It was the perfect day for a conference on climate change at Yale University last Friday. In New Haven, Connecticut, the crocuses were peeking out from the soil. A group of state governors emerged from their winter stupor and milled around on unsteady feet, climbing in and out of zero-emission busses. A couple of Canadian legislators were present, perhaps stopping over on their return migration to the north. Ah, spring.
"I would not recommend that you have a public relations campaign on global warming in January and February in Manitoba," said Manitoba Premier Gary Doer. Ne'er have truer words been spoken.
The governors were in town to sign the Governors' Declaration on Climate Change—a soft and fuzzy document "recognizing new threats" and "recommitting to the effort to stop global warming"—but pretty much everyone else was just there to see Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, delegate from the land of perpetual sun, California.
In the morning sessions, the participants uttered the usual soundbites. The governors cheerfully rejected any suggestion that government-mandated reductions in carbon output might have economic costs. Gov. Jon Corzine (D-N.J) got a round of applause for saying that higher prices on energy and restrictions on use would be "an economic opportunity, not an economic burden." Gov. Jodi Rell (R-Conn.) crowed about "green collar jobs."
But a surprising new message was on display as well: States' right are back in fashion, and this time it's liberals singing the praises of federalism.
"States' rights, particularly in the last century, were regarded as the most regressive kind of policies," said Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kansas). "The federal government would set a high bar on civil rights, or safety net issues. And states' rights was going to drag that back, to claim the opportunity to have a lower bar at the states. I want to suggest that in the 21st century this has been flipped." She expanded on that theme in an interview: "When I was young, states' rights was a pejorative term. But the federal government has been very laissez-faire in all sort of areas, so states are stepping up to fill the void." Gov. Corzine noted "a vacuum in Washington with regard to leadership on the issue of climate change," and apparently New Jersey, like nature, abhors a vacuum, since Corzine has been on the forefront of state-based carbon regulation.
Currently, 18 states have signed the Governors' Climate Change Declaration, but 36 states have enacted some kind of greenhouse-gas plan.
Why hundreds of Yalies crowded into a poorly ventilated auditorium on the first really warm, beautiful day of spring became clear when Schwarzenegger swept in at the last moment for a signing ceremony and a speech. He looked sleek in a green tie and a flawlessly uniform tan.
Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was the only one of the governors to acknowledge that states will have to make tradeoffs, mostly economic, if they are serious about reducing carbon emissions.
The biggest applause line of the day came when the seven-time Mr. Olympia turned the tables on political conventional wisdom about who is hurting the environment and who is helping. "It's not always Republicans" or big corporations, he said, that slow environmental progress. Several companies want to build solar power plants in the Mojave Desert. However, the place where they want to build may be the kind of territory that a particular kind of endangered squirrel would prefer to frequent. Efforts by the California Department of Fish and Game ("my own agency, that I'm supposed to be the head of and the boss of!") to protect "this little creature" have thwarted plans to build planet-saving solar arrays. "If we can't put a solar power plant in the Mojave Desert," Schwarzenegger thundered, "I don't know where the hell we can put it!"
Schwarzenegger has also pushed back, with lawsuits and a P.R. campaign, against the strongly worded suggestion from the Environmental Protection Agency that states are forbidden to go beyond federal standards for carbon emissions and set stricter standards of their own.
Of course, with his global fame and private jet, Schwarzenegger has taken advantage of this new states' rights doctrine more than most. Article 10 of the Constitution states that "no State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation," and also looks down on states that "enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power." But between rallying governors for carbon limits and hobnobbing with Kyoto protocol signatories, Schwarzenegger has probably already breached that dam when it comes to environmental issues. Last October, for instance, California and a coalition of European Union countries, U.S. states, Canadian provinces, Norway, and New Zealand formed the world's first International Carbon Action Partnership.
One of Schwarzenegger's applause lines: "We don't wait for Washington, because I've always said Washington is asleep at the wheel." This newfound pride in federalism has its definite limits. For every states' rights rah rah, there was a wistful plea for more federal regulation on carbon production. Even states' rights revisionist Gov. Sebelius said she hoped that "the roles will be reversed in the next administration." A proposed cap and trade plan, Gov. Jon Corzine said, is something he'd "love to see globally, love to see nationally, but unfortunately narrowed to regional efforts."
All of the governors present, including Schwarzenegger, agreed that no matter who took office in January, he or she would be "better on the global warming" than the Bush administration—meaning that some sort of national cap and trade or carbon tax was almost inevitable, whether under President McCain, President Obama, or President Clinton, and stricter federal regulations would again become the gold standard of environmental controls.
Even in this moment of states' rights redemption, the newly empowered governors restated their longing to return to the old way, when their marching orders come from Washington. This is understandable, since a uniform national policy will be easier on companies that do business in more than one state, and will send a clearer message to other countries about the United States' position on the issue. Plus, governors won't have to take the blame when their constituents object to higher prices at the pump, at the register, and at the car dealership.
Still, it is a little sad to see that even the Governator would cede power to Washington so gladly. In the meantime, he's making his own dubiously constitutional way in the enviromental future, winning the hearts and minds of Yalies, and making the other governors seem like girlie men.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reason associate editor.