Wealthy Frenchman

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Where’s EuroArnold?

As long as President Bush does not give German Chancellor Angela Merkel another one of those surprise neck rubs, the Group of 8 meetings should settle into cautious choreography on how to bring down the planet’s fever and reduce global inequities.

But one other leader from the world’s major industrial powers should have been invited to this week’s summit at Heiligendamm — the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

While Mr. Bush angered his fellow world leaders this week with yet another foot-dragging proposal on climate change, the governor has been working his own brand of international diplomacy on the issue and leading by example. And he has shown that in politics, and not just bodybuilding, it’s possible to be re-inflated — this time without the steroids.

Some people still think of California as a land of sunbaked barbarians, killing kilowatts in their hot tubs and spewing greenhouse gases from gridlocked freeways. But California, where America goes for rehab and reinvention, is no still-life in decay.

Only a handful of states use less energy, per capita, than California. No state has committed to such a broad change in lifestyle and environment. And no state has tried so consistently — even having to defy the federal government — to get to where the world wants to be on slowing climate change. California is what the rest of the nation could have been had not Vice President Cheney disparaged conservation as a wimp issue for the virtuous, choosing to perforate more public land in a last-gasp stumble for fossil fuels.

Not all of this is Arnold’s doing. An audacious plan to reduce auto emissions was enacted a year before he won the governor’s race in 2003. But despite enormous pressure from automakers, the governor has fully backed the measure and threatened to sue the federal government for the exemption California needs to move ahead. He went a step further when he signed a law committing California to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. And last week he was in Canada, making climate goal agreements with two provinces while blasting his own government for failing to show any leadership.

Home to one in eight Americans, with an economy bigger than Canada, California has global swagger — and the governor is starting to use it. The state is further along than any other country on this issue.

“The power influence we have is the equivalent of a nation, or even a continent,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said last week in British Columbia.

Some industry executives have cried a Salton Sea of tears over having to comply with all the new initiatives. Hybrids, hydrogen cars, engines running on salad dressing — how’s General Motors supposed to fend off bankruptcy with innovation?

But other corporations view the opportunity to serve one of the world’s largest auto markets as a potential motherlode.

Check into any college lab in California, from the gilded interiors of Stanford to the mobile-home campuses in Riverside County, and you find a frenzy of experiments on how to light, heat, cool and transport ourselves without wrecking the globe. You find the same thing up the entrepreneurial ladder, from garages in Salinas to kids in flops at Google headquarters.

The Governator himself is a fascinating hybrid. Two years ago, his approval rating was at Bushian levels, just above 30 percent. Then he had a California epiphany — Eureka! He embraced universal health care, edgy capitalism and market-based environmentalism, while vowing to keep taxes low. Now he is the most popular major politician in California.

But to some fellow Republicans, he is a traitor, a product of all that Kennedy compounding with his wife, Maria Shriver. Rush Limbaugh called him “a sellout.” But it took a former Mr. Universe to do what no significant Republican had yet to do: he said Mr. Limbaugh was “irrelevant.”

Mr. Schwarzenegger, the policeman’s son from a small town in Austria, has morphed into his logical political fit: EuroArnold, at home in the pragmatic politics of Tony Blair or Mrs. Merkel.

It would have been intriguing to have him in Germany this week, showing the rest of the world that not all Americans are in the last century on the big issues of the day. And, of course, he’s one of the few Americans who’s used to wearing a Speedo without blushing.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.


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