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Carl Nettleton headshot

Climate Progress Continues Despite Changes in the Federal Administration

By Carl Nettleton

“We are in one of those moments where people are feeling, if not despair, at least a lot of discouragement about the climate movement and how things are going, particularly in the United Sates,” said Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board.

But she remains optimistic. “I spend a lot of time trying to lift people up and let them know it’s not as bad as it looks and, in fact, good things are happening.”

Nichols leads the state of California’s efforts to implement climate change regulations in general and its forward-looking cap-and-trade program specifically. At the front line of change, she believes that progress is being made in California and that the state’s path will ultimately help shape national and international progress in the long run.

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama, concurs with Nichols’ assessment of the human response to state of the climate movement in the U.S.

“Right now, it is easy to get discouraged,” she told 3p. “But we have to remember the federal government only got into the climate gig eight years ago. But many of us have been working on climate change for a really long time. If you know the history of the environmental movement and how change is made, it is full of fits and starts, and there are ebbs and flows.”

Nichols and McCarthy were together in Los Angeles on May 17 at the 10th anniversary celebration of The Climate Registry. The Registry is a nonprofit organization that that helps organizations and governments build capacity in greenhouse gas measurement and reporting so they can manage and reduce carbon. The Registry’s programs not only provide important data that helps governments make more informed carbon policy, but they also provide evidence for customers and investors of companies who claim they are voluntarily reducing their carbon footprint.

Both women praised the Registry for its foundational role in advocating for and working to produce credible carbon emissions measurements and systems of reporting, “Without the Registry, the cap-and-trade system could never have come into existence. It wouldn’t have anything like the credibility that it does have,” Nichols told us. “When we meet with people from around the world who are interested in doing something like California has done, the first thing we tell them is you have to have better data, you have to have credible data that people have confidence in or you won’t ever have a market.”

While Nichols praised the confidence that comes from having good data about corporate emissions, McCarthy focused on values. “It’s up to us to reflect the values we care about: the core values that bring us together every day and make this the best country in the world to live in." She counted clean air, clean water, healthy land and a stable community among those values. “If we can just express that, just continue to work together, we can make incredible progress in moving forward.”

“Right now, the federal government is not doing what we want it to do, and I think the people that live in this country and care about the things we care about have to make sure we get together and remind ourselves it’s up to us to do something about it," McCarthy added. "It’s still going to be important that we hold people’s feet to the fire.

"When the federal government takes a pass, it doesn’t mean that our work stops. It means you have to rev up and work harder and remind them what our core values are.”

Does it matter if the federal government isn’t leading on climate? McCarthy said that typically by the time the federal government gets around to addressing an issue, 95 percent of the country has already embraced the required change because of actions at the state, regional and municipal levels.  “And then the federal government claims it’s the most innovative thing that’s ever happened. But that’s okay, because they get the kudos and life goes on -- and we grab that other 5 percent."

With changes in the federal government’s climate change policies, what happens next?

McCarthy underscored the importance of state and local governments, as well as grassroots organizations and the business community.

Nichols looks toward more innovation and community involvement. ”One of the things we need are people who represent various parts of the community who will sit down with us and work to find ways that will be useful to moving the agenda forward,” she said.

“Even when people believe that climate change is an issue, that doesn’t mean that it necessarily resonates with them. They can’t always take action. They need practical solutions. They need all the dull boring stuff we do at the Air Resources Board.”

McCarthy also pointed out the role of the consumer. “Because of social media, we have the opportunity to express our core values in many more ways than simply who we vote for. We can decide who we buy things from. This is what you can do when you have a credible entity like The Climate Registry that tells you what performance is actually real and what isn’t real.”

She cited credible, voluntary carbon-reduction programs from companies like Walmart and Home Depot. “You have to support these voluntary initiatives that allow companies that are doing good to get rewarded for it."

She says the opposite is true, too. When the CEO of Uber was invited to join a business group advising President Donald Trump, customers who didn’t approve simply deleted the app. The next day, Uber’s CEO had rethought his position. “Voluntary programs do matter,” McCarthy said.

And she's convinced that change comes from the grassroots -- where the environmental movement started, stating simply: “It’s only when you get incredibly annoying does any level of government pay any attention."

Image credit: Rob Greer Photography

Carl Nettleton headshot

Carl Nettleton is an acclaimed award-winning writer, speaker and analyst. He heads Nettleton Strategies, a public policy firm specializing in oceans, water, energy, climate, and U.S. Mexico border issues. Carl also founded OpenOceans Global, an NGO solving ocean crises by unifying and empowering global communities. Carl serves on the national and California advisory councils for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national, nonpartisan group of business owners, investors and others who advocate for policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment. He is co-chair of the San Diego Water Conservation Action Committee (CAC) and a member of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lambda Alpha, South County Economic Development Council, Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce and U.S.-Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership.

Read more stories by Carl Nettleton