No state has matched California in using the law to protect and conserve the environment. The spark that ignited the modern environmental movement was undoubtedly the Santa Barbara oil spill of January 1969, an ecological disaster that blackened 35 miles of scenic coastland and killed thousands of seabirds and marine mammals. Californians responded by passing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which required environmental impact review of any development projects within the state, and by pressuring another Californian, President Richard M. Nixon, to create the Environmental Protection Agency. Soon, the state passed automobile emissions control standards even tougher than federal law.
California has used the law not just to regulate pollution but also to create alternatives. In 1989, when voters mothballed the troubled, 913-megawatt Rancho Seco nuclear generating plant, Sacramento municipal utilities director S. David Freeman replaced all those lost megawatts by buying up old and inefficient refrigerators, offering rebates for solar panel and wind energy projects, and planting thousands of trees in the Central Valley to serve as a natural air conditioning system. Berkeley professor Dan Kammen notes that “all the academic conversations about efficiency don’t add up to doing anything until a utility commissioner proves that you can actually use conservation to replace generating capacity. It was Freeman going out and doing it that changed the game.”
Because California’s economy is so gigantic, the standards we set for things such as auto emissions often become de facto national regulations—which explains the importance of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s support for the California Global Warming Solutions Act. This law requires California to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) back to 1990 levels by 2020. That equates to 174 metric tons of CO2, the amount of carbon spewing from 43 coal-fired power plant stacks. The legislation, signed in September, also provides market incentives for businesses to reduce emissions. While Washington is still tangled in ideological debates over global warming, California has once again taken the lead in doing something about it.
From the January February 2007 25 Brilliant California Ideas issue of California.