Arnold at the Wheel

The Hummer-driving Governator Greens Up

Campus Progress discusses the born-again environmentalism of California's Governor Schwarzenegger.

This article is reprinted from Campus, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress.

As Maj. Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, Arnold Schwarzenegger dazzled us in Predator as he shot high-tech weapons at trees, detonating the rainforest in a hopeless battle with an invisible foe. The film is an ode to humanity’s contempt for nature.

But these days, California Gov. Schwarzenegger has dropped the commando approach to survive in a hostile environment, and is now a central figure in the international movement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week, against the background of the San Francisco bay, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act. The law is the most ambitious program to date for capping greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States.

At the ceremony, the governor spoke of a need for global cooperation on environmental policy. “And the most exciting part for me,” Schwarzenegger said, “is that this will lead to us leading the way for other states and for other nations. Other countries, like India, China, Brazil and Mexico will join us when they see all the great work we are doing.”

For an event presided over by the government of one state, the signing ceremony returned conspicuously to the theme of multilateralism between nations. Representatives of other environmentally friendly countries were in attendance, and a patch of foreign flags quietly rippled beside the stage.

On the other side of the stage was a projection screen from which British Prime Minister Tony Blair, commended Schwarzenegger’s “remarkable leadership” and said the legislation would “echo right round the rest of the world.” And in a letter read at the ceremony, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi wrote, “I would like to commend you, Gov. Schwarzenegger, and [the] people of California for taking a leadership role in protecting the earth’s environment.”

At a separate ceremony in Los Angeles, Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, who recently pledged $3 billion to alternative fuel development, spoke via satellite.

The California Global Warming Solutions Act seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) will start by measuring carbon dioxide emissions from a variety of industries. In 2012, mandatory caps would begin. Although the legislation leaves the choice of capping system up to CARB, it suggests a market system similar to the one formed in the European Union to help those countries meet their Kyoto Protocol emissions goals.

As the world’s sixth largest economy and twelfth largest emitter of GHG, California’s decision to begin capping emissions is a significant national and international environmental development—and a curious one.

Perhaps the governor got to the ceremony in his 2005 Ford Excursion SUV that gets 11 miles to the gallon. Or perhaps he pulled one of his four Hummers out of the garage.

Last week there were rumors that Schwarzenegger had traded in what remained of his fleet of Hummers in solidarity with California’s lawsuit against six major automakers over greenhouse gas emissions. The report turned out to be based on something Al Gore said in a speech, and was false. The governor is keeping the four Hummers in his garage. According to his office he drives the gas guzzlers infrequently.

But that hardly matters. What matters is the example he sets, as a public official and a major movie star, with his conspicuous consumption. Likewise, when the owner of a fleet of Hummers fashions himself as America’s vanguard in international cooperation on the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, we are right to question his commitment to the cause.

Schwarzenegger’s environmental record is certainly not spotless. He drew criticism from environmentalists when he insisted that the California Global Warming Solutions Act contain a provision for a safety valve that would allow him to suspend the emissions caps in the case of “emergency or significant economic harm.”

The governor also currently opposes Proposition 87, the Clean Alternative Energy Act. The ballot initiative would impose a tax on oil producers in order to raise $4 billion for the development of alternative energies.

The Sierra Club criticizes Schwarzenegger as being too beholden to business interests to make the environment his main concern. The Sacramento Bee reported that Schwarzenegger received more than $1.4 million from oil-affiliated contributors since 2003. Still, even the Sierra Club resists criticizing his environmental record unduly. The League of Conservation Voters gave the governor a score of 58% for signing environmental legislation in his first year.

Schwarzenegger did work to push through the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, legislation that aims to increase the number of solar-powered homes on the market. And he spoke out against drilling for oil on the outer continental shelf. In 2005 he issued an executive order calling for an even more ambitious reduction of greenhouse gases.

In August, Schwarzenegger and Blair symbolically undermined President George Bush’s opposition to international environmental agreements when they announced plans to collaborate on environmental initiatives. In the meeting the two agreed to look into ways to bring California into the European emissions market. Schwarzenegger’s communications director emphasized that the agreement “is not a treaty. Right now, all we are doing is talking about sharing ideas.”

In November, Schwarzenegger followed a California delegation to China. The delegation agreed to provide training and advice on finding ways for China to increase energy efficiency. During his visit Schwarzenegger said that China and the United States need to “get rid of our dependence on oil and move toward clean, renewable domestic energy policies.”

At the 17th Annual Hydrogen Conference in Long Beach, Schwarzenegger predicted a “hydrogen future” in his welcome speech to over 1,000 delegates representing 24 nations and 44 US states.

Schwarzenegger has also worked on some environmental networking within the nation’s borders. Last month, a meeting between Schwarzenegger and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg established fellow-feeling between the nation’s most populous state and city on environmental issues. During the meeting, the two criticized Washington for its inability to act on global warming.

There have even been suggestions that California and a group of seven northeast states could enter into an emissions market on their own. And Schwarzenegger is expected to sign legislation that would limit the emissions of out-of-state energy producers seeking long-term contracts in the state of California.

Schwarzenegger’s attempts to extend his environmental initiatives beyond the state’s borders have been seen as an affront to the Bush administration which has failed to take up its position in the international movement to curb greenhouse gases. Perhaps in an effort to distance himself from the president during the gubernatorial race, Schwarzenegger has informally appointed himself an American ambassador to the world on emissions regulation. So far, the governor’s efforts have been vague and noncommittal, but they provide a foil for the Bush administration’s failure to participate, let alone lead, in the global movement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

How did we get to a point where Washington could take a lesson in international cooperation to fight global warming from a man described by some California newspapers as the single most environmentally harmful individual in the world?

Perhaps one day the idea of America in an international emissions market will be more than just the crazy dream of the governator dozing at the wheel of his Humvee. Until then, the California Global Warming Solutions Act is an excellent initiative, though without cooperation from other states and nations, its effects will be severely limited.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.