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.

"What [Regions20] is all about is, let's not freeze--let's move forward on the subnational level, let's not be at a standstill," Schwarzenegger said. He cited the California law's target--reducing carbon pollution 25 percent by 2020. "Imagine if every state does that. This is the power that states have--they can do that. If states can do it, then provinces in Canada and China can do it. Cities in Italy can do it."

That's exactly what has happened with climate-change policy in the U.S., as  Obama has tried but failed to enact a national law. In 2010, he pushed Congress to pass a cap-and-trade law similar to California's. But the bill failed in the Senate, and Republicans turned "cap-and-trade" into a toxic political catchphrase. Although Obama has said he would like to make climate change a top priority in a second term, it's hard to imagine that he'll be able to get congressional Republicans to embrace the return of a major climate-change bill--especially after a presidential campaign in which almost every GOP contender openly questioned the science of climate change.

"I think the president is pushing the issue as much as he can," Schwarzenegger said. But that's why, he said, the future of national climate policy will depend on building momentum from the state level.

Of Republicans who denounce climate science, he said, "I pay very little attention to what they say before an election. The very people that screamed before the election that 'Over my dead body we'll raise taxes' are the same ones that are now going to agree to raise taxes."

Throughout his political and advocacy career, Schwarzenegger's secret climate weapon has been Terry Tamminen, a California Democratic energy-policy strategist. When the movie star first considered running for governor, he recruited Tamminen to write his energy policy--including the cap-and-trade climate plan, which became the model for the 2006 AB-32 law.

After he won the governorship, Schwarzenegger appointed Tamminen to head his Environmental Protection Agency and to be his chief policy adviser--a job from which Tamminen took a sabbatical in 2008, to work on energy and climate policy for Obama's first presidential campaign. In that role, Tamminen helped craft candidate Obama's energy and climate plan--modeled after AB-32.

Tamminen sees California as an energy and environment pilot program, a state where landmark laws are tried and tested before being replicated in other states around the country--and eventually made national.

"When we passed AB-32, eight states copied us. When we passed our [renewable-electricity standard], 33 states followed. When I advised Obama during his first campaign, we thought, why not make these standards national?" Tamminen told NJ.

When California enacted a tough clean-air rule reining in global-warming pollution from vehicle tailpipes, the auto industry and its allies in Congress fought hard to have it overturned.

Instead, 14 other states passed tailpipe-emissions rules modeled on the California standard.

"That gave Obama the momentum and the political cover to say, 'There are enough states doing this--let's federalize it,' " Tamminen said.

And in May 2009, Obama followed California's lead, using the executive authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to make the tough California tailpipe regulations apply nationwide.

Schwarzenegger stood with Obama in the White House Rose Garden when the announcement was made.

Tamminen thinks the same thing can happen with cap-and-trade policy, as California's carbon market links up to other state and regional markets around the country and the world. "When you aggregate all that, it becomes a tidal wave," he said.

Schwarzenegger is expanding his climate advocacy beyond the policy push. He is collaborating with James Cameron, who directed him in The Terminator, on the production of a new Showtime series that will begin airing in 2013 about the effects of climate change.

Asked if he believes his role on spurring global warming action will ultimately stand as his legacy, Schwarzenegger invoked his career as a bodybuilding trailblazer.

"It's one of those things, when I got into bodybuilding, the last thing I ever thought of is that I would be out there leading the fitness movement, going around the world and talking about fitness and exercising," he said.

"I was just interested in winning as many bodybuilding championships as possible--Mr. World, Mr. Universe. But it just happened to be that there was a vacuum, and people looked at me as the guy who should carry the ball, and all of a sudden, there I was--it became my legacy. When I stepped into the governorship, this is the last thing I thought I would do--that I would be successful in this area. But the opportunity came up. You don't know ahead of time."