On Labor Day weekend, the campgrounds and trailer parks around the Grand Canyon were quiet. With excessive heat warnings throughout the country and restrictions in place to slow the spread of a deadly virus, the holiday weekend was different from years past. Still, a steady stream of RVers and campers rolled in and out of the campgrounds on the South Rim.
But those who had come to see one of the nation’s most treasured natural wonders were met with a hazy view. One morning, the other side of the Canyon was barely visible. The striking definition of ridges, the red and orange palettes the Canyon is known for had been flattened by a smoky, at times opaque, haze.
Smoke from some of the largest and hottest wildfires in history in California, Oregon and Washington had blanketed the West, and even reached the East Coast.
For some, the haze was reminiscent of the 1990s, when the Grand Canyon had often been similarly obscured. Pollution from Los Angeles, vehicles, coal-fired power plants and controlled burns seriously impaired the view at the Canyon at least 75 days a year, dulling its colorful vistas into a muted, murky landscape.
Haze in the Grand Canyon was a particular concern for Arizona, the Grand Canyon state. At the time, Arizona led efforts to address smog in the Canyon, initiating partnerships with other Western states and spurring federal policies that greatly improved both visibility at the Grand Canyon and air pollution across the country.
“The Grand Canyon is like the canary in the coal mine,” said Roger Clark, a program director for the Grand Canyon Trust and an active member in the regional haze work from its earliest stages. “Visibility issues are an early warning sign of things going awry in the atmosphere.”
By the early 2000s, the partnership of Western states established out of the Grand Canyon haze work was tapped to address another phenomenon just entering mainstream consciousness: climate change.
Growing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the planet led Arizona to develop a comprehensive state climate action plan. Other states soon followed.
Today, the effects of climate change on Arizona have become almost as evident as the smoke hanging over the canyon: dwindling snowpack and extreme drought are stretching Colorado River supplies thin, summer temperatures are getting hotter and increasing heat-related deaths, and more destructive wildfires are scorching landscapes and lives. Temperatures in Maricopa County alone have risen by nearly 2 degrees Celsius since record-keeping began in 1895.
But Arizona is not the leader it was 15 years ago when the state led the West on regional haze and then climate policy.
Cities have largely taken the lead on climate policies. In recent years, the governor and the Legislature have taken no cohesive action, enacting laws that prohibit mitigation efforts at a local level. One state law even prevents state agencies from monitoring greenhouse gases.
“The state first and foremost needs to stand up and say that we have an issue with climate,” said Coral Evans, the mayor of Flagstaff, the first city in the state to declare a climate emergency. “That leadership needs to be there. We don’t talk about climate change. Maybe a lot of people in leadership in our state don’t have the lived experience that I have. I’m third generation. I grew up here. Things are definitely different.”
POLL: Most Arizonans want government to act on climate change
A plan to act
As director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality under former Gov. Janet Napolitano, Steve Owens helped spearhead a climate change action plan. (Photo: Republic file photo)
On a hot day in August 2006, Steve Owens steeled himself before entering the governor’s office. As the director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, it was his job to brief then-Gov. Janet Napolitano on the state’s new climate action plan.
He and a coalition of dozens of stakeholders — businesspeople, scientists, environmentalists, energy experts, ranchers, river runners, auto industry executives — had worked for more than a year to develop a set of 49 policy recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Arizona.
That day, Owens expected to defend the economic viability of the plan. Instead, the governor asked why the goals — reduce emissions to 2000 levels by 2020 and 50% below 2000 levels by 2040 — weren’t more aggressive.
Nearly two decades ago, Arizona emerged as a national leader in developing strategies to combat fossil fuel-driven climate change. A wave of Democratic governors who were concerned about the issue were elected across the West. Republican governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Jon Huntsman of Utah were vocal about wanting to lead on climate and environment issues.
The momentum was a response to federal inaction: In 2001, the George W. Bush administration announced that it would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark international treaty signed in 1997 that required nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. At the start of his second term, Bush passed numerous policies at the behest of polluting industries who didn’t want more regulation.
By 2005, the issue drew attention at a more local level. It turned out to be “a watershed year for states deciding it was time for them to step up on climate change,” said Patrick Cummins, senior policy advisor at Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy.
That year, Napolitano signed an executive order to create a state climate action plan, one of the first in the nation at a state level.
In the previous decade, Arizona had added fossil fuel pollutants to the atmosphere more than any other state. Between 1990 and 2005, Arizona’s emissions shot up a staggering 56%, a rate of increase three times the national average. The numbers gave Napolitano compelling reason to act.
“It was a realization that climate was a really big deal and that we needed to have a plan, that we needed to put some intentionality into it,” Napolitano said in a recent interview. Napolitano recently resigned as the President of University of California to teach as a tenured professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.
“It seemed to me that this was an area that Arizona needed to take up and also could be a leader in,” she said.
A string of states followed: New Mexico, the Carolinas, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania all developed their own climate plans. Arizona dipped its toes into international climate collaboration, too: A few months after Napolitano’s executive order, Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora declared they would work together to address emissions in the borderlands.
“This had been just something done by governors in the Northeast and the West Coast and not by the heartland. Arizona was the first southwestern state to do this and one of the first red states in the country, period,” said Thomas Peterson, President of the Center for Climate Strategies. The Washington D.C.-based non-profit has worked with more than 20 states across the US and with countries around the world to develop strategies to lower emissions and achieve economic goals.
The organization leads states to find a consensus on policies and prepared the emissions inventory, forecast, and economic impact analyses for Arizona’s 2006 plan.
“Arizona demonstrated that a very diverse group of stakeholders could reach agreements on a substantial list of things to do to address emissions,” Peterson said.
Seven northeastern states had already signed a memorandum to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the first mandatory market-based program in the US to reduce emissions. Launched in 2009, it continues to be lauded for showing that economic growth can coincide with emissions reductions.
In 2007, Arizona attempted to spearhead a similar regional approach. Governors of three West Coast states, along with Arizona and New Mexico, signed a memorandum of understanding directing their environmental agencies to design a market-based mechanism to achieve regional emissions goals, what was known as a cap-and-trade program. Republican strongholds Utah and Montana signed on to the program too and the Western Climate Initiative was born.
In developing the 2006 plan, Arizona found that the transportation and electricity sectors accounted for nearly 40% each of the state’s total emissions. Cities were in a long-running fight with bad air pollution. Passenger vehicles were then and remain a main driver of the state’s ozone pollution.
At the time, Napolitano and ADEQ officials determined that adopting the more stringent California Clean Car standards was necessary, especially in light of Arizona’s rapid growth in both population and vehicle use. The tailpipe standards would not only lower planet-heating emissions, but also help the state meet the stricter ozone standards announced by the Bush Administration in 2008.
“While this regulation alone will not substantially reduce or reverse ongoing global climate change, it is inconceivable that those reduction targets could be achieved without actors like the state of Arizona undertaking reductions like this,” ADEQ stated in its final rulemaking.
Many major policy recommendations from the plan were adopted by other states, helping the US make a significant dent in its emissions over the years. In fact, state policies have had a greater impact than the Great Recession in lowering national emissions.
“There was this period when there was this enormous wave of action,” said Peterson. “But the action didn’t get fully implemented and there’s all this unfinished business. And that is the failure.”
CLIMATE DISCUSSION: Republic panel talks about threats, solutions
Momentum breaks down
The Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora were on the verge of signing on to the Western Climate Initiative when the Great Recession hit. By the time the Initiative launched in 2012, Arizona had already pulled out of the cap-and-trade program.
When Napolitano was appointed to serve in the Obama Administration as Secretary of Homeland Security in 2009, Republican Jan Brewer landed in the governor’s office. The recession, California’s growing regulatory environment, and President Barack Obama’s election rapidly transformed the state’s political landscape.
Jan Brewer, then the Secretary of State, hugs outgoing Governor Janet Napolitano after the governor gave her final State of the State address in 2009. (Photo: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic)
“2009-10 was a time in Arizona dominated by optimism about solar energy, skepticism about ‘cap and trade,’ and concern about California and the federal government determining Arizona’s environmental and economic competitiveness,” Ben Grumbles, the ADEQ director appointed by Brewer after Owens left for the EPA, wrote in an emailed statement to The Republic.
He now serves as Maryland’s Secretary of Environment and is an officer for the regional carbon market program in the northeast.
On Feb. 1, 2010, Brewer signed an executive order to pull Arizona from the Western Climate Initiative, saying the program would cripple the state’s economy. Two months later, she signed a law that prevented any state agencies from even monitoring greenhouse gas emissions. The law remains on the books today.
In a final blow to the momentum of the Napolitano era, Brewer signed an order that, in 2012, blocked the state from adopting California’s clean car standards. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry celebrated the repeal as vindication from California’s “overbearing regulatory environment.” Environmentalists decried the move.
“Brewer and I had very different ideas about what Arizona needed and what good public policy was,” Napolitano said. “She focused on the immigration agenda almost to the exclusion, it seems, of everything else.”
Brewer declined to be interviewed for this story.
Brewer’s signing of SB 1070, an anti-immigration law, plunged Arizona into political chaos and landed the state in the national spotlight. The rise of the Tea Party and increasing political polarization across the nation pushed climate change to the sidelines and made it increasingly a partisan issue.
During the Bush years, John McCain had been the only Republican senator to push for climate change legislation, but after his electoral defeat in 2008, he reverted to the party line and played a large role in blocking any climate legislation from reaching the senate floor.
U.S. President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain at the Iowa debate on Jan. 15, 2000. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/Special for the Republic)
Since that time, there has been no comprehensive climate action from the governor or the Legislature. With the Trump Administration’s repeal of Obama-era clean car standards, despite the EPA’s finding that the rollback could lead to an additional 444 to 1,000 premature deaths from increased air pollution, the federal government has created an even lower backstop for a state already struggling to mitigate bad air.
“Arizona was really standing out because of all the things we were doing,” Owens recalled. “It’s disappointing, the things that could have been done in the last 10, 15 years. With drought conditions that still persist, the record heats we continue to have, the Colorado river drying up, you would think people would be more concerned. But the people who are in positions to do something about it are in complete denial.”
Emissions and climate change today
When Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans was a kid, she swam in the Rio de Flag every summer. The river flowed behind her grandfather’s house, its cool waters a welcome summer respite. By the time Halloween came around, winter had usually settled over the city. Sometimes the snow lasted through April.
Today, Evans lives in the house her grandfather built in 1942, but the river behind it no longer flows like it used to. The heavy winters of Evans’ childhood are rarer. Ski resorts now spray manufactured snow onto the mountains to mark the beginning of ski season. The temperate summers Evans grew up with are warmer; every year, temperatures inch closer to reaching 100 degrees for the first time.
“I have had the ability to experience firsthand the changes caused by this climate crisis we’re experiencing,” said Evans, who is running for a seat in the state House as a Democrat. “The local impact of the climate crisis is devastating and is directly impacting our quality of life and our economy right now.”
Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans attends a press conference at Fort Tuthill in Flagstaff on July 23, 2019. (Photo: Madeleine Cook/The Republic)
Arizona’s carbon emissions aren’t as dire as the 2006 climate plan anticipated they would be. The plan predicted a whopping 148% increase in emissions by 2020 if Arizona failed to implement any of the recommended policies.
Just before the Great Recession hit, Arizona had increased its emissions from 2000 levels by 20% . In 2008, the state spewed an all-time high of 102 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The recession, combined with improving technology over the years and utilities shifting to a more robust renewable energy portfolio, tempered the state’s emissions rate and led to a decrease in total emissions to 2000 levels by 2017, according to the US Energy Information Administration, the best state-level greenhouse gas emissions data in the absence of a state-run greenhouse gas inventory.
Still, Arizona is falling behind in the West when it comes to proactive climate policy. In 2018, voters in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada elected Democratic governors and legislatures. Soon after, Colorado joined California’s clean car standards. New Mexico and Nevada are moving to do the same. Earlier this year, a climate report ordered by the Utah Legislature developed a roadmap for tackling climate change and pollution.
While climate change is a global problem, some of the most innovative and effective solutions in addressing emissions have come from the state and regional levels, and have even incentivized stronger action from the federal government.
“It makes a national program more inevitable when enough states are doing it, so state action and state leadership is going to continue to be important,” said Cummins. “But ultimately when you look at what the scientists are telling us about cutting emissions in half by 2030, getting to net zero by 2050—this requires a national mobilization.”
Local efforts, state sabotage
Arizona’s cities and counties have taken the lead on climate action in the absence of state and national leadership. Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Pima County all conduct their own regular greenhouse gas emissions inventories. Maricopa County published its first inventory this year. Flagstaff, Phoenix, Tempe, and Tucson have either already implemented or are in the process of developing their own climate action plans. Over the years, the cities have enacted innovative policies to reduce their respective carbon footprints.
“Phoenix is home to 1.7 million people, so we are larger than 10 states,” said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego in a recent interview. “Cities are the branch of government that are closest to our residents. We hear what they need and what they want. If we lead, it really can make a difference. I would love to see the Legislature give us more tools to be able to respond to our residents rather than restrict our ability.”
In recent years, the Legislature has passed multiple bills that hinder climate action on a local level. In 2014, the Legislature outlawed plastic bag bans in cities and towns. In 2015, the Legislature prohibited cities from requiring energy benchmarking for commercial buildings, a move that Tempe council member Lauren Kuby called a “slap-in-the face to local decision making.”
This year, in what many called a reflex response to California policies, a state law was fast-tracked through the Legislature and signed by the governor in February to prevent Arizona’s cities and towns from banning natural gas or other fossil fuels in buildings.
“The Legislature has the potential to be a driving force to create an equitable approach to water insecurity and extreme heat,” Kuby wrote in response to emailed questions from The Republic.
“Arizonans, as well as cities, businesses, and nonprofits are way ahead of the AZ Corporation Commission, Legislature, and the Governor in thinking and acting proactively to address the climate emergency,” she said. “Extremists in the Legislature are not only content to do nothing, they attempt to squash cities that are innovating to address the climate crisis.”
In recent years, the Arizona Corporation Commission repealed rooftop solar incentives. Though the state’s major utilities have announced fairly ambitious clean energy goals, the commission has not increased its renewable-energy and energy-efficiency standards since the mid-2000s.
Some lawmakers have attempted to push legislation to require action at a state level. In this last Legislative session, Democrats Kirsten Engel and Juan Mendez introduced bills in the House and Senate respectively to develop a state climate action plan and greenhouse gas inventory. The bills died before ever reaching the Senate floor.
“Fundamentally, we need a state Sustainability Commission and an Arizona Office of Sustainability,” Kuby wrote. “If the State of Florida can dedicate an office to incubating policies that mitigate or adapt to climate change, then Arizona, with a history of coming together on contentious water issues, should be able to agree that we need coordinated sustainability policy at the state level.”
It was only last year that Governor Doug Ducey publicly acknowledged climate change was influenced by human activity. In the past several years, Ducey has taken some action on environmental issues plaguing the state, particularly water issues. In January 2019 he signed an executive order to create a council to address long-term concerns about a drier future in Arizona beyond the issues involving the Colorado River.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signs the Drought Contingency Plan in a ceremony at the Arizona state Capitol on Jan. 31, 2019.
The Republic | azcentral.com
“Governor Ducey believes we have a responsibility to protect the environment, and that doing so is tied to our economy and quality of life,” a spokesperson for the governor wrote in an email to The Republic. “At the same time, we are mindful of how any proposed policies impact our economy, taxpayers, small businesses, everyday Arizonans and energy costs. ADEQ is an entire state agency devoted 365 days a year to protecting our environment and our air and water.”
The governor declined to be interviewed for this story and didn’t respond to specific questions from The Republic.
Every year, ADEQ spends millions of dollars on a variety of travel reduction, vehicle efficiency and lawn equipment replacement initiatives to improve emissions. But the agency has no authority to address carbon dioxide emissions, one of the main greenhouse gases.
ADEQ spokesperson Caroline Oppleman pointed to partnerships with utilities, the private sector, and advancements like evolving electric vehicle and hydrogen fuel cell technology as ways Arizona will lower its carbon footprint in coming years.
The market-driven shift from coal dominance will also improve emissions, Oppleman said. The closure of the Navajo Generating Station in November 2019 alone reduced Arizona’s emissions by 13.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to ADEQ. Roughly a third of Arizona’s energy production is already from non-fossil fuel alternative sources, including Palo Verde nuclear generating station, said Oppleman.
Traffic on urban freeways increases air pollution and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)
“Our goal with all these efforts has been to take the politics out of it, and focus on good policies that are bipartisan and good for the state of Arizona,” Ducey’s spokesperson wrote.
The reliance on the federal government and natural market swings will have positive impacts, but those actively working toward solutions say waiting on the market isn’t enough.
“We’re implementing climate policy by implementing utility energy policy and transportation policy,” said Jeff Schlegel, a member of the 2006 climate action plan working group and a state energy policy consultant. “The prospects for the Commission improving the energy rules and in so doing, making progress on climate change is probably the best thing that we have going right now.”
On the transportation side, Schlegel said, a combination of the market and EPA requirements for ozone standards, and other air quality issues in the Valley will also help improve emissions policies.
“It’s just a matter of whether you have it three to five years earlier because of some good policy,” Schlegel said. “But not only is the Legislature not taking positive action to address the crisis, they’re preventing local municipalities from taking their own action, which is bizarre coming from a political party that claims it is in favor of local control.”
Time to act
Time is running out. In 2018, the world’s leading climate scientists warned the world had to take drastic action within 12 years to slow the rate of global warming and keep it at a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that, every degree has increasingly dire consequences.
The world has already warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution and is on track to reach 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century if major reductions in emissions aren’t achieved.
The Paris climate agreement, an international treaty to lower greenhouse gas emissions hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. In 2017, the Trump Administration announced the U.S., one of the largest emitters of planet-heating emissions in the world, would no longer participate in the agreement.
For all living organisms, the faster climate changes, the more difficult it is to adapt to it. When climate change is too rapid, as it has become with the help of human-caused emissions, species start going extinct.
Coral reefs would largely die off with two degrees of warming. Three degrees could result in the loss of many coastal cities. Four degrees could reduce the flow of the Colorado River to a trickle. Five degrees could leave huge swathes of the planet uninhabitable.
There will also be economic impacts. A 2017 study found the U.S. could lose 2.3% of its GDP for each degree Celsius increase in global warming.
The Southwest, already the hottest and driest region in the United States, is warming at a faster rate than other parts of the country. Maricopa County’s average temperature has increased by 1.9 degrees since 1895. This gradual climate change means longer, hotter summers, experts say, as the monsoon pattern arrives later.
States can have tremendous power to make a difference, especially in the U.S., which is second only to China in its contribution to planet-heating emissions.
“The states need to be taking the initiative on this because the federal government right now certainly isn’t,” said Owens, the former ADEQ director. “While an individual state can only do so much, it’s extremely important for an individual state to do as much as it can.”
Political polarization in the last decade has made large-scale action difficult, but many see bipartisan consensus as the only way forward.
“The state of Arizona and the federal government can’t continue ignoring this issue,” said Tucson Mayor Regina Romero in a phone interview. “We are at a point where it’s all hands on deck. Democrats, Republicans, the business community, elected officials, students and scientists can work together to plan for the future, invest in green, renewable infrastructure that creates jobs. It is an economic opportunity for us and at the same time, we will be doing something good for our environment.”
In September, Tucson formally declared a climate emergency and will implement a decade-long plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.
The need to remove politics from the climate conversation is something many from both sides of the aisle agree needs to happen. This year, representatives from Arizona’s utilities, business community, and political leaders met in a forum to discuss the state’s direction on energy.
“The consensus was clear: the value of diversifying our energy portfolio and expanding our utilization of renewable energy options is not a left or right question, but an imperative that will have significant impacts on our state,” Jaime Molera, a Republican and former state official, and Glenn Hamer, the president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, wrote in a joint op-ed in The Arizona Capitol Times in February.
Discourse may be the first step, but the science shows the window for meaningful action is rapidly closing.
“Climate is the great convener. Our livelihoods and environment should not be partisan,” said Kuby. “We need to elect people who are not beholden to corporate interests, who reflect the people and the science that we are in a climate crisis and must take action.”
Erin Stone covers the environment for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Send her story tips and ideas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @Erstone7.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Read or Share this story: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-environment/2020/09/25/arizona-was-once-climate-policy-leader-in-west-what-happened/5841376002/