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Cities, Towns Step Up Global Warming Fight

by: Stephanie Simon    3 January 2007

BOULDER, Colo. -- Frustrated with the federal response to global warming, hundreds of cities, suburbs, and rural communities across the United States are taking bold steps to slash their energy consumption and reduce emissions of the pollutants that cause climate change.

This college town recently adopted the nation's first "climate tax" -- an extra fee for electricity use with all proceeds going to fight global warming.

Seattle has imposed a new parking tax, and the mayor hopes to charge tolls on major roads in an effort to discourage driving -- a leading source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Cities not typically associated with liberal causes have also jumped on board. In Fargo, N.D., Mayor Dennis Walaker swapped out every traffic-light bulb for a light-emitting diode, or LED, which uses 80 percent less energy.

In Carmel, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis, Mayor James Brainard is switching the entire city fleet to hybrids and vehicles that run on biofuels made from plant products rather than petroleum.

"It's quite incredible, the number of things cities are beginning to do. It's very heartening," said Tom Kelly, who directs a national environmental group called Kyoto USA.

Governors, too, are joining the effort. At least 20 states, including California, have laws requiring a certain percentage of electrical power to come from solar, wind, and other renewable sources.

Boulder Mayor Mark Ruzzin said skeptics often ask why global warming must be a local priority. He responds by acknowledging the obvious: "Even if Boulder could somehow wish away all of our greenhouse gas emissions, that wouldn't be a drop in the bucket. It would be a drop within a drop."

Then he said the city must try anyway -- if only to prove to larger communities that they, too, can reduce pollutants without spending huge sums or slowing economic growth.

"Every one of us has the ability, small as it may be, to make change," Ruzzin tells his residents, asking them to substitute a push mower for a gas mower or to turn out the lights when they leave a room. "No one's going to be able to escape the responsibility."

The movement began nearly two years ago, when Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced that his city would strive to meet the targets of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that aims to control global warming.

The treaty requires industrialized nations to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that hover in the lower atmosphere. In what is known as a "greenhouse effect," these pollutants create an invisible shield that keeps the sun's rays from dissipating. The trapped rays are reflected back to Earth, raising temperatures.

Because burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, any measures to conserve energy can indirectly cut greenhouse emissions. Planting trees can also help, because they absorb carbon dioxide.

Denver plans to plant an average of 140 trees a day for the next 20 years, while Los Angeles is replacing its famed fan palms with leafy sycamores and oaks. Chicago encourages the planting of lush rooftop gardens, which cool buildings, reducing the need for air conditioning.

Fargo acts on climate change more directly by trapping the methane that normally wafts out of its landfill as a byproduct of rotting garbage. The methane -- a potent greenhouse gas -- is then sold to a soybean processing plant, which uses it in its boilers.

"All these cities are like little laboratories, experimenting with what works. Then we learn from each other," Brainard said.

President Bush rejected the environmental goals of the Kyoto treaty soon after he took office, calling it ineffective and unfair because developing countries such as China and India are exempt. He also argued that it would be enormously expensive for the United States to comply.

Determined to prove him wrong, Nickels challenged his fellow mayors to adopt Kyoto's targets at the local level. He has received at least 330 pledges from mayors representing 54 million people. All have vowed to reduce their cities' emissions below 1990 levels within the next several years.

Some of the nation's biggest urban areas have made the pledge: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Dallas, and Denver.

So have Turtle River, Minn., (population 79) and North Pole, Alaska (population 1,778).

Meridian, Miss., where nearly 30 percent of residents live in poverty, has signed on to the Kyoto goals. So have Sugar Land, Texas; Dubuque, Iowa; and Norman, Okla. Scores of coastal cities are on the list, including Cambridge, Mass., and Berkeley, Calif.