mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


California Green Light

Who says the good guys never win? California’s new global warming law
is a bona fide big deal. Signed into law by Governor Gray Davis on
July 22, the global warming bill requires that the greenhouse gas
emissions of all passenger vehicles sold in the state be reduced to
the maximum economically feasible extent starting in model year
2009. It doesn’t ban sport utility vehicles, but it does the next best
thing: It forces automakers to design them as efficiently as possible.
Hybrids and hydrogen, here we come!

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If the bill survives a promised legal challenge from the auto
industry, it will rank as the most significant official action against
global warming yet taken in the United States. It also ranks as the
biggest environmental victory of any sort scored during George W.
Bush’s presidency. What’s more, the behind-the-scenes story of the
bill offers valuable lessons for how environmentalists and
progressives in general can win more such victories in the future.

§ Lesson 1: Pick a target that matters. Once the election was decided
and Bush and [Chief of Staff] Andrew Card were in the White House, it
was clear Washington was a dead end for progress on auto fuel
efficiency or global warming, says Russell Long, executive director
of the Bluewater Network, which initiated the California bill. But
California is the fifth-biggest economy in the world. California is
also the single most important automotive market. It not only accounts
for 10 percent of all US new-auto sales, it has historically led the
nation in auto regulation. Unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters,
hybrid cars—all appeared first in the Golden State.

How so? In 1967 California’s air quality was so noxious it was granted
the right to set its own air standards; other states have had the
option to choose California’s (tougher) standards or the federal
government’s. In short, change the law in California and you can tip
the entire national market. You can’t make one car for California and
another car for Washington, DC, explains Eron Shosteck, a spokesman
for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Since transportation
accounts for 33 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, the
ultimate impact of California’s example could be huge.

§ Lesson 2: Embrace radical ends but flexible means. Corporate
lobbyists love to portray all environmental regulations as a command
and control form of economic dictatorship, as in the old Soviet
Union. That’s a canard, of course, but the authors of the California
bill defanged that argument by omitting any specific directions for
how automakers are to achieve these unprecedented greenhouse gas
reductions. The bill empowers the California Air Resources Board to
decide what is feasible (by 2005, subject to the legislature’s
review), but it explicitly prohibits such political nonstarters as
banning SUVs or raising gas or vehicle taxes. How to get there from
here will be left to the auto industry’s engineers.

§ Lesson 3: Unite grassroots pressure with insider muscle and
celebrity clout. This part was tricky. Early backers of the bill
included the Bluewater Network and the Coalition for Clean Air, but
support from the larger national environmental groups only came later.
They saw this bill as too extreme for their agenda, and they had
other things on their plate, said one legislative aide in Sacramento
who insisted on anonymity. But once they saw it had traction, they
got on board and helped a lot. That traction came from dogged
lobbying by the bill’s sponsor, freshman Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. A
Democrat and longtime activist from the Los Angeles area, Pavley
apparently didn’t care that the bill was a long shot. Her aide Anne
Baker says, I’ve worked in Sacramento a long time. If we hadn’t had
an outside group and a freshman member, this [bill] probably wouldn’t
have been tried in the first place.

What the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council
eventually brought to the fight was lobbying experience, vast
membership rolls and contacts with luminaries like Robert Redford and
John McCain, who telephoned wavering legislators at crucial moments.
The Latino caucus also was a strong supporter, recalls NRDC lobbyist
Ann Notthoff. We have cooperated with them on toxics and air
pollution issues before, and that gave us credibility on this issue.

§ Lesson 4: Remember, the bad guys make mistakes too. In the end, the
bill passed the Assembly without a single vote to spare, and only
because the industry overplayed its hand with a wildly misleading
million-dollar-plus advertising blitz. They didn’t think they could
lose, explains V. John White, a consultant who lobbies for the Sierra
Club. We ended up splitting the business caucus, largely because the
auto industry was so shrill and arrogant. They wouldn’t negotiate,
wouldn’t compromise—they were just against the bill. So that left
members with a simple choice between the industry and us. Since polls
showed that 81 percent of Californians favored the bill, even
traditionally probusiness members felt safe bucking the auto industry.
It also didn’t hurt that the bill was backed by a wide range of
groups, from city governments and water agencies to church leaders and
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

What’s next? The automakers will sue, claiming that federal
fuel-efficiency law pre-empts the California measure. But that’s the
lawyers. In their design and marketing departments most companies are
already accelerating their pursuit of green technologies. Thanks to
California, the writing is on the wall.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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