At the annual U.N. climate talks in Doha, Qatar, delegates are undoubtedly applauding the new Australian cap-and-trade scheme, bemoaning Canada's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, and wondering what to do about emissions from emerging India. They will spend far less time thinking about an economy bigger than any of those: California.
California's new cap-and-trade system is perhaps the biggest good news climate story this year, and delegates in Doha should be celebrating it. Just last month, environmentalists celebrated California's first successful auction of carbon emissions allowances. Yet the rise of Sacramento and other state capitals as leading forces in U.S. climate policy raises thorny foreign-policy dilemmas, too. These are easy to miss because U.S. states have no seats at the global climate talks, but are nevertheless critical for negotiators around the world to address.
Taking credit for progress in California and elsewhere will be tricky for the United States: International diplomacy tends to focus on what is happening in national capitals, slighting state efforts in the process. This problem will be resolved over the long run by what happens on the ground, since climate policy success in places like California should reduce total national emissions -- the ultimate proof of their success. But U.S. diplomats can reap dividends today by doing a better job of systematically showing other countries what ongoing state-level efforts will deliver. Putting those efforts in the context of what is happening in similarly sized economies -- like Australia, Russia, and the United Kingdom -- could help.