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. 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.