The State of California

Remember the Kyoto Protocol? This unprecedented agreement supported by 156 countries set limits on greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to combat climate change. But we—the country responsible for a disproportionate amount of CO2 emissions—didn’t ratify it. The Clinton administration fought to get the United States to commit, but special interests blocked the measure in Congress. Since George W. Bush became president, arrogance and political posturing have ruled: global warming either doesn’t exist or requires further study.

But since the treaty was negotiated something else happened: individual states began global-warming initiatives, starting—as these things almost always do when it comes to environmental public policy—with California. The state recently approved the country’s first climate-change rules, which require a nearly 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2016. “California’s tailpipe emissions bill was a direct response to the failure of the federal government to take any action on global warming,” Sierra Club regional director Carl Zichella says.

This is by no means the first time California has taken the lead on the environment. California’s regulation of motor vehicles emissions preceded the 1970 Federal Clean Air Act, and as a result, the federal law (and its 1990 amendments) gave other states the option to adopt California’s tougher standards. Currently Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont adhere to California’s stricter vehicle emissions rules.

So if the tailpipe emissions bill should survive the legal challenge mounted against it by large automakers, those seven states would automatically be required to meet the new standards.

Other states would almost certainly follow. (In a separate action Governor Schwarzenegger recently signed an executive order outlining an ambitious initiative to tackle global warming. “It’s comprehensive, beyond just automobile emissions,” Zichella says.) California’s leadership role—which covers a range of initiatives from the management of public lands to support of alternative energy—is critical. As the world’s fifth-largest economy, the state literally moves markets. And in the absence of national leadership, it fills a crucial void.

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