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On climate, states lead

California Gov. Gray Davis signed into law this week the nation's first legislation aimed at reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions of cars and trucks. Because California is America's largest car market, the law could eventually reshape automotive fleets nationwide.

California's pioneering policy stands in stark contrast to the continued foot-dragging of the Bush administration, which just this month told Congress that it needs up to five years to decide what to do about global warming.

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Though California's new law may be the most important political action ever taken in this nation on behalf of the world's climate, it is only one of a rapidly growing number of reforms that are leaving the US government far outside the global-warming mainstream.

In 1997, Oregon passed the US's first law limiting emissions of carbon dioxide. But today, policymakers around the country are working to cut their states' impact on the global climate. The New England states have adopted a plan to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2010 – a more aggressive approach than the Kyoto climate treaty rejected by President Bush. Even gritty New Jersey has signed agreements with its biggest electric utility and all 56 of its colleges and universities to reduce emissions below 1990 levels.

A half-dozen states, including Illinois, Nevada, and Texas, have enacted laws to require increasing portions of their electricity to come from renewable sources. Texas's renewable energy standard has resulted in the biggest windpower construction boom the nation has ever seen.

To be sure, it's not just the Bush administration, or the Republican Party, that is shirking its responsibility to protect our climate. The Democratic-controlled Senate this spring voted down improved mileage standards (and reduced pollution levels) for motor vehicles, as it has done for years.

Beyond the beltway, however, politicians, and even businesses of all stripes, are taking climate change seriously. Michigan, New York, and Ohio – all under Republican governors – are pursuing economic development strategies centered on developing climate-friendly energy industries.

Major multinationals like Alcoa, Nike, Shell, and Toyota have set goals of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent or more below 1990 levels by 2010. DuPont has gone further, aiming to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent over the same time period; it has already cut them in half.

Locally, more than 130 US cities – discharging about 15 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions – have joined the Cities for Climate Protection campaign. All are putting in place plans to reduce local emissions of greenhouse gases. Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Miami-Dade County are all committed to reducing emissions 20 percent below 1988 levels by 2005.

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All this activity matters because the US is the world's biggest polluter. Combine world-leading emissions with world-defying policies, and the United States is the biggest threat to the planet's long-term stability – the rogue nation of climate change. More precisely, the United States is the head of a tiny clique of major polluters (along with Australia and Canada) that appear likely to reject the Kyoto treaty altogether. Call us the Axis of Emissions.

But the recent groundswell of climate-friendly reforms at home and abroad is weakening political support for the United States' business-as-usual approach to global warming.

Though they are beginning to make a dent in humanity's impact on the atmosphere, local and international efforts to save the climate ultimately will fail if the US government does not get on board. The only question now is how long can the United States resist the rising tide of sane approaches to the global climate?

• John C. Ryan is a fellow of the New America Foundation and author of 'Over Our Heads: A Local Look at Global Climate.'