goal and creates a commission to find suggestions to reach it.

It will not paint the city into a corner, and it will force a public accounting of specific proposals. It does not commit the city without recourse or compromise to unforeseen, arbitrarily skyrocketing costs – costs that critics seemed to have pulled out of the air.

So, that’s good, too. But it has to be acknowledged that, in global terms, what’s going on in Spokane – and all the other small governments in the zone – is chiefly making the best of a lousy situation.

Because the story of small government action is the story of big government inaction. The story of small government action is also one of impacts that can be very hard, if not impossible, to measure, which makes them easier to undercut.

It’s just the fact: In the absence of a committed global response – with American political leadership that has evolved from 30 years of head-in-the-sand denialism to a White House that now actively sabotages climate action – the fact that “subnational” governments are left to carry the ball is a sign of larger failure.

The Economist published a lengthy investigation of the small-government response in its current issue. Its conclusion: “In principle, subnational governments could play a big role in combating climate change. This is particularly true of cities. Roughly half the world’s population lives in them, and that proportion is forecast to rise to 70 percent by mid-century.”

But the record of success on such individual efforts is patchy and hard to measure. Many governments have set goals that lack monitoring or reporting requirements, and others set goals – like Spokane’s – that are targeted toward shifting to green energy and not necessarily tied to some promise of a specific local impact. These efforts don’t produce nice, simple numbers that measure progress.

This vagueness operates as an opportunity for opponents – the grounds on which arguments are made for ignoring the climate problem and Chicken-Littling the costs. That’s a problem. But even if individual efforts by the members of the zone can be hard to quantify, there is reason to believe they add up to considerable progress.

The Under2Coalition is an international organization of more than 220 state and regional governments committed to a certain set of actions, a network of combined projects that it predicts could eliminate 15 billion to 21 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. That’s enough to set a course for meeting even the goals of the Paris Agreement, which the U.S. has abandoned.

That would be truly significant collective action by governments that represent 43 percent of the global economy.

Local efforts to combat global problems might not be ideal. The most optimistic voices still regard it as a problem that small governments can’t solve alone.

But that’s where we are at this point, and it’s good that Spokane – with its new goals for clean energy and its ample protections against the future uncertainties – has joined the zone.

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