Friday, September 1, 2006
THE LEGISLATIVE bargain struck in California this week on global climate change is a landmark in several respects. With the Bush administration sitting on its hands, state governments are emerging as the principal actors in reducing U.S. dependence on the fossil fuels responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. California's plan, a compromise between Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislators, is by far the most ambitious state initiative yet. What's more, California accounts for such a large percentage of the American economy that its regulatory actions will have large impact elsewhere. Most important, the more that states take action on their own -- and thereby create a patchwork of rules -- the more pressure will build on the federal government to create a national policy for mandatory greenhouse gas reductions.
The California plan calls for cutting greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which is about a 25 percent reduction. It builds on an earlier effort by the state to address greenhouse emissions by vehicles. In its ambition, scope and bipartisanship, it provides a model for federal policymaking.
It is less of a model in its specifics -- or lack thereof. The compromise does not specify any regulatory mechanisms but lays out a timetable in which, in generalities, it directs a state regulatory board to develop plans and implement them. It implies but does not explicitly require that a kind of cap-and-trade system might be used. In essence, it directs an ambitious outcome and then punts the policymaking to an unelected body. The governor's staff insists that the vagueness was deliberate, an effort to build in flexibility and make sure that complex problems got adequate technical study. And it may or may not work in California. But it would never do for Congress, which, when it finally confronts global warming seriously, will have to come up with a more specific set of proposals.
In the meantime, however, California has begun an experiment of tremendous importance to the rest of the nation. It has asserted that talk and study are no longer sufficient -- that bold action is possible and necessary.