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Give people tools to fight global warming

Oregonians certainly support public policies that will decrease greenhouse gases and slow global warming.

But when it comes to putting public policy into practice, citizens and businesses may be less enthusiastic - and less able - to do their part to save the Earth if they lose their wallets in the process.

This state's comprehensive approach toward cutting carbon emissions is embodied in the Western Climate Initiative that's being spearheaded by Oregon, along with six other Western states and four Canadian provinces.

But shaping the initiative was only step one. The real work now must begin to make these policies understood and accepted by everyday Oregonians and by the big and small businesses that drive this state's economy.

Use incentives as well as mandates

The main mechanism that the climate initiative would employ to encourage conservation and carbon reduction is a so-called 'cap and trade' system. In simple terms, this means that caps would be placed on emissions for power plants and certain large businesses.

If those power providers or businesses cannot reduce their emissions to stay under the cap, then they can trade for additional carbon credits from institutions that are able to remain under the cap.

Considered straight forward by some and overly complicated by others, the cap-and-trade approach is loaded with potential unintentional consequences. And even some of the expected consequences - rising cost of energy - may not be popular with a public that's now more worried about the immediate state of the economy than the temperature of the Earth.

In a cap and trade approach, energy costs will increase because power providers will have to invest in their plants to reduce carbon emissions. These costs will be passed along to consumers, who are expected to engage in greater conservation efforts in response to higher energy costs.

We believe Oregon residents and businesses increasingly are willing to make climate-change sacrifices. But we also believe mandates from the top - whether from the state or ultimately the federal government - also must be matched with incentives and assistance.

Expand upon existing programs

Oregon has been a leader in providing people with useful tools to reduce energy consumption. But this state will have to go well beyond its existing efforts to attain its ambitious carbon-reduction goals.

The state, for example, offers tax credits for certain conservation-related behaviors, including weatherization of homes. Oregon also has been a pioneer in energy-efficient transportation - such as light rail - and land-use planning that reduces dependence on cars.

With the adoption of the climate initiative, however, the reach of those programs must be expanded. Community-based transit - such as buses that operate within a suburb and not just as feeders to light-rail lines - must be made available beyond Portland's central city. Weatherization and retrofitting of inefficient buildings must become nearly universal. Alternative modes of transportation - walking and biking -must push beyond urban centers. And land-use policies should emphasize diverse housing close to major employers.

The governor and the Oregon Legislature have so far acted correctly in setting overall lofty goals for carbon reduction. In 2009, they must take the further step of helping Oregon residents envision - and begin to act on - just how they can contribute to the global-warming fight without suffering excessive financial harm.