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California Green Light | The Nation

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California Green Light

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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!

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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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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