Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Mantle of Leadership

For much of my lifetime, California was at the leading edge of trends in this country. That mantle slipped in the 1990s, and the end of the Dot-Com boom seemed like a tombstone on an era. Environmental activism was a big part of that leadership, and there, as in other areas, the state’s change in status was largely a matter of others catching up. Without exaggerating its significance, Monday’s agreement between California and the UK to cooperate on global warming reasserts that tradition of trend-setting. At a minimum, it has a much deeper context than positioning Governor Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign in the mainstream of California environmentalism.

It’s fascinating to see how differently this event is being reported across the Atlantic. While even the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the non-binding nature of the agreement to cooperate on technology and market mechanisms to address climate change, London’s Guardian touted it as a short step away from joining the EU’s mandatory carbon trading system. Both papers, along with the more conservative Daily Telegraph, focused on the way this accord bypasses the federal government's more modest approach to global warming. The emerging pattern of climate response in this country is a patchwork of state, regional and local initiatives.

As a lapsed native son, I'm encouraged that California has evolved beyond its previous reliance on environmental mandates that left industry holding the bag--and the blame from consumers for higher prices--to embrace market-friendlier approaches to this most daunting and controversial of environmental issues. In the old days, the state’s bold targets of returning to year-2000 emissions by 2010, and to an almost-Kyoto-compliant 1990 level by 2020 would likely have been implemented by a combination of across-the-board cuts from stationary sources and direct interventions with carmakers on vehicle fuel economy. This is progress.

It would be easy to write off this agreement as mere political theater, as Mr. Schwarzenegger’s opponent, state Treasurer Angelides implied. However, doing so requires characterizing the event’s other attendees, including Virgin’s Richard Branson, BP’s Lord Browne, and the CEOs of PG&E and Edison International, as mere glitterati or groupies. These are serious business people, and their presence signals the importance that many businesses place on climate change, and their recognition of the need to support responses to it that are compatible with business, rather than inimical to it.

The other day I took California's leaders to task for their stand against offshore drilling, and today I’m praising them for being progressive on climate change. Some readers might see greater contradiction on my part than on the state’s. I’d prefer to say that emissions trading and smart, selective oil and gas drilling both derive from a pragmatic school of environmentalism that sees it integrated with everything else, rather than standing above everything.

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