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Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: Environmentalist

Deborah Gordon is a senior transportation policy analyst who has worked with the National Commission on Energy Policy, the Chinese government and many other organizations. Daniel Sperling is Professor of Engineering and Environmental Science and Founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. Gordon and Sperling are the authors of Two Billion Cars: Driving Towards Sustainability which provides a concise history of America’s Love affair with cars and an overview of the global oil and auto industries. A few weeks ago we posted an original article by these authors.  Today we have pulled an excerpt from the book which looks specifically at Governor Schwarzenegger.

The unlikely hero who jolted California into climate change leadership is the former bodybuilder and action movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Before his election in fall 2003, California was experiencing something of a malaise.  Governor Schwarzenegger resurrected a bipartisan action-oriented government and, molded by circumstance, became and environmental leader.

In signing an agreement between California and the United Kingdom on July 31, 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger proclaimed, “California will not wait for our federal government to take strong action on global warming…International partnerships are needed in the fight against global warming and California has a responsibility and a profound role to play to protect not only our environment, but to be a world leader on this issue as well.”

He had come a long way in a short time.  Governor Schwarzenegger’s second inaugural address in January 2007 made it strikingly clear that he had evolved into an accomplished politician.  He was now focused, serious, and increasingly savvy.  In the cauldron of politics, he was forging himself into a centrist politician, strongly committed to getting things done, especially on the environment.  He emphasized above all else the need for action on global warming.  He was using global warming as his platform to unite voters from both parties behind him-in stark contrast to what President Bush was doing in Washington, D.C.

How did this Austrian bodybuilder evolve into an environmental leader?  He got his chance to govern through an extraordinary set of circumstances.  In 2003, voters became disenchanted with the remoteness and single-minded fund-raising of Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and voted him out of office in a rare recall election.  This election bypassed the normal process of primaries in which each political party selects a candidate.  That shortcut was essential to Schwarzenegger’s election.  Schwarzenegger was a moderate Republican in a state where the Republican Party has become very conservative.  According to most political experts, Schwarzenegger couldn’t have won a regular Republican primary.  But in a free-for-all election, he didn’t need his party’s endorsement.

In the end, the Democrats couldn’t put forth a compelling candidate, and Schwarzenegger slid into power with 48.6 percent of the vote.  he had never held a government office of any type, elected or appointed, and had little policy knowledge.  But he had huge name recognition as a result of his extraordinary success first as a bodybuilder, winning seven Mr. Olympia world championships, and then as a movie star, known for his Terminator action movies.  He also had management savvy in building very successful businesses capitalizing on his fame, though this was much overlooked at the time.  Governor Schwarzenegger resurrected a bipartisan action-orientated government and, molded by circumstance, became an environmental leader.

He entered office speaking of “blowing up boxes” of government, eliminating hundreds of boards and agencies, and bringing a new order.  His style was to browbeat the legislature.  The honeymoon began to fade during his first year when he provoked his legislature opponents by calling them “girlie men,” offended protesting nurses by telling them “special interests don’t like me in Sacramento because I kick their butt,” and antagonized teachers by asking voters to curtail teachers’ rights to job security.  Every one of the propositions he put forth to voters in a special election in fall 2005 went down in defeat.  His popularity plummeted.

He soon righted himself.  He apologized to voters for not respecting them.  He abandoned his more bombastic language.  He engaged himself in the business of governing and forged working relationships with the Democratic-controlled legislature.  His popularity was resurrected with apologies and an ability to learn from his mistakes, coupled with willful rejection of ideology and partisanship.  By late 2006, his ratings were once again soaring.  With a cooperative legislature, he concluded a series of legislative milestones, capped by the precedent-setting Global Warming Solutions Act.  In his 2007 inaugural address, Schwarzenegger justified this landmark law on moral grounds and “because California genuinely has the power to influence the res of the nation, even the world.”

Schwarzenegger was a product of circumstances.  He wobbled toward a model of leadership and innovation.  He’s not an intellectual leader.  He’s a problem solver with charisma and strong management and communication skills, who surrounds himself with strong, competent people, not least of which is his wife, Maria Shriver.  He’s been molded by the experience of being a Republican in a Democratic state and living with a politically astute Kennedy wife.  His bipartisanship was illustrated by his appointment of Terry Tamminene, an ardent environmentalist, as secretary of California’s Environmental Protection Agency and later as secretary of the cabinet, and Susan Kennedy, a Democrat and former abortion right advocate, as his chief of staff.

The governor’s desire to simultaneously achieve a healthy environment and economy in the state has resonated well.  With strong support from the venture capital community and leaders of many high-tech Silicon Valley companies, he has spurred the state’s businesses to think green thoughts.  His unwavering commitment to California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, low-carbon fuel standard, and greenhouse gas standards for vehicles has had the cumulative effect of convincing even the most recalcitrant company that there’s no turning back.  Indeed, Schwarzenegger sees climate change policy and green tech as his legacy.  The question is whether the various rules and laws and what skeptics refer to as the governor’s globe-trotting happy talk will translate into ral action and change.

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