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!
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.