It's Not a Tumor

by Josh Patashnik | April 23, 2008

Last month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unceremoniously fired a former mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, from the State Park and Recreation Commission. Ordinarily, the sacking of a minor official from a state board most Californians have never heard of would not have set off a media frenzy, even in the gossip-crazed Golden State. But, in this case, the ex-mayor just so happened to be Clint Eastwood, a longtime parks advocate who had served on the panel since 2001. Adding fuel to the fire, Schwarzenegger also axed his own brother-in-law Bobby Shriver from the same commission. The governor claims he wanted to give others a chance to serve, but Eastwood, Shriver, and environmentalists see an ulterior motive: The two men opposed a planned 16-mile extension of a toll road that Schwarzenegger had championed, which would cut through the picturesque San Onofre State Beach north of San Diego.

The celebrity angle to the story tended to obscure its larger significance. Schwarzenegger is often cited as a model for Republicans--John McCain in particular--who want to build a greener public image. But his firing of Eastwood is yet another episode in a relationship with environmentalists that's been, at times, far rockier and more complicated than his reputation might suggest. As McCain looks westward for an environmental mentor, it's worth asking: Is Schwarzenegger's unique brand of environmentalism a promising national model, or a futile effort to have it both ways?

 

Schwarzenegger's account of the origins of his environmental bent includes two through-lines of his biography: an uplifting immigrant experience and a determination to take on the bad guys. He recalls being disgusted by the smog and garbage he found at Venice Beach when he arrived in the late 1960s: "I thought, 'I'm going to fight those things,'" he told Newsweek. As an actor, Schwarzenegger promoted recycling and energy efficiency on his movie sets. But, in the 2003 recall election, he mainly hoped to prevent conservatives from defecting to his right-wing opponent; as a result, he emphasized economic themes, particularly his opposition to the despised car tax.

Nor did Schwarzenegger's first years in office provide environmentalists much to be excited about. Democrats criticized the governor for initially failing to defend a Clinton-era ban on road-building in national forests and complained that his proposed reorganization of state government would have eviscerated the powerful Air Resources Board (ARB), which they credit with dramatically improving the state's air quality. And, when Schwarzenegger decided to devote most of 2005 to a series of ballot initiatives that would have curbed unions and imposed strict spending caps, he abandoned the environment as he sought support and money from conservatives and business interests. "There were times in 2005 when we got very, very worried," says Bill Magavern, director of the Sierra Club's California affiliate.

When voters soundly rejected this agenda at the ballot box, Schwarzenegger returned to the center, and ran a reelection campaign that emphasized environmental protection. He cruised to victory.

But his second-term performance, again, has been uneven. "Once campaign season is over, he looks more and more like a traditional Republican," says Stephanie Pincetl, director of UCLA's Center on People and the Environment. Last July, word broke that the state's fleet of more than 1,100 "flex-fuel" vehicles--whose ability to run on an ethanol blend Schwarzenegger touted as a major advance--had so far been running on gasoline. He vetoed a handful of high-profile bills backed by environmentalists and fired the head of the ARB. His decision to commute daily to the Capitol from Los Angeles by private jet gave off a whiff of hypocrisy (though he buys carbon offsets). Last summer, a poll found that less than half of Californians approved of Schwarzenegger's record on the environment.

 

So is Schwarzenegger really an environmentalist, or does he just play one on television? On balance, his credentials are mostly legit. Whatever quibbles environmentalists may have with him, he's signed more major green legislation than just about any other governor in the country. Unlike McCain (see "Grand Canyon," March 12), Schwarzenegger's been willing to personally invest himself in the day-to-day business of shepherding important bills to passage. "We were in constant contact with the governor and his staff," former assemblywoman Fran Pavley, a Democrat and the author of the state's landmark law capping greenhouse gas emissions, told me. "He was determined to make it happen." Schwarzenegger took a fairly hands-on approach even on less sexy issues, helping push through a bill to allocate $3.2 billion in state funding for rooftop solar panels. "He did just about everything we wanted him to do," raves Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, an advocacy group that helped draft the law.

Schwarzenegger's recent missteps, moreover, have been more superficial press fodder than substantive change in policy. "He's been remarkably consistent and solid, from a legislative standpoint," says Fred Keeley, a former Democratic assemblyman and self-described "wacky liberal tree-hugger." Schwarzenegger has implemented, by executive order, several of the key provisions of the bills he's vetoed, like green building codes and a low-carbon fuel standard--his vetoes in these cases evince more a preference for executive power than an anti- environmental bent. The new ARB chair is just as well regarded as the one Schwarzenegger fired. And the concern environmentalists have with the governor mostly reflects how much further left the debate is in Sacramento than in Washington: The main opposition to the state's cap-and-trade scheme to limit greenhouse gas emissions--itself more ambitious than anything being seriously contemplated in Congress--came from Democratic legislators and their allies who preferred an even more aggressive, overtly regulatory approach. Keeley, who shares such sentiment, concedes that Schwarzenegger is "better on the environment than any governor we've had in the last forty years, period."

One key to Schwarzenegger's success, though, is his choice of environmental issues: He is the most visible public face of a strain of guilt-free environmentalism that insists sustainability can be achieved without substantial limits on growth and consumption. As a result, the governor has garnered high marks on issues like oceans and air quality, on which opposition to green initiatives comes primarily from industry. But, when it comes to transit and suburban sprawl, on which any major progress would likely require noticeable lifestyle changes on the part of residents, "he's been missing in action," says Pincetl.

This feel-good approach doesn't always please enviros. "It's a fantasy," scoffs Magavern, who notes that Schwarzenegger's own beloved global-warming bill, by capping emissions, will inevitably spur the very kind of lifestyle changes he decries. Realistically, though, it may be his best chance of convincing Republicans, including McCain, to embrace a green agenda. McCain, so far, seems open to the effort. "Governor Schwarzenegger, I commit to you, you and I and all of the others who are concerned about our globe ... [will] hand our children a cleaner planet," McCain pledged in accepting Schwarzenegger's endorsement.

It remains to be seen whether McCain will keep his word should he be elected--after all, even George W. Bush promised to regulate carbon emissions during the 2000 campaign. But, at a time when polls show that substantial numbers of Republican voters have come to see climate change as a major threat, there's much to recommend Schwarzenegger's green game: embracing environmentalism while downplaying the trade-offs that an agenda could eventually entail. This approach might be delusional--or it might be the kind of shrewd strategic thinking environmentalism needs.

Josh Patashnik is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.

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