“Trickle Up” Leadership

10365by David Carle, author of Introduction to Air in California

California’s new law to control greenhouse gas emissions will join a long list of “trickle-up” approaches to air quality management, where the entire nation benefits, again, from California’s leadership. This new law will set limits to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, refineries, and all other emitters of heat-trapping gases.

Opposition from certain business interests sounded familiar, including dire warnings that the targets could never be met and that economic ruin would result. Back in 1966, California adopted auto tailpipe emission standards, the first of their kind in the nation, and required catalytic converters—forcing new technology to meet the new standards. American automakers loudly predicted disaster, arguing that the devices could not be built, would make cars far too expensive, and might even force a catastrophic shutdown of the nation’s auto industry.

Recognizing this state’s leadership and particular need for air quality solutions, the Federal Air Quality Act of 1967 granted California a unique waiver to set and enforce its own emission standards for vehicles. Although our state laws became more protective than the federal government’s, manufacturers and retailers continued to make handsome profits in the gigantic California auto market, despite the earlier warnings.

Now that concerns are focused on global climate change, California’s status as the world’s twelfth largest emitter of greenhouse gases demands a meaningful response. Some opponents to this new effort declare that no single state should take independent action, that only a unified federal response is appropriate. Yet, our current federal administration seems to have its head firmly inserted into the sand about this topic.

The “trickle-up” approach, with this state fostering innovation and new economic opportunities, has served the entire nation in the past. This latest effort should, once again, show the way for other states, and for the nation.