For years the federal government worked hard to avoid dealing with our little climate change problem. Now we’re seeing a flurry of activity.

A U.S. House committee is debating a cap and trade proposal that promises to slash greenhouse gas emissions and create more incentives to use clean technology. And yesterday, of course, the Obama administration announced new auto emission standards that could by themselves could cut the nation’s total greenhouse gas production by nearly 5 percent. It means that states don’t have to try to come up with their own rules for cutting vehicle pollution.

And that means Illinois state rep Karen May can start focusing on some other issues. She’d been trying to usher a bill through the state house that would bring Illinois’ auto standards in line with California’s, the toughest in the country. That’s essentially what the new federal rules will do.

“When President Obama took office I sent memos to his people about this,” she told me. “Having midwestern states push for these standards made a big impact on the administration.”

Her next goal: reducing energy waste by fixing up inefficient buildings, another huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. May said she hopes legislators come up with the capital funds to start retrofitting the state’s 14,000 schools. “It shouldn’t just be about paving things over and building more,” she said. “Energy retrofits are a win, win, win—they create green-collar jobs, save our planet, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Of course, that hardly guarantees action, especially in Springfield. It hasn’t resulted in tough action on coal-fired power plants, the single biggest source of greenhouse gases in Illinois—about 40 percent of the total. The coal and power industries have successfully fought tougher regulations for years, but it’s becoming clearer that they’re going to have to abandon their old ways of doing business just as the auto companies did. Last week the representatives of Illinois and five other midwestern states agreed to a plan to implement their own caps on carbon emissions that are tougher than what’s being considered at the federal level. If Congress doesn’t act soon, regional leaders say they’ll move ahead with their own plans.

“It’s interesting because people have been saying that a national cap-and-trade policy will never happen because of resistance from the industrial midwest, but we’ve got this group that says it’s in our interest to set the goals and invest in a new economy,” said Henry Henderson, director of the Midwest Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an adviser during the talks.

Right now, he says, dirty power producers are getting a public subsidy. “All of the carbon dioxide they create, they dump freely into our air. That’s public property,” he said. “We have an antiquated energy system. Putting a cap on emissions creates a value on clean energy.”