Amid all the starpower assembled in the White House Rose Garden on a crystalline afternoon last May, the unassuming gray-haired woman who sat beaming in a prime first-row seat went largely unnoticed. But if not for California state Senator Fran Pavley, none of the other people who had gathered might have been there at all. In 2002, as a first-term member of the California Assembly, she had steered through the nation’s first law requiring automakers to reduce the tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming. Fourteen other states indicated they planned to adopt the California law. But George W. Bush’s administration refused to provide the federal waiver the state needed to proceed, and the major auto companies added new hurdles by challenging the state law in court. In January 2009, when Bush left office, the California plan was as stuck as a commuter caught behind a rush-hour pileup.
With the change of administrations, though, the road suddenly cleared. Candidate Obama endorsed the California initiative, and once he became president, his aides negotiated an agreement between the state, environmentalists, the auto-workers union, and the leading auto companies to use the California law as the basis for nationwide regulations to dramatically improve the fuel efficiency, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, of all new cars and trucks. The result was the unprecedented, almost unimaginable, scene that unfolded, fittingly enough, under perfect California weather that May afternoon in the Rose Garden. On the podium, President Obama stood flanked by senior executives from 10 global auto companies (including eight that the U.S. government did not own). In the chairs arrayed across the lawn, environmentalists mingled with auto-industry lobbyists, and Californians who had led the fight for stronger fuel-economy standards, like Pavley and Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, wedged in beside Michigan legislators who had fiercely resisted them. Obama didn’t acknowledge Pavley by name, but he made clear that without California’s “extraordinary leadership,” the landmark environmental agreement he was announcing might never have been reached. Californians “have led the way on this,” Obama said, “as they have in so many other efforts to protect our environment.”