Californias Pioneering Role

Leadership and innovation are key to curtailing carbon emissions and stabilizing climate change. Neither automakers, oil companies, nor consumers are likely to lead the way, at least on their own, so it falls to governments and entrepreneurs to spur action in the right direction. For a model of how this might happen, we need look no further than California. California is at the forefront of innovation and is focusing increasingly on the fight against global warming.

California's reach extends far beyond its borders. It spurred the last two major global industrial revolutions (in information technology and biotechnology), has more top-rank universities than any other region, and is home to the Hollywood-based entertainment industry that projects American culture to the rest of the world. California exports goods, but perhaps more influential is its export of car-based cities and lifestyles. It has more people, cars, energy use, and carbon emissions than any other state in the Union, and most other nations.

When it comes to cars and oil, California has been an innovator and entrepreneur—though not always for the best. A positive view is that all the pieces are in place for California to create a low-carbon energy and transportation system and to lead other states and nations in doing the same. It has visionary political leaders, experienced government agencies, accomplished research institutions, technically sophisticated entrepreneurs, a large venture capital community, and environmentally savvy consumers and voters.

It also has unique authority and political flexibility. No other state is allowed to preempt the federal government's environmental regulations. Because California suffered unusually severe air quality problems, the U.S. Congress in 1967 granted the state authority over vehicle emissions, as long as its rules are at least as strong as the federal ones. Other states are now given the option of following the more stringent California standards instead of the federal standards.

California has taken advantage of this authority. It has positioned itself in a leadership role ahead of the federal government, launching the world's preeminent air quality agency, which pioneered emission controls on vehicles, reformulated gasoline, and zero-emission vehicles. Now it's pioneering greenhouse gas policies.1

California has been highly effective in part because it has more political space to maneuver than national policymakers. The Detroit companies have relatively small investments in California (only one assembly plant) and coal companies are absent. Sacramento is thus far less accountable than Washington, D.C., to the domestic auto and high-carbon fossil energy industries. California politicians are able to pursue energy and climate policy more aggressively.

While top-down approaches contained in international treaties and national rules will be required to achieve substantial climate change mitigation, a bottom-up approach is also needed, one that more directly engages individuals and businesses.2 California is providing the bottom-up model for others to follow.

From Smog and Sprawl to Environmental Leadership

California's commitment to environmental leadership is intrinsic and strongly rooted. It grows from the state's history of environmental problems, some of which have been caused by its motorized lifestyle. For better or worse, California came of age together with cars, and it was cars that inspired the state's leadership in air quality—leadership bolstered in the twenty-first century by a governor, a legislature, an attorney general, and a government agency that have taken on climate change as a top priority.

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