When the Copenhagen summit on climate change failed to reach agreement last December, many thought it was the beginning of the end for the fight against global warming. But I can report nearly a year later that the Green Revolution is alive and robust in states, provinces, and localities across the world, starting in California.
Over the last several months an epic battle has played out right here in our state leading up to the elections. It was a battle of the old economy versus the new; of David versus Goliath. The same set of polluting special interests that blocked international action in Copenhagen and strangled environmental legislation in Washington descended on California to try to overturn our landmark legislation – Assembly Bill 32 – to curb carbon emissions and promote a clean energy future.
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They rightly feared that, as the world’s eighth largest economy, California’s size and global presence has the clout to shape environmental change around the world. We may only be a little spot on the planet, but California, as a bellwether state and outpost of innovation, has the influence of an entire continent. They thought that if they could crush the green momentum in California like they did in Copenhagen and Washington, they could take any serious action on energy and the climate off the public agenda.
They spent scores of millions trying to convince Californians that a vote for the environment was a vote against jobs, that a clean energy future would just be too costly. Of course, they cared little about jobs and more about fattening their wallets by peddling dirty energy.
The costs of dirty energy
In the end, Californians rejected their cynical ploy by a huge 22 percent margin. Despite the propaganda, Californians were aware that green technology is the only area of our economy creating new jobs right now — 10 times more jobs since 2005 than any other sector.
And Californians know the true costs of dirty energy. They know that 19,000 people are dying in California alone because of smog-related illness, costing many millions in health care. They are burdened by the costs of wars to secure foreign energy supplies. No one wants to fight another war over oil. Enough already.
So Californians pushed back. We formed a tremendous bipartisan coalition – environmentalists, venture capitalists, health groups, businesses big and small, unions, farmers, Democrats, and Republicans. Everyone came together. Never before have voters had such a clear and distinct choice over whether to maintain the status quo of pollution and war or fight climate change and shift toward a new economy built on clean energy.
Californians lived up to their reputation of choosing the future over the past. We delivered a message that failed to arrive in Copenhagen or Washington: The environment is not for sale.
Grassroots global progress
While certainly proud about this demonstration of resolve, we can’t afford to gloat. The task ahead for the planet as a whole is like pushing a boulder up a hill. What California’s resolve shows is that even if progress on climate change and clean energy is stymied at the level of global governance or the nation-state, the "sub-nationals" can still move ahead to build a critical mass from below.
In coordination with each other, the sub-nationals have made exciting progress without international agreement over the last year:
- In Oslo, Norway, they have reduced energy consumption by 70 percent simply by using an innovative and energy-efficient form of streetlights without an international agreement.
- The African region of Okavango planted 300,000 acres of trees, which will sequester 30 million tons of carbon dioxide.
- The state of South Australia is on track to generate 33 percent of its power from renewable sources by the year 2020.
- Across its various regions, China is investing billions of dollars in electric and hybrid vehicles.
- South Africa is developing a solar project that, when complete, will provide one-eighth of all of the energy of the entire country.
- Twenty-nine of New York City’s universities and hospitals have accepted Mayor Bloomberg’s challenge to reduce their emissions by 30 percent within the next few years.
California's 'green' example
Here in California, we just broke ground on the world’s largest solar plant and the world’s largest wind farm, providing enough energy to power 740,000 homes. We have already approved solar plants that will provide 4,000 megawatts of energy.
In short, we are very well on the way to our goal of generating 33 percent of our energy from renewables by the year 2020. And that is not even including hydro. When you fly over California, you will see solar panels blanketing the state — on homes, prisons, hospitals and university buildings; on parking garages and warehouses.
Because of our environmental laws, California is now 40 percent more energy efficient per capita than the rest of the United States. More than one-third of the world’s clean-tech venture capital flows right here out of our state. We lead the nation in clean energy patents and clean energy businesses.
Clearly, we are at the opening stages of one of history’s great transitions – the transition to a new economic foundation for the 21st century and beyond that is free of fossil fuels.
The special interests that profit from fossil fuels will not wither away and die without a fight. They have deep pockets, and they will stop at nothing to disrupt and delay this historic transition.
California has stood up to them, and so have the other regions and localities I’ve catalogued here. No one has any doubts about the difficulty of this struggle. But one thing is certain: When change comes from people themselves, from the bottom up rather than from the global level down, it is true change. It will endure and can’t be reversed. That, in the end, is what makes transitions historic.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of California.