Opinion: Looking at Schwarzenegger: How green was the Governator?

Over the last seven years, the question I’ve been most asked by reporters, whether they’re based in California, Washington, D.C., or even foreign countries, has been some version of “How green is Schwarzenegger, really?”

My answer has never been that simple – the truth rarely is. Consequently, my comments have sometimes angered those in the administration who felt they weren’t getting enough credit for all the wonderful work they were doing, and sometimes drew barbs from my Democratic friends who had determined that the entire “green governor” image was a complete fraud built on press releases and photo ops.

My colleagues at Sierra Club California and I have tried throughout to stick to the substance, praising the Governator when he stood up for our air, water and wilderness, and calling him out when he fell short.

There’s no question that Schwarzenegger has accomplished a lot more for our environment than we expected when he declared his candidacy in 2003 and all we really knew about his record was that he had inspired the creation of the egregious Hummer. But he has not been as consistently green as his reputation in the national media would suggest.

So can we color the Governator green? More of an olive drab hue.

He will be most remembered for signing AB 32, making California the first state with an enforceable limit on our greenhouse gas emissions. To be fair, Schwarzenegger did use his star power to put global warming on the agenda in a big way, and he has championed AB 32 around the world.

What is less well-known is that it was the Legislature that crafted the bill, and that the governor’s office actually threatened to veto the final bill only hours before announcing that he would sign it, after authors Fran Pavley and Fabian Nuñez called his bluff on mandatory pollution trading.

To his everlasting credit, Schwarzenegger has consistently backed strong standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, even when that meant taking on both the Bush administration and the auto industry. California’s leadership on the issue (begun during Gray Davis’ tenure with another Pavley bill) has led to national standards that will reduce oil dependence and save consumers money.

During this year’s campaign against Prop. 23, the governor crusaded against the greed of the oil companies, but during his tenure he at times sided with that greedy industry on offshore drilling and the proposed oil extraction tax.

Always interested in bold ideas, Schwarzenegger launched a Green Chemistry Initiative that promises to give Californians safer consumer products by replacing toxic materials with safer substitutes. Whether we can really include Green Chemistry in the governor’s legacy still depends, though, on whether the implementing regulations survive chemical industry opposition and are adopted by the end of the year.

Overly enamored with pouring concrete for big projects, Schwarzenegger put his muscle behind pork projects like unnecessary dams and highway expansions, and sought major loopholes in the Environmental Quality Act’s guarantees of community input. And he never seemed to understand that gutting funding for public transit ran directly counter to his air quality and global warming goals.

Schwarzenegger called for stricter enforcement of our environmental laws, but he supported Prop. 64 in 2004, which took away communities’ right to go to court to enforce those laws, and kept silent on this year’s Prop. 26, which will make it much more difficult to levy charges on pollution to fund environmental programs.

But it’s clear that he sincerely wants to combat the threat of climate change. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Arnold devotes some of his post-gubernatorial career to campaigning for action against global warming, and I hope he does, because he’s a powerful ambassador for the cause.

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