mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


California Leads on Climate

California, and Fran Pavley, have done it again. Twice now, this
schoolteacher turned politician has written the most far-reaching
global warming legislation enacted in the United States.

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Having spent the first twenty-five years of her career teaching California
eighth graders American history—Benjamin Franklin, she says, is her
favorite historical figure—Pavley was elected to the State Assembly
in 2000.

The Democrat promptly teamed up with environmental groups to write and
win passage of a law requiring all motor vehicles sold in California
to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2016. Now she’s
gone further. On August 31 the legislature passed, and Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger promised to sign, her Global Warming Solutions Act. The
law requires California, the world’s sixth-biggest economy, to reduce
overall greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a cut of
about 25 percent. This marks the first time that mandatory,
comprehensive caps on greenhouse gas emissions have been imposed in
the United States.

If Pavley’s triumph illustrates how far California is ahead of America
in fighting climate change, it also reveals how far America is behind
the rest of the world. One would never guess this from the hosannas
that environmentalists, politicians and editorial writers have
showered on Pavley’s bill. “Historic” and “revolutionary” were but two
of the superlatives employed. All true, but only within the political
context of the United States, where a consensus on global warming has
emerged only in recent months, following Hurricane Katrina and the
plain-spoken media coverage it (finally) provoked.

Look again at the numbers in the act. Talk about an inconvenient
truth! Returning California’s greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by
2020 is even less ambitious than the Kyoto Protocol, which requires
industrial nations to lower emissions approximately 5 percent below
1990 levels by 2012. And Kyoto’s targets are only a tiny step toward
the cuts that are truly necessary. Scientists of the United Nations
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been saying since 1990
that emissions cuts of 70 percent below 1990 levels will be needed to
stabilize the climate.

This shortcoming went unmentioned in all the commentary on the new
law, but Pavley herself freely admits it. “Is this bill enough to
really address global warming? Absolutely not,” she says. “But it’s an
important first step. The real idea behind the bill is to get other
states to follow our lead. And we will build on this. You know,
passing AB 1493 [Pavley’s 2002 vehicle emissions law] wasn’t the end
of the story either.”

Indeed, ten other states, including fellow powerhouse New York, have
committed their governments to adopting the same 30 percent emissions
cuts Pavley’s earlier law mandates, assuming the law survives a
pending court challenge. A coalition of automobile
companies—including supposedly green Toyota and Honda–filed suit
against the law in 2004; the Bush Administration soon joined the suit.
But the Schwarzenegger administration has vigorously defended the law
in court. And, says Terry Tamminen, the governor’s top environmental
aide, “the judge hasn’t ordered any injunction or halt to the program,
so meanwhile the car companies have to prepare to comply with the
rules.”

Likewise with Pavley’s new law: Virtually simultaneously with
California, seven Northeastern states announced in August that they’ll
impose mandatory reductions on greenhouse gas emissions from electric
power production, a sector responsible for approximately one-third of
total US emissions. Again, the relative size of the reductions is
small: a 10 percent drop from 1990 levels by 2019. In Arizona,
Governor Janet Napolitano issued an executive order urging the state
to reduce total greenhouse emissions to 2000 levels by 2020. Such
steps send an unmistakable message. Momentum is building nationwide to
attack global warming. Mandatory emissions cuts—and a real or de
facto price on carbon and other greenhouse gases—will be facts of
economic life in twenty-first-century America.

This helps explain the growing enthusiasm among state and local
governments for expanding green energy production. Twenty-two states
and the District of Columbia now require electric utility companies to
produce a specific amount of electricity from renewable sources like
wind and solar. Jim Marston, director of state global warming
initiatives for Environmental Defense, says, “California is clearly
the national leader on green energy, but it’s joined in that first
tier by New York, New Jersey and maybe Illinois, followed by
Washington, Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts.” But the most
exciting developments, Marston adds, are unfolding “in states where
you don’t expect it, like New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina and
Utah.”

Fran Pavley has now been termed out of the California Assembly; the
Global Warming Solutions Act will pass as she leaves office. She plans
to run for State Senate in 2008, joking, “I guess I won’t be getting
too many oil company contributions.” Whatever happens down the road,
Pavley has jump-started California’s, and thereby the nation’s,
response to the greatest threat of our time. Benjamin Franklin, one
suspects, would be proud.

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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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