This article has been reproduced from the Davis Enterprise published March 2, 2016 

By John Mott-Smith

The Paris climate talks created enthusiasm and hope that the world is moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. The U.S. commitment to this goal leans heavily on President Obama’s Clean Power Act to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. These are important developments, but it is often the events at local level underneath the radar where the most hopeful change is taking place.

Supreme Court Weighs In

That program was more or less immediately called into question when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, granted a request from some coal states to stay implementation until the court could review it. This was an unprecedented and unexpected decision by the court. A stay is issued only if the court believes that the plaintiffs have a good chance of winning the case and that not issuing a stay would result in irreparable harm.

Jaws dropped everywhere, including among the plaintiffs, who really didn’t expect the court to stay implementation. The five justices who agreed to the halt signaled that there’s a good possibility that the Clean Power Act will be deemed to be illegal.

But given that it was to go into effect several years from now, and that it was intentionally crafted to avoid this issue, it is hard to see what “irreparable harm” there would be in allowing the case to make its way through the lower courts.

Then, Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the five who voted to stay implementation, died, ostensibly leaving a 4-4 deadlock on the issue at the Supreme Court, and setting up a battle over confirmation of Scalia’s replacement.

There are many important issues that will come before the Supreme Court in the near future, and the United States’ role in responding to climate change is now one of them.

The positive news is that, unlike past presidential elections where climate change was barely mentioned, the issue will be front and center in 2016, and there are many voters who will decide whom to vote for in part due to their position on this issue.

Local Based Action Produces Progress 

So the election in November is important, but that’s not what this column is really about. When national or international politics seems too mired in inaction, it is useful to pay attention to events that are happening locally. And by locally I mean at the grassroots level all over the world. These events don’t make the news but, when viewed in combination, shine a light on trends that aren’t waiting for political action.

For example, AT&T is reported to have retrofitted 20 million square feet in nearly 250 of its facilities with LED lights on the way to a goal of retrofitting all 120 million square feet of its properties. AT&T estimates this is saving the company $8 million annually. Businesses are realizing that there’s money to be saved in reducing energy consumption and are investing substantial sums to that end.

Another example comes from Brazil. The government funded installation of 4,300 street lights covering nearly 150 miles along a major transportation corridor, half of which will be lit at night by solar modules in the street lights.

More news comes from the state of South Dakota, specifically Mount Rushmore. The four presidents are now illuminated by LED lights located in such a way that the faces, or busts, of the presidents are illuminated, but the mountain itself is not. And, that money thing again — the new LED system requires only 10 percent of the electricity compared to the former system.

There’s a lot going on at the city level, too. In 2010, Greensburg, Kan., became the first municipality to get 100 percent of its electrical energy from renewables. This success was a silver lining made possible by a catastrophic tornado that literally flattened the town.

Residents, unburdened by trying to figure out how to make existing buildings energy-efficient, rebuilt their town from the ground up. Since then, Aspen, Colo.; Burlington, Vt.; and a number of cities in other countries (New Zealand, Austria, Spain, and Germany) also have joined the 100 percent renewables club.

Mandates Not Dreams

Here in California, several local governments have set aspirational goals of obtaining 100 percent of their electrical needs from renewables, including San Francisco and San Jose. And, on Dec. 15, the San Diego City Council adopted a Climate Action Plan that includes a goal of 100 percent renewables.

More broadly, the goal of 100 percent renewables is just one piece of an overall strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half in the next two decades.

Significantly, as reported in the words of a representative of the San Diego Climate Action Campaign, “The 100 percent (renewable energy) goal is a mandate, It’s not a dream. It’s not a wish or an aspiration. It’s a legal commitment.” The point being that noncompliance would be subject to legal action.

The major element of the city’s effort to achieve 100 percent renewables is formation of a Community Choice Aggregation (aka Community Choice Energy) program similar to the one now being considered by Davis and Yolo County.

The renewables goal is important, but the plan also addresses reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks and relies heavily on residents reducing the number of miles they travel and increasing the mpg of the vehicles they drive.

The take-away is that businesses, people and local governments are moving forward and will continue to move forward regardless of action at the national or international level.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. Send comments to