LIMASSOL, Cyprus — A remarkable event occurred this week in California — one that should cheer environmentalists around the world who were angered by the Bush administration’s rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming.
California’s Democratic governor, Gray Davis, signed a bill that for the first time mandates reductions in greenhouse gases coughed out of the tailpipes of all passenger vehicles sold in America’s most populous state. This will cut not the vapors that cause smog — these are already regulated — but the invisible emissions that cause global warming.
The decision is not an isolated one. What goes for California goes for the rest of the United States. The Golden State, with its sprawling metropolises and cloverleaf freeway exchanges, is home to 10 percent of Americans and an even larger portion of the nation’s automobiles. As Davis noted, it boasts the world’s largest fleet of cars, SUVs and pickups. And so California has effectively bypassed Washington and forced car manufacturers in every state to curtail the gases that cause global warming.
As one spokesman bitterly complained to The Washington Post, “You can’t make one car for California and another car for Washington, D.C.”
Precisely. And this is the reason President George W. Bush’s critics — those Europeans who last year replaced the U.S. with Sudan on a United Nations human rights body, in order to punish the superpower for unilateralism on issues like Kyoto — should pay attention to this week’s events. Oil barons may hold a disproportionate influence in the Bush administration, but Americans remain broadly committed to environmentalism. And as Washington refuses to act, people are taking things into their own hands closer to home.
Davis himself scolded Bush for doing nothing and noted that the U.S. has fallen behind the developed world on this matter.
In an opinion piece published in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Davis wrote, “The federal government and Congress, by failing to ratify the Kyoto treaty on global warming, have missed their opportunity to do the right thing. So it is left to California . . . to take the lead. We can now join the long-standing and successful effort of European nations against global warming, learn from their experience and build upon it.”
According to the news reports, the California Air Resources Board will have the power to set emissions standards for gases such as carbon dioxide. Cars of the future — to be sold by 2009 — will likely be outfitted with harder, low friction tires; vehicles with five- or even six-speed automatic and manual transmissions, better catalytic converters and new kinds of coolants used in air-conditioning systems.
Automobile manufacturers, protected by politicians in the automotive manufacturing centers of Michigan, have long resisted such changes. But Davis insists they can be done.
“Smog first developed in Los Angeles, and California scientists pioneered ways to fight air pollution,” he wrote. “We have a 40-year record of success — and the naysayers have an equally long record of telling us it couldn’t be done. Each time they were proven wrong. And in most cases, from cleaner gas to catalytic converters, the nation has followed California’s lead and all Americans have been able to breathe a bit easier.”
California’s new law matters abroad. Not only is it good for the planet, it is an indication that America is a more complex place than critics who deride its lone cowboy image might care to think.
For anyone who lives abroad or encounters foreign media, it is obvious that large sections of the world’s population blame America for most of the planet’s woes. Some Russians — taking a break from stealing their employees’ salaries or swiping power tools from their workplaces — accuse the CIA of undermining the Russian economy. A Cypriot friend bitterly told me that Turkey — which occupies half of this island —-“is considered America’s 51st state.” Turkey?
Such bitterness may seem bizarre at times. But even irrational hostility has its roots in reality. It is fueled by Bush administration’s refusal to take seriously domestic and international concerns on issues ranging from global warming to corporate greed. (I exclude Iraq from that list of sins; the administration has sent numerous top officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney to undertake extensive consultations in the Middle East this year.)
With the good news from California, perhaps it is time for those who occasionally pack the streets and shake their fists at Uncle Sam to pause and reflect on one American virtue: a federalist system, which can, on occasion, allow the people to bypass Washington and set the nation on a new course. It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening in a more centralized country like France — to pick a random example of Ameriphobes out of the hat.
So let’s hear three cheers for Gray Davis, gang. Ready? One . . . two . . . Oh, come on, folks. The silence is deafening. It’s almost as if nobody noticed.