Stateline Story

California Governor Burnishes 'Green' Image

  • June 09, 2005
  • By Rita Beamish

United Nations World Environment Day on June 1 gave Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a high-profile platform to burnish his Republican moderate image, and he maximized the spotlight by announcing a bold global warming initiative for California. 

Plagued by sinking popularity numbers, the governor used his announcement in San Francisco last week to remind Californians that he campaigned on a litany of environmental promises-and that he's been checking them off. 

Committing California to long term greenhouse gas emission targets - starting with a reduction to 2000 levels by 2010 -- is the latest of Schwarzenegger's environmental big ideas. He has made environmental protection a visible part of his agenda, from launching a "hydrogen highway," to his call for a million state-subsidized solar homes. But the record shows a more complex overview for a politician who both glamorizes gas-guzzling Hummers - although retrofitting his own -- and bucks automakers to defend California's landmark restrictions on greenhouse-gas vehicle emissions. 

Eighteen months into his governorship, many of his ideas remain to be fleshed out or implemented. But Schwarzenegger has managed enough eclectic policy to keep business and industry from wailing about onerous regulatory schemes while also winning mixed-to-hopeful reviews from environmental organizations. 

Governing a state that often leads the nation in anti-pollution and conservation measures, Schwarzenegger is in good standing with business, garnering a 79 percent approval rating in a California Chamber of Commerce survey. 

Meanwhile his signature on green bills won him a 58 percent rating from the California League of Conservation Voters, strong for a Republican governor but short of his Democratic predecessor Gray Davis's scores in the 70s to 100 percent range. 

Reflecting his mixed approach, Schwarzenegger sought diverse backgrounds for his environmental team. Environmentalists cheered appointments like that of former green activist Terry Tamminen as Cabinet secretary, but decried others, particularly some in forestry and wildlife protection. 

"It's like one step forward and one step back," said Sierra Club state director Bill Allayaud. "When are we going to get some consistency? Is he really green or not?" 

Activists also are wary of Schwarzenegger's prolific fund raising among businesses that want regulatory relief, and they criticize his vetoes like the one that thwarted emissions controls for Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. 

On several fronts, however, Schwarzenegger has delivered the environmental portfolio, often with a flair for the flashy. He is pushing a public-private network of fueling stations for hydrogen-powered vehicles that the League of Conservation Voters calls it visionary. He inked ocean-protection measures, including limits on trawl-net fishing, restrictions on cruise ship dumping, and improved marine management. He signed legislation creating a conservancy for the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He also boosted programs against diesel emissions, and allowed single-occupant hybrid cars in the freeway carpool lanes to encourage anti-pollution technology. 

"He was off to a good start. Last year we got lots of significant legislation, but we still weren't able to address some of the major funding problems for environment," said Ann Nothoff, California advocacy director for Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Schwarzenegger's muscular language on World Environment Day, which was in sharp contrast with the Bush administration's non-aggressive attitude toward global warming, drew accolades from environmental groups even as they questioned how his goals would translate into policy, with Democratic legislators pushing for faster timetables. 

 "The targets are an excellent starting point," Jason Mark, California director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "And now the heavy lifting of enacting policies to meet them must begin." 

Of interest to all sides is Schwarzenegger's intent regarding the California Environmental Quality Act, the resource protection workhorse that often is maligned as a brake on development, and targeted by groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Building Industry Association. Schwarzenegger has a task force looking for "widespread agreement" to update the law, said Resources Agency spokesman Sandy Cooney. 

"The governor's interest here is to look at what we've got and how we can make it better. This isn't about ending it or making it better in a negative way," Cooney said. 

Many of Schwarzenegger's little-heralded strides have broad impact, said Jim Sweeney, a Stanford economist who has advised Schwarzenegger. Forcing manufacturers to create more energy efficient home appliances, for instance, undoubtedly will lead them to use the same technology in markets outside California, Sweeney said. "By being more aggressive than most of the nation on these things…that will affect the whole United States." 

Politically, the environment has helped Schwarzenegger, said Bob Grady, a Schwarzenegger environmental adviser who heads venture capital for the Carlyle Group.

"One of the reasons Arnold was elected was that he had specific credible plan on the environment such that he took that issue off the table for Gray Davis," Grady said. "That's important because it's an issue that's often used against Republicans."

Rita Beamish is a California political writer.