Schwarzenegger Will Get Credit for Any Major U.S. Climate-Change Law

In his two terms as governor of the largest state in the nation, he championed policies to promote clean energy and to fight climate change.

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

If the United States ever enacts a major climate-change law, it will owe a debt to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Strange as it sounds, the Austrian-born bodybuilder, former California governor, and movie star has flexed more legislative muscle on climate change than President Obama--who ran for office on the promise of curbing sea level rise and creating millions of green jobs--and Al Gore, the former vice president who won a Nobel Prize for his advocacy on climate change.   

Like Gore and Obama, Schwarzenegger, in his two terms as governor of the largest state in the nation, championed policies to promote clean energy and to fight climate change. Unlike those Democrats, Schwarzenegger, a Republican, succeeded in translating that passion into a major climate-change law.  

In 2006, Schwarzenegger signed a pioneering climate-change and clean-energy law known as AB-32. Its centerpiece is an aggressive cap-and-trade program, the controversial market-based system that caps emissions of heat-trapping fossil-fuel pollution and creates a financial market in which polluters and financial players can buy and sell carbon-pollution credits.

On Jan. 1, 2013, the rubber meets the road for AB-32: The cap-and-trade program--the first of its kind in the nation--will be fully enforced, and the country and the world will be watching. If it succeeds in cutting California's carbon pollution without harming the Golden State's economy, the law could serve as a model for other state policies--and eventually a national law. If it fails, it could be the last nail in the coffin for efforts to enact a national climate law.  

Schwarzenegger knows this. The California law was designed to be replicated by other states. Schwarzenegger, whose legacy was tarnished by California's plunge into an economic recession under his watch and by a high-profile marital-infidelity scandal, has campaigned heavily since stepping down from office to encourage other states and regions to enact climate policies modeled after California's, with the aim of building up momentum for national and international climate laws.

Schwarzenegger brings his global celebrity to the cause, but he also brings credibility, as the only American political leader to date who has succeeded in enacting a climate-change law.   

It appears to be working. On Dec. 19, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presented Schwarzenegger with the U.N. Correspondents Association's global advocate of the year award. The award recognized work he has done with Regions20, his U.N.-affiliated climate-change advocacy group. The group aims to push cities, states, provinces, and other regions to create a network of bottom-up climate policies that will eventually lead to broader action.

On the evening he received the U.N. award, Schwarzenegger sat down with National Journal to talk about climate policy, his legacy, and bodybuilding. On his left hand, the former governor wore a massive knuckle-dusting ring bearing the seal of California. On his right hand, he wore an equally massive skull-shaped ring, with glittering diamonds in its eyes. Peeping out from his tuxedo jacket sleeves was a bracelet made out of a polished bicycle chain.  

Sitting back in a walnut-paneled holding room while he waited to receive his U.N. award, Schwarzenegger propped an alligator-skin shoe up on the coffee table and held forth on the stakes of the California climate law.    

"The key thing is that we're successful, so that others will join," he said.

He likes to talk about the strategy of building up from the "subnational" level--getting cities, states, provinces, and regions to adopt similar policies--taking action when a national government won't.

"We've always tried to show leadership on the subnational level," Schwarzenegger said of California. "Since the United States was not coming to agreement on anything, we didn't want to wait. So we moved. But it's not something that is for 38 million people. It's supposed to have an effect worldwide. Because if we do well as a subnational government, then other governments are going to feel that they can also venture out and be more independent, and not wait for their capitals to create action."

Already, California plans to link its cap-and-trade carbon market with a regional market in Quebec, and talks are beginning about connecting with a carbon market in Australia. China--which is today the world's largest global-warming polluter and which has refused to take national-level action to cut its greenhouse-gas pollution without a national commitment from the U.S.--is now looking into enacting cap-and-trade programs in some provinces, which could also link up to the California carbon market.   

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Coral Davenport is an energy and environment correspondent for National Journal.

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