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California fired up about cooling the climate

California, the state where drivers of hybrid cars cruise solo in the carpool lane, serves as the template for other states on global warming policy. Even the federal government has been forced to take notice.
Ski Lift
California has a lot at stake with global warming, including the ski industry. Scientists say warming in the Sierra Nevada mountains could lead to shorter winters and less snow.Rich Pedroncelli / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

In California, environmentalism has never been a dirty word.

It celebrates tree-sitters like Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent two years on top of a giant redwood. And its laws protect geckos, yellow-billed cuckoos and the Mohave ground squirrel.

While sometimes ridiculed for its granola image and left-leaning tendencies, California also has set the agenda for clean air, clean water and other health standards that later become the norm in middle America. It was the first to kick smokers out of bars, order tailpipe smog checks and put warnings on beer.

Today, the state where drivers of hybrid cars cruise solo in the carpool lane serves as the template for other states on global warming policy. Even the federal government has been forced to take notice.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently endorsed California’s strategy to regulate greenhouse gases from vehicles. That validates the state’s claim that the emissions should be classified as air pollutants over the objections of the Bush administration.

At least a dozen other states are expected to follow suit should the Environmental Protection Agency give California the right to limit auto emissions. A final decision is expected later this year.

Meanwhile, the state is polishing up a new law that would bar its utilities from buying electricity from out-of-state coal plants that don’t meet certain emissions standards. Coal produces more carbon dioxide than any other commonly used U.S. fuel source.

“California definitely has been an early leader on a wide variety of environmental issues, and I think that leadership has been continuing on global warming,” said Judi Greenwald, a director at the nonprofit Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a nonpartisan group based in Arlington, Va.

Emitter and victim
There’s a reason for the state’s progressiveness. California, the world’s eighth largest economy, is the world’s 12th largest producer of greenhouse gases.

Global warming is expected to have a profound effect on the nation’s most populous state, home to one of every eight Americans. Rising temperatures threaten to diminish its water supply, increase flooding and fuel more intense wildfires, while parts of its famed coastline will be inundated by rising sea levels. Agriculture, its No. 1 industry, also could suffer, even putting California’s famed wine country at risk.

A wide majority of residents support steps to curb the state’s contribution to climate change. A 2006 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that eight in 10 residents believe global warming will be a very or somewhat serious threat to the state’s future economy and quality of life. Two-thirds said the state should address the issue.

“I think all of us can just live a little better,” said Julie Cozzolino, a teacher who was loading groceries into her Honda Civic hybrid after shopping at a natural foods co-op in Sacramento. “My biggest concern is people should get their heads out of the sand. It’s amazing to me that people don’t assume any responsibility.”

The state’s sheer size, its economic diversity and variable geography present scientists and policy makers with a unique place to observe the changes wrought by climate change, and to craft potential solutions.

It’s an influential role that California has demonstrated in the past, becoming the nation’s de-facto lab for environmental policy.

California lawmakers enacted the first rules to reduce smog and required utilities to use alternative energy. State standards led industry to develop more efficient refrigerators and air conditioners, as well as the catalytic converter.

Recognizing the state’s pioneering status on environmental issues, Congress in the 1960s gave California the ability to set its own air pollution controls. Four decades later, it is using that special authority to make its own strides on global warming.

Last fall, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that imposed the first statewide cap on greenhouse gases, garnering worldwide attention for a move that put California at odds with the Bush administration.

The law, written by Democrats, requires California to reduce emissions by an estimated 25 percent by 2020 — an estimated 174 million metric tons.

Absent federal leadership, at least 15 states are exploring their own strategies for reducing the gases blamed for global warming. They include increasing renewable energy, selling agricultural carbon credits and encouraging energy efficiency. It’s a movement Schwarzenegger recently described as “hip” and “sexy.”

“What we do in California has unbelievable impact and it has consequences,” Schwarzenegger told an audience at Georgetown University this spring. “When you look at the globe, California is a little spot, but the kind of power and influence that we have on the rest of the world is an equivalent of a whole huge continent.”

While California has moved aggressively to address climate change, it also has borrowed ideas from others. In the Northeast, for example, seven states began an effort in 2003 to cap emissions from power plants. Europe has been testing carbon trading systems since 2005.

Impact beyond the state
Nevertheless, other states are pointing to California as the next model on global warming. In February, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed an executive order patterned after California’s greenhouse gas emissions law.

In May, Utah became the sixth state to join a Western coalition, initiated by Schwarzenegger, that will set a regional target for emissions.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has said she hopes to model federal legislation after California’s emissions law.

On a clear sunny day, vehicles travel across the Sierra Nevada on Interstate 80, normally covered with snow, near Emigrant Gap, Calif., in file photo taken Friday, Jan. 12, 2007. Vehicles contribute about 40 percent of the greenhouse gases in California that are emitted into the atmosphere that scientists say are one the main causes to global warming. Warmer temperatures threaten to melt the Sierra snow pack, a main water shed for the state.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)Rich Pedroncelli / FILE

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger and California lawmakers want to do even more. The governor has asked state air regulators to adopt a low-carbon fuel standard, while Democrats are pushing for increased use of alternative fuels, issues that have seeped into the presidential campaigns.

The state also is demanding more of its cities and counties. Attorney General Jerry Brown has sued San Bernardino County in Southern California for failing to control urban sprawl in its 25-year growth plan, noting that transportation is the state’s major source of greenhouse gases.

Carl Pope, executive director of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, said California’s political leaders have seized on the momentum and don’t want to relinquish it.

“Other states are fumbling over each other to catch up with us,” he said, “and Washington is brain-dead on the issue.”