Sunday, when mayors from around the world gathered in this most environmentally aware of American cities to mark World Environment Day, they hoped to make a clear statement: Local communities - even more than nations - can be the pioneers of environmental reform. The choice of place and time could hardly have been more auspicious.
In recent months, it has become increasingly obvious that a critical mass is developing around perhaps the most nettlesome issue of modern American environmentalism - climate change - and that states, cities, and even some businesses are the ones taking the lead. While the Bush administration insists that human impact on climate change is far from certain, a growing number of policymakers disagree and are now taking decisive steps that the federal government has so far shunned.
Mayors of more than 150 cities ranging from Los Angeles to Atlanta have signed an agreement pledging to move their communities toward the greenhouse-gas reductions laid out the Kyoto Protocol. And last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - a pro-business Republican - proposed cutting the state's greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent, proclaiming:
"The debate is over ... and we know the time for action is now."
In this context, California can have a profound influence - not only on the environment, but on shaping public policy. As the 10th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and a crucible of environmental policy, California's decisions could again lay the groundwork for the future path of the entire nation.
"If this continues, when you add it all up, it will be significant activity on climate change even without a national policy," says Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Very often that is the way policy works: When enough major states take action, then eventually the central government follows."
That action has already begun. Nine states in the Mid- Atlantic and Northeast have already established a regional greenhouse-gas emissions-trading program. The mayors of 158 American cities - including 10 of the 30 largest - have signed the United States Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, an initiative launched by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Yet, as usual, it is California's plan that has generated the most attention.
Part of that is because the mayors' agreement leans toward the symbolic. Though mayors can guide land use to minimize sprawl and limit daily car commutes, the ultimate authority for shaping and enforcing policy lies with states and Washington. Yet California also demands particular attention because "it has a track record over the past four decades of setting environmental precedents that are followed across the country," says Jason Mark, state director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
It's one reason the United Nations chose to hold World Environment Day here. The purpose of the event was to get away from previous massive environmental conferences that yielded grand ideas but few results. It did yield its own accord - distinct from the US mayors' agreement, and, at only three pages, far more pithy and practical than the epics of past UN conferences. And it gave Governor Schwarzenegger the perfect opportunity to unveil his new proposal.
As of yet, it is still light on details. Schwarzenegger has simply signed a nonbinding executive order, which seeks to reduce the state's greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels in 15 years through various means, including tailpipe restrictions already in place and increased reliance on renewable energy such as wind and solar power. If the state follows through, it is a major step.
"California is more significant than any single European country with the possible exception of Germany," says Mr. Nivola.
Yet neither California nor any other state is likely to sway the intentions of the Bush administration. Instead, their efforts would more likely begin to lay the groundwork for a broader policy shift in years to come.
"They're setting up the policy that will play out post-Bush to move the country more toward Kyoto or something like Kyoto," says Ronald Bailey, a policy analyst for the Reason Foundation in Washington.
Indeed, the increasing activity in cities and states is just one facet of a broader change in public opinion about global warming. Once cast as an open question, the issue of whether humans are significantly influencing the global climate has now taken the aspect of certainty in the public mind. For now, the call for action has come predominately from coastal Democratic states; of the mayors who have signed the US mayor's climate agreement, only four come from Texas, and none from Alabama, Tennessee, or Arizona.
Yet some businesses are now accepting future regulation as necessary and inevitable - reversing a long-term trend. For example, General Electric has voluntarily cut its greenhouse-gas emissions, while power companies including Duke Energy and Exelon have called for federal regulations.
To analysts like Mr. Bailey, who claim that scientists have repeatedly misjudged the impact of population growth and energy consumption on the environment, it is a sign that "the climate alarmists are gaining." To others, though, it suggests that the message has finally gotten through - and if the momentum here has to start with the grass roots rather than the federal government, so be it.
Ultimately, Washington will have to become involved if the country wishes to significantly reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions, analysts say. But more than half the world's inhabitants now live in cities, organizers of World Environment Day note. Therefore, cities are wielding a growing influence on policy - both in the United States and worldwide.
Says Maurice Strong, secretary-general to the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992: "Our best hope is in local action."
By California ...
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's executive order calls for reducing the state's emissions of greenhouse gases:
• to 2000 levels by 2010.
• to 1990 levels by 2020.
• to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
... and a medley of mayors
The mayors of 158 US cities, including 32 in California, have agreed to:
• Strive to have their cities meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
• Urge their states and the federal government to meet or beat the Kyoto targets for the US - 7 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012.