Arnold Schwarzenegger is not the type of guy you would necessarily associate with tree hugging. When he bought a Hummer in the early 1990s, it kicked off a nationwide craze for the gas-guzzling behemoths. His lighter-fluid-dowsed action flicks and protein-packed chest bespoke more of American excess than environmentalism, more violence than vegan.
But as governor of California, Schwarzenegger has engaged in a savvy makeover, befitting a Hollywood star. He retooled one of his four Hummers to run on alternative fuels and is quickly fashioning himself into one of the most aggressively pro-environment governors in a state known for leading the nation on that issue.
This year he signed the nation's first environmental law of its kind, committing the state to lowering its greenhouse gas production to 1990 levels by 2020 and setting up an international program that provides manufacturers with incentives to lower carbon emissions, which is supposed to begin by 2012. He has vowed to fight any attempt to drill for oil off California's coast.
And now Schwarzenegger, a Republican, wants to use his star power to turn global warming into an issue in the 2008 presidential election. "There is a whole new movement because of the change of people sent to Washington," Schwarzenegger said in an interview this week, referring to the Democratic Party's impending takeover of Congress. "We want to put the spotlight on this issue in America. It has to become a debate in the presidential election. It has to become an issue."
Rocky relationship with Bush
Schwarzenegger's relationship with the Bush administration and the conservative wing of the Republican Party has been rocky. He has clashed with Bush over stem cell research (Schwarzenegger favors, Bush opposes), dispatching the National Guard to do border enforcement (Bush ordered, Schwarzenegger opposed) and legalizing the purchase of prescription drugs from Canada (Bush opposes, Schwarzenegger favors).
But no other issue divides the governor and the president as much as global warming. Schwarzenegger's embrace of the issue is clearly a gambit on the part of a politician with big ambitions. Analysts say he could run for the Senate in 2010. He cannot run for president because he was not born in the United States.
Schwarzenegger made no bones about his exasperation with the Bush administration's refusal to allow California to become the first state in the nation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. A request in 2005 for that authority has received no response from the Environmental Protection Agency. The question of whether the EPA -- or other agencies -- should regulate greenhouse gases is being considered by the Supreme Court.
"We are going to find a way to do it, no matter what anyone says," Schwarzenegger said. ". . . We have to make moves that protect the health of the people. That's our number one priority.
"We don't want Washington to tell us when we are allowed to be healthy or when we should get cancer," he continued. "We don't want people to die because pollution causes certain illnesses and cancers and so on."
Schwarzenegger argued that in a "Nixon goes to China" way he is uniquely poised to lead on the environmental front. Calling himself a "sane Republican," he said his pro-business philosophy and fiscal conservatism shield him from accusations of being "the tree hugger, the crazy guy out there who wants to live on the moon and talk about the spirits and all this holistic stuff."
"With me they can't do it, because my whole history is different," he said, puffing thoughtfully on a fat cigar in his smoking tent in a courtyard of the state Capitol. "It's unexpected, so therefore you have a better chance to have an impact. . . . All those businesses would never have a better guy than me."
Schwarzenegger asserted that his embrace of the issue has helped prompt other Republicans to change their tune on the environment. Republican presidential hopefuls have reached out to Schwarzenegger's team to talk about global warming, an aide noted.
While other states are also far out ahead of the federal government on global warming, California is the place to lead the country on green issues, he contended. This state "is really in a unique position because we have such an impact on the world," he said.
"You go back to bodybuilding," he added, musing about his roots. "We promoted bodybuilding here, but it went all over the world, and now in every town, no matter where you go in the Middle East or Africa or China, everybody is working out, lifting weights, in the garage, at home or in the bedroom, pulling out equipment from under the bed."
Taking the model to Washington
California's two senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have told officials in Sacramento that they intend to model federal legislation on California's greenhouse gas legislation. Schwarzenegger said he is ready to go to Washington to testify on the issue.
Schwarzenegger also contended that bold American action on global warming -- a makeover that parallels his own -- could do much to improve the nation's international image.
"The war has dragged us down. There's no reason to get political, that's just the way it is," he said. "But you can balance it by being a great leader in the environment."
"The more America shows leadership in that area," he said, "the more we will be loved for that as much as they love us for our hamburgers and for our jeans and for our movies and for our music."
Environmental groups, rarely inclined to support a Republican, have grudgingly given Schwarzenegger decent marks. "Schwarzenegger has really taken the lead on greenhouse gases, more so than almost any American politician," said Frank O'Donnell, president of D.C.-based Clean Air Watch. "His state is the leading edge of many of our problems, but it's also the leading edge of many of their solutions."
In California, Schwarzenegger's pro-environmental position is part of a bipartisan tradition; even Ronald Reagan was known as pro-environment during his years in the statehouse. Since the 1960s, the state, bedeviled by the worst air quality in the United States, has led the nation in tackling pollutants. In 1961, it required the first automotive emissions control technology in the nation, and its regulations continue to be the toughest in the country.
California's standards have helped give birth in the United States to hybrid cars, efficient refrigerators and air conditioners, and the catalytic converter, which, because of California's leadership, will soon be installed on lawn mowers and other equipment using two-stroke engines.
The federal Air Quality Act of 1967 granted California a waiver to set and enforce its own emissions standards for new vehicles. Based on that waiver, California asked the federal government to allow it to begin limiting greenhouse gases from cars. California's status on this front gives it further claim to an environmental leadership role, Schwarzenegger said.
To be sure, there were -- and still are -- huge fights over emissions and, more broadly, coastal preservation. California is home to Richard W. Pombo (R), a congressman who almost succeeded in weakening the Endangered Species Act before he was defeated in November.
'A whole new phenomenon'
Nonetheless, the state's tough regulations have resulted in improvements. Schwarzenegger recalled that, when he first moved to California, his workouts on Muscle Beach in Venice left him with teary eyes.
"They were just burning all the time, and now I've never felt that again. It's just gone. That is unbelievable progress," he said. "It's all because of the Clean Air Act and the catalytic converter. All those kind of things that were done in the '70s which everyone fought about and said that business would go down and everyone was going to move from California and the world was going to be flat again and all this drama. And look what happened? The whole world is doing it."
Because California has embraced conservation like no other big state, its per capita consumption of energy has remained flat over 30 years, while the rest of the country's has increased by 50 percent. And total vehicle emissions of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons have fallen more than 20 percent in 15 years, even though miles driven by state motorists are up by more than 20 percent.
Noting that Silicon Valley investors are devoting billions of dollars to green technology, Schwarzenegger predicted that a new era is dawning for business. He enthused about a recent trip to the Los Angeles Auto Show, where he test-drove an electric race car that went from 0 to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds. "A battery? I mean that's extraordinary. That's faster than a turbo Porsche," he said.
"All of this is going to be a whole new phenomenon," he said, "where people who are smart and entrepreneurial will not fight it but will get into it."