In this week of repeated Barack Obama appearances around our epic financial crisis, it's important to keep in mind that this president isn't going to sacrifice the environment for short-term economic expedience. In fact, he seems to view environmental progress as key to economic progress.
So far, President-elect Barack Obama has made only three of his new video addresses. Two are the weekly radio addresses that the president customarily does, now shown also on YouTube. The third was his address to last week's Governors' Global Climate Summit at the Beverly Hilton in LA.
I was there, and it turned out to be a pretty big deal, with Obama, in the face of the global financial crisis, affirming his commitment from the campaign to move aggressively against greenhouse gas emissions and for green technology.
"My presidency," declared Obama, "will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process."
The president-elect declared that his national goal will be that already established by California under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. "We'll establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020."
Obama quite evidently had no hard feelings over Schwarzenegger's speech in Columbus, Ohio -- where the ex-Terminator has major interests and hosts an annual bodybuilding and fitness festival -- the Friday before the election. Campaigning there with his old friend John McCain, the former Mr. Universe criticized Obama's tax program and described the slender senator as "scrawny." Schwarzenegger made it clear after that he was kidding around and making his sole general election appearance for the Republican candidate. The next day in Nevada, Obama chief strategist David Axelrod laconically allowed as how "We're looking forward to getting Governor Schwarzenegger on the basketball court after the election."
Despite many rumors, don't look for Schwarzenegger in the Obama Administration, at least not now, though candidate Obama mentioned him several times as someone he'd like to appoint. Schwarzenegger has over two years to go as governor of California.
Obama's video address wasn't the only highlight of the LA confab, which was in part a meeting to help set the stage for the the successor to the Kyoto Accord to be negotiated next year in Copenhagen. State and provincial governors and environmental officials from around the world -- with big contingents from Brazil and Indonesia, the European Unio and the United Nations -- participated in the two-day event, which was hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former action superstar signed greenhouse gas reduction accords with the governors of the largest states in Indonesia and Brazil, focusing on deforestation, having previously signed pacts with state and provincial governors in Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Australia.
Also on hand were Florida Governor Charlie Crist, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. Eight other American governors were represented and signed on to the event's overall agreement to work cooperatively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in advance of a hoped-for worldwide agreement: Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, New York Governor David Paterson, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. Between them, the 13 governors represent most Americans.
It's not the first time that Obama has looked to California on climate change. When he celebrated Earth Day 2007 in Iowa City, while still an underdog candidate for the presidency, he said, as you see in the video above, that he would model his approach after California's with hard targets on greenhouse gas emissions, the development of new green tech industrial sector, and a cap & trade system.
California has adopted two landmark climate change laws, in 2002 and 2006, which became models for many other states. In 2002, a bill by then LA Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, to cut tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, signed into law by then Governor Gray Davis. In 2006, after a set of executive orders by Schwarzenegger in 2005, a bill by Fran Pavley again and then Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez to establish a comprehensive program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the board. The latter bill, AB 32, signed into law by Schwarzenegger in an elaborate ceremony on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay -- with Tony Blair beaming in by satellite from England -- incorporates the first Pavley bill, which was heavily opposed by Detroit automakers. Without it, the California program can't work.
Naturally, the Bush Administration dragged its heels for years on the question of approving the California tailpipe emissions law. California has special standing under the Clean Air Act because of its history of air pollution to pursue more aggressive regulations than the federal standard. Every such law California has pursued has been approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Once California's clean air laws are approved, other states can copy them. California alone is a large enough market for the auto industry that it could force the adoption of new technologies across all model lines. With other states following on, and quite a few states are adopting California-style climate laws, it's a radical shift in the works for an industry that has been highly resistant to change.
This, not incidentally, is a tremendous advantage for a new President Obama, who can get the ball rolling on a huge part of his program simply by approving California's already enacted and legally tested laws.
After losing its argument before the U.S. Supreme Court that greenhouse gases aren't air pollution, the EPA continued to drag its heels. Faced with a finding from the agency's top staff that the California law should be approved, the Bush appointee in charge did the opposite.
Throughout this process, Schwarzenegger and California's attorney general, former Governor Jerry Brown, have been fighting the Bush Administration and automakers in court. Schwarzenegger and Brown also appealed to the presidential contenders in both parties to pledge to allow the California law to be implemented.
Earlier this year, Obama, who had previously said privately that he would approve the law, agreed publicly. As did Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee.
But when exactly will Obama have his EPA approve the California program?
The Obama team isn't saying. They prefer, not surprisingly, not to be piece-mealed to death. The last time I spoke with them about it, neither Schwarzenegger nor Brown were sure when the EPA approval would come.
Former California state Controller Steve Westly, an eBay honcho-turned-greentech venture capitalist, is one of Obama's earliest and biggest supporters. He's in the mix for US secretary of energy. He's not sure of the timing, either. Or if he is, he's not saying.
But clearly this is part and parcel of what is swiftly becoming Obama's program.
Obama plans to focus much of his economic recovery program on the refurbishing of infrastructure and the development and diffusion of green technology.
But it's not easy to do, and requires a constant focus.
Prior to his summit, Schwarzenegger had just signed an executive order to further streamline permitting for renewable energy projects -- such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal --and to fast track California's mandate for the proportion of renewable power in its energy portfolio to 33% by 2020.
But California is behind on its current mandate for 20% renewable power by 2010. The original mandate, the work of former Governor Gray Davis, was for California to get 20% of its electric power from renewable sources by 2017.
But in 2002, while he was considering a run for governor, Schwarzenegger told me he thought that target wasn't ambitious enough. After he got himself elected in landslide fashion during the dramatic 2003 California recall election, Schwarzenegger accelerated the 20% renewables target from 2017 to 2010.
However, at the end of 2008, the share of California electric power that is from renewable sources stands at 12%. Very good compared to most, but well short of Schwarzenegger's accelerated target. Critics point to foot-dragging by utilities and opposition by some enviros to transmission lines.
Indeed, Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies director V. John White, a former Sierra Club lobbyist, says that 90% of California's current renewable power portfolio stems from decisions during Jerry Brown's administration. Which was a quarter century ago.
That was when Brown decided to cut California's annual rate of growth in electric power demand from 7% to 2%, in the process focusing heavily on conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable power. Absent that, California would now be littered with scores of obsolete yet hugely expensive conventional power plants.
Schwarzenegger is finding, like other governors and presidents have before him, that focus is key in getting things done. Just because you pass a law doesn't mean that you've made change. There is only so much political capital, only so much intellectual bandwidth.
That's why Obama will be very well served when he has his new EPA approve the California law, which will trigger many other state laws.
It's not easy to change the resource base of an economy, even when the economic, environmental, and geopolitical reasons for doing it are clear. Letting Schwarzenegger and the other governors do their part, which is going to be huge, will be enormously helpful to the new president.
And you can check things out during the day on my site, New West Notes, at www.newwestnotes.com.