California Says 'Welcome Aboard' to Obama's Big Climate Move

Today's executive order from President Barack Obama, directing power plants to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, vindicates California's 2006 decision to move forward on its own to cut greenhouse gas emissions through a comprehensive program. And the state's successful cap and trade market, part and parcel of the landmark program enacted by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which sets a price on carbon emissions by issuing permits, looks like it is going to get a lot more company.

Now the US will have some leverage with China and other holdouts on international action to cut greenhouse gases.

In November 2008, then President-elect Barack Obama pledged to pursue California's climate change goals nationally in this address to then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's first Governors' Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles. Today he used his executive authority to deliver on that pledge.

Stymied by a do-nothing Congress even as dramatic evidence of climate change continues to mount, Obama is using the executive authority he possesses through the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act to achieve what legislation has failed to do. That executive authority through the EPA, not incidentally, was essentially established by amendments championed by retiring Los Angeles Congressman Henry Waxman, as I discussed in my February essay considering Waxman's highly consequential 40-year career in Congress.

As I wrote in "Obama, Arnold, Jerry, and the Big Green Dream," then underdog presidential candidate Obama celebrated Earth Day 2007 in Iowa by talking up the California approach as his model on climate and energy policy. Obama's first post-election video presentation as president-elect in 2008 came at Schwarzenegger's first annual Governors' Global Climate Summit in LA, in which he vowed to pursue California's goals nationally.

Small wonder then that Governor Jerry Brown, who is not only implementing the California program but seeking to expand elements of it internationally, including persistent efforts with Chinese officials, coordinated a joint statement today from himself and the governors of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia -- the new Pacific Coast Collaborative -- welcoming Obama's move as a sign that the federal government will at last be a partner in the fight against climate change. Not so long ago, when then Governor Schwarzenegger and then California Attorney General Brown joined forces to fight in court against Bush Administration efforts to kill the tailpipe emissions law signed by Governor Gray Davis in 2002, Washington was not only not a partner, it was an enemy.

"While others delay and deny, the Obama Administration is confronting climate change head-on with these new standards," said Brown in his press release containing the statements of the other Pacific Coast governors. "Clean energy policies are already working in California, generating billions of dollars in energy savings and more than a million jobs. Bold, sustained action will be required at every level and this is a major step forward."

For his part, Schwarzenegger -- who joined with uber-director James Cameron to produce the Showtime series on climate change currently showing, Years of Living Dangerously -- had this to say: "You only need to look at the decades of scientific research and at the epic droughts and superstorms to know we can't wait any longer to take action on climate change. I applaud President Obama for using the tools at his disposal and not waiting for Congress or a new international treaty. California and nine eastern states have used similar policies, including an effective cap-and-trade system which can serve as a national model."

For years, while California stood in its rather lonely position out front on climate change, critics have ripped the state's landmark program and urged that the carbon market be eliminated. Schwarzenegger took a fair share of abuse on the issue, especially from many of his fellow Republicans. He also successfully defended it against a November 2010 oil company-backed initiative. Brown in particular has had to fend off the naysayers as it became clear that the advent of Obama did not mean the end of climate gridlock in Washington and as Waxman's direct legislative approach languished, especially after the Republican takeover of the House in 2010.

Before Brown regained the governorship, Waxman's bill to, among other things, establish a cap-and-trade market passed the then Democratic-controlled House but died in the U.S. Senate. The Republicans, dominated by a greenhouse-denying right-wing element, took the House, ending all hope for a legislative solution.

But Brown knew that Waxman's other legislative moves around the Clean Air Act made it possible for Obama, if he dared, to do what he said he intended to do on climate change. During his long years as a key subcommittee chairman and finally as House Commerce Committee chairman, Waxman moved a series of amendments to the Clear Air Act through the process. First he curbed acid rain, tightened regulations on automobile emissions, and targeted products damaging the ozone layer. Then he turned the Clean Air Act into a tool to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

Brown, of course, was well aware of all this, since Waxman and his close allies such as former Congressman Howard Berman, with whom Brown created California's farm labor act, backed Brown for governor when he was first elected in 1974, around the time he started talking about the greenhouse effect.

California simply (as if it was simple, mind you) had to establish its position on climate change and hang tough while the weight of reality mounted and until a president used the power granted him or her by Waxman's amendments.

Today that happened.