Schwarzenegger's hedonistic environmentalism will lead America to a cleaner world
CARBON CZAR: California's Hummer-loving governor is turning the Golden State into the greenest in the land, a place where environmentalism and hedonism can coexist. How a star turned pol's become the muscle behind saving the planet.
By Karen Breslau/Newsweek
April 16, 2007 issue - "Pimp My Ride" isn't the sort of television program one watches for a lesson in eco-consciousness. Each week on the MTV reality show, one lucky teenager's old clunker is transformed into an outrageously appointed dream car (imagine: a Ford Pinto with 600 horsepower, blinding chrome and hydraulic suspension that's the envy of every lowrider in your 'hood). Galpin Auto Sports in Van Nuys, where the cars are tricked out, is filled with row upon row of gleaming, vintage muscle cars—here a 1970 Ford GT two-seater (13mpg/city), there a 1968 Shelby GT 500 KR convertible (15mpg/city), each bearing a six-figure sticker price and a "gas-guzzler tax" of $1,300. For today's episode, "Pimp My Ride" has invited a man who knows a thing or two about muscle. Peering under the crimson and white hood of a pimped-out '65 Chevy Impala, Arnold Schwarzenegger all but caresses the new 800-horsepower engine, which has been overhauled to run on biodiesel for a special Earth Day episode of the show. "You can have an engine that's fast and furious and still reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 to 40 percent," Schwarzenegger declares for the cameras. "This is the future."
Once pilloried for driving his Hummer (he now has hydrogen and biodiesel models), Schwarzenegger is out to prove that environmentalism and hedonism can coexist. "That was the point of doing the show," he says later, over lunch. "To show people that biofuel is not like some wimpy feminine car, like a hybrid. Because the muscle guys, they have this thing: 'I don't want to be seen in the little, feminine car'."
That kind of talk might not sit well with the typical socially liberal environmentalist who belongs to the Sierra Club. But Arnold doesn't care. Re-elected and popular again in the polls thanks to his newfound "post-partisan" style, the Republican governor is peddling feel-good, consumer-friendly environmentalism that resonates not only with fluorescent-light-bulb-worshiping hybrid drivers, but also with big business and those who think "green" is a synonym for "Chicken Little." His faith in the power of technology and free markets to slow global warming is neither depressing nor polarizing. As a Republican, Schwarzenegger says, his environmentalism is easier to sell in some quarters. "I can pick up the phone and talk to a CEO and say 'You don't want your guys to fight that' easier than if I was someone known for going around talking about 'I want to protect this tree' or 'There's a fish I want to save.' They are not so suspicious."
His approach is a world away from Al Gore's alarming climate lecture, captured in the Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." (For the record, Schwarzenegger says he's deeply impressed with Gore's work: he even popped into a Beverly Hills book-signing not long ago with his teenage daughter to tell the former vice president so in person.) If Gore is the nation's environmental conscience, Schwarzenegger is its environmental pitchman, making the fight against global warming accessible, palatable and relatively painless to big-living Americans, who generate more greenhouse gases than any citizenry on earth. "It's no different than what we tried in 'Pumping Iron'," Schwarzenegger tells NEWSWEEK, referring to the 1977 documentary that made him a celebrity. "It was all about ways of getting in and making body-building hip. You create a whole new conversation."
Imagine if Jimmy Carter had donned a heat-saving skullcap instead of his cardigan—or Gore had tried rapping his PowerPoint presentation. As governor of the nation's most populous, wealthiest and most environmentally progressive state, Schwarzenegger has extended the conversation well beyond California—where last year he signed first-in-the-nation legislation to reduce California's greenhouse-gas emissions across every sector of the economy. In the absence of clear guidelines from the Bush administration, Schwarzenegger has emerged as the nation's de facto carbon ambassador, carrying the green banner across the nation and the globe. "Washington has been stone-cold silent on this issue," says Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, who has consulted with Schwarzenegger on ways to apply California's greenhouse-gas model in his conservative, coal-producing state. "Arnold is a Teddy Roosevelt for our generation. He's captured some very important political real estate in a thoughtful and articulate way."
Unable to run for president himself, the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger makes no bones about "filling the vacuum" on climate-change policy left by George W. Bush, with whom he's had a tepid relationship over the years. While Bush acknowledges that climate change is real—even if he has wavered on whether human activity is solely to blame—he has refused to impose mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions similar to those that Britain and other industrialized countries adopted under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Bush has consistently argued that any global agreement must include the rapidly growing economies of India and China, which so far are unfettered by any international climate restrictions. China, said Bush in defending his position after last week's Supreme Court ruling that the federal government was responsible for regulating carbon dioxide emissions from cars, "will produce greenhouse gases that will offset anything we do in a brief period of time."
The administration's hesitation has allowed Schwarzenegger, who recently called America's sideline position "embarrassing," to take the lead. "What we're basically saying to the federal government is, 'Look, we don't need Washington'," Schwarzenegger tells NEWSWEEK. "And so let us create the partnerships and let us let the world know that America is actually fighting global warming." Schwarzenegger has met with his counterparts in British Columbia and Baja California to talk about setting up a carbon-trading scheme, which would allow companies able to exceed their emissions targets to sell emissions credits to those who need them via a carbon market. He's also negotiating with them for a "hydrogen highway" dotted with liquid-hydrogen fueling stations up and down the 5,300-mile Pacific coastline.
Last month Schwarzenegger signed a compact with four other Western states to establish a regional "cap and trade" system for greenhouse-gas emissions that would allow companies that reduce their emissions below certain target levels to sell credits to those that don't or can't. Among the signatories: New Mexico Gov. (and Democratic presidential hopeful) Bill Richardson, who told NEWSWEEK that Schwarzenegger's "star power" was more important to the development of the nascent American carbon-trading system than any bill in Congress. The system, similar to one launched in the European Union in 2005, would create financial incentives for companies to save energy and adopt cleaner fuel sources.
Schwarzenegger's carbon diplomacy has been especially well received in Britain, where he and Prime Minister Tony Blair have signed agreements to trade scientific and economic expertise, with the goal of creating a global cap-and-trade system for greenhouse-gas-emission credits.
In the stuffy world of climate-change policy, says the prime minister, Schwarzenegger has made himself a welcome player. "He adds a certain spice to it, that's for sure," Blair tells NEWSWEEK. "To have California, the sixth largest economy in the world onboard, sends a vital signal."
With an assist from Democratic lawmakers, Schwarzenegger has gleefully positioned California as the nation's low-carbon test lab. Last September, he cemented his position by approving California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires a 25 percent cut in the state's greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020—and an 80 percent cut by 2050—the most aggressive standard in the nation. The bill received only a single Republican vote, notes former assemblywoman Fran Pavley, who wrote the law. "As a Republican governor, he was walking a fine line with his own party," she says. One conservative Web site took Schwarzenegger to task for imposing a "neo-Euro-socialist" law on California.
The signing ceremony, in the midst of Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign, had all the fanfare of an international treaty, with the flags of the Kyoto signatory nations flying and diplomats in attendance. Prime Minister Blair even popped up on a jumbotron screen to lend his praise.
Schwarzenegger and Blair are both eager to position their respective economies as "green tech" hubs, where new jobs will be created in fields such as alternative fuels, new materials and green construction. "If you think this is the direction the world will take and it's only a matter of time, there are great commercial opportunities to be had," says Blair. In Britain, he says, more than 500,000 "clean tech" jobs have been created since the country began complying with the Kyoto treaty. Schwarzenegger predicts the job growth will be even more impressive in California. And he says that U.S. businesses, led by tech-savvy California firms, can reap immense profits by developing low-carbon manufacturing methods and fuel sources, and then exporting them to the rest of the world. California, he boasts, will dominate the global clean-tech sector, just as it does the world's entertainment and high-tech industries.
While California has adopted the most comprehensive legislation, a dozen other states restrict emissions from vehicle tailpipes or certain sectors like utilities. All together, more than 300 bills related to climate change are pending in 40 different states, and more than a dozen bills are before Congress, raising the specter of a regulatory patchwork quilt that would be a nightmare for businesses seeking to comply.
Schwarzenegger says he's approached every day by business leaders who've seen the handwriting on the wall and want to know what the rules of the game will be in the new, carbon-constrained economy of the near future. "I'm looking to protect business, they know that about me," he says. "But I'm also going to do what is good for the environment." Earlier this year he issued an executive order that would make California the nation's largest market for alternative fuels, by requiring a 10 percent reduction in the carbon content of all transportation fuels by 2020. After a disastrous second year in office during which Schwarzenegger battled nurses and teachers unions and called Democratic lawmakers "girly men," he transformed himself into a savvy consensus builder in his second term, introducing major health-care and environmental proposals with something for everyone.
To oil companies, Schwarzenegger stressed the profit potential of his new low-carbon-fuel standard—since they would control the distribution network of the nonfossil fuels to be sold in California. He dispatched another adviser to Detroit to tell the Big Three automakers that they had nothing to fear; their vehicles could run on the low-carbon fuels without costly manufacturing changes. And he enlisted environmentalists to praise the market-based virtues of the new fuel standard, which is projected to remove the equivalent of 3 million cars' worth of greenhouse-gas emissions a year. Proof of his success at coalition-building: at the signing ceremony, Schwarzenegger was flanked by a representative from Chevron on one end of the stage and by the Sierra Club on the other.
Schwarzenegger traces his green sensibilities to his childhood in postwar Austria, where he grew up with rationed food and electricity—and had to haul bath water from a well. "I'm a conservation fanatic," he says. "I still can't walk out of a room without turning off the lights. I can't stand it when the kids spend longer than five minutes in the shower."
When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1968, expecting to find pristine beaches and mountains, he found himself instead hacking in the smog and sidestepping garbage on the boardwalk at Venice Beach. "I thought, 'I'm going to fight those things'," he says. Even in the 1980s, Schwarzenegger lent his stardom to Hollywood environmental causes such as recycling and promoting conservation on his movie sets, campaigns organized by entertainment lawyer Bonnie Reiss, a close friend of Arnold's wife, Maria Shriver. Reiss, who later directed Schwarzenegger's after-school program for inner-city youth, says he was also deeply affected by the number of children he encountered suffering from asthma.
After marrying Maria, Schwarzenegger soaked up even more environmental activism from her cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a noted environmental lawyer. When Schwarzenegger first ran for office during the 2003 election to recall California Gov. Gray Davis, Kennedy recommended his friend Terry Tamminen, a well-known ocean advocate from Santa Monica, as the campaign's environmental adviser. Tamminen helped the novice candidate craft an environmental-action plan, which included generous subsidies for hydrogen and solar power, as well as the establishment of huge nature conservancies in the Sierras and a ban on offshore drilling. At a campaign event on an ocean bluff near Santa Barbara designed to roll out his green credentials, Schwarzenegger was trailed by protesters. "I was known as the Hummer guy," he says. "The environmentalists were saying, 'You're full of crap. You're not going in there to clean up the environment. You're going in there to kiss up to the oil companies.' And then we start producing legislation and they say, 'Whoa! I was wrong'."
By the time he ran for re-election last year, Schwarzenegger was confident enough to wrap himself in green. He toured the state in a green bus, plastered with a giant mural of Yosemite National Park. And he embraced California's new greenhouse-gas law as the centerpiece of his campaign, to the annoyance of some Democrats who wondered how Arnold had managed to hijack their signature legislative accomplishment. That was before Schwarzenegger won in a landslide, defeating a Democratic opponent who'd been labeled a polluter during his days as a real-estate developer. Now, in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger's second term is overseen by a Democratic chief of staff, and he goes out of his way to praise and consult Democratic lawmakers. The jousting over who gets credit for California's environmental achievements has given way to good-natured ribbing. "It takes a movie star and, hey, I used to be a middle-school teacher," says Pavley, the Democratic lawmaker recognized for authoring some of California's most far-reaching environmental laws, including the Global Warming Solutions Act, as well as a first-in-the-nation 2002 law restricting tailpipe emissions, which was upheld last week by the Supreme Court ruling.
While traditional environmentalists cut Schwarzenegger plenty of slack for his marketing antics, there is concern that his approach places too little emphasis on the need for Americans to reform their consumption habits, from running their air conditioners around the clock to driving (yes) their SUVs. "He likes to give the impression that you can have it all," says Bill Magavern, a Sierra Club representative in Sacramento. "He is overly optimistic about the ability of the market to solve our problems." After all, California's experiment with electricity deregulation was a disaster, as anyone who lived through a "rolling blackout" can attest. And in Europe, the fledgling carbon-trading market has been subject to wild price swings, because emissions credits were given away too freely, thus making them almost worthless. Schwarzenegger has dispatched squads of aides across the Atlantic, to make sure the mistakes are not repeated in California.
Schwarzenegger may have good credentials with the global-warming crowd, but there are still bones to pick. Last year the California League of Conservation Voters endorsed Schwarzenegger's Democratic opponent, saying the governor didn't support enough legislation favored by environmentalists and that he appointed industry-friendly members to California's environmental regulatory commissions. Last year Arnold refused to support a ballot initiative that would have imposed a wellhead tax on oil companies to fund alternative-energy development. Schwarzenegger said he opposed the measure because it involved a tax. "One of the constraints in his policy is that he's very conservative in how to pay for it," says the Sierra Club's Magavern.
Others worry that the market-solves-all approach will make consumers and businesses overly reliant on "carbon offsets" that basically amount to a guilt tax on purchases that affect the environment—say, a new car purchase, or an airline trip. Buyers "offset" their greenhouse-gas emissions by donating money to a reforestation project or an alternative-energy investment. (Schwarzenegger recently announced that he now purchases carbon offsets for his weekly commutes by private jet from his home in Los Angeles to the capitol in Sacramento.) The legislature's goal, says Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, is to reduce California's overall "carbon footprint," not just to create a new pollution credit market. While some offsets are legitimate, others amount to mere "greenwashing" that allows consumers to assuage their carbon-stained consciences, without tightening their belts.
His swaggering style isn't for everyone, especially at a time when Americans, finally, seem willing to examine the inconvenient truth—and to make sacrifices for the cause. But, as Arizona senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain noted during a recent campaign swing, where he took time to appear at the Port of Long Beach and praise Schwarzenegger's low-carbon-fuel standard (endorsement, anyone?), California under Arnold is the "800-pound gorilla" of American environmental policy. And who's gonna make it ride in one of those wimpy, feminine little cars?