2006 was a good year for environmentalists. Al Gore had just released his documentary about climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth,” to enthusiastic appraisals, and was travelling across the U.S. to spread the word. David Denby wrote, at the time, that Gore “presents a combination of intellectual force, emotional vibrancy, and moral urgency that has hardly been seen in American public life in recent years.” With the economy booming, people seemed in the mood to consider long-term problems and to start to come to terms with them.
In California, the legislature passed a landmark bill, the first of its kind in the nation. It required the state to create regulations to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions, by 2020, to where they stood in 1990. This plan presented a couple of unanswered questions. First, would the reduction hurt California’s economic growth by hampering businesses that emit greenhouse gasses? Second, given that the state was responsible for a relatively small proportion of the world’s emissions of these gasses, did it really matter if it, alone, met these stringent standards? It was difficult to answer the first question without implementing the plan. The second question seemed easier: it mattered, the thinking went, because if California did this, others would, too. California has long been a political bellwether, with the federal government and other states often following California’s lead in passing laws. Surely, the state’s climate-change bill would galvanize others to bring forth similar legislation.
At the time, federal climate-change legislation seemed almost inevitable—if not during the Bush Administration, which was coming to a close, then certainly during the next one—as did action at the state level. But following California’s lead proved to be more difficult than originally thought: the financial crisis came along, crippling the states’ tax-reliant budgets and compelling politicians to focus on shorter-term problems. Some states, including Hawaii and Minnesota, did pass climate-change legislation, but not nearly as many as environmental advocates had hoped for. In 2009, when Obama entered office, environmentalists thought that federal legislation couldn’t be far away. But the President and a divided Congress couldn’t come to an agreement.
So California stood mostly alone until this Tuesday, when the Obama Administration—which seems to be on a mission to accomplish as much as it can, without having to go through Congress, before the President’s term ends—announced a unilateral action that echoes the California plan. In a document filed with the United Nations, in preparation for a global climate summit scheduled to take place in Paris this December, the White House said that the U.S. intends, by 2025, to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by more than a quarter, through existing and new regulations drawn up by the Environmental Protection Agency and other government bodies. The regulations wouldn’t require congressional approval because they would take advantage of the regulatory power granted to agencies by existing laws such as the Clean Air Act. “The target is fair and ambitious,” the White House wrote.
Obama’s announcement comes at a time when the U.S. economy is looking more like it did back in 2006, when California set its original goals and “An Inconvenient Truth” was still in theatres. People’s priorities, not surprisingly, appear to shift depending on whether their own short-term concerns, in any given year, supersede the long-term ones; in the past, this has meant that environmental policies have fallen by the wayside whenever more immediately pressing matters arise. In a January poll, the Pew Research Center found that seventy-five per cent of Americans considered strengthening the nation’s economy to be a “top priority,” the lowest percentage since January of 2008. At the same time, thirty-eight per cent described dealing with global warming as a top priority, the highest level since January of 2007.
Even if economic growth begins to falter, some recent evidence might help make the case for continuing to pursue climate-change-related goals. For years, Tom Steyer, a billionaire activist and Democratic donor in San Francisco, has been campaigning for the federal government and other states to follow California’s lead. He argues that environmental policies don’t have to come at the expense of economic growth. But, for some time, it was hard to present evidence backing up his argument. Steyer and his allies could offer projections but, since the California law was so new, they had few facts to offer. Now, California, which is home to companies such as the electric-car manufacturer Tesla Motors and the solar-power company SolarCity, has seen disproportionate gains from growth in “green” jobs. In the past couple of years, Steyer told me, “the ratio of facts to projections” has become “a lot better for us.”
There’s another reason that people might be more interested, lately, in pursuing climate-change-related policies: a growing realization that climate change is a short-term problem as well as a long-term one. In California, for instance, evidence suggests that climate change may be partly responsible for an ongoing crippling drought that has parched many of the state’s farms and hurt its agriculture sector. When it comes to getting individuals to care about climate change, Steyer told me, it appears that immediate, local effects play a big role. “You probably don’t lie awake at night worrying about storm surge in Miami, and, conversely, I bet you anything they’re not lying awake at night worrying about the drought in California,” he told me. (California Governor Jerry Brown, early this year, vowed to set new, more ambitious climate-change-related environmental targets for the state, and soon thereafter, leaders of the state legislature unveiled a package of bills meant to meet those goals. On Wednesday, Brown also announced new drought-relief measures.)
Environmental activists have continued to press for both federal and state action, though they seem to have all but abandoned the prospect of achieving that through Congress. “President Obama put forth strong goals that demonstrate our national commitment to addressing climate change, but there’s still more work to be done,” Steyer told me. It’s unclear how much Obama will be able to accomplish without the help of Congress; states, faced with new regulations from the E.P.A. and others, might resist, as they have with other federal programs such as Obamacare. I asked Kyle Aarons, a senior fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a think tank, about the greenhouse-gas-emissions target set by the President. “That number by itself doesn’t mean much,” he said. “There have to be policies and regulations in place to drive those reductions.” That, he said, is where California’s experience could prove most useful. Its legislation might not have spurred a series of copycat laws, but now, as states contend with the policies Obama intends to put in place, they will surely look to California’s regulations as a model to help them reach the federally mandated goals. “In doing this,” Aarons said, California is “developing this experience and this knowledge that it can then share with states.”