The eyes of the world may be on President-elect Barack Obama, but when it comes to the issue of climate change, Arnold Schwarzenegger is muscling his way into the international spotlight.
On Tuesday, the California governor will convene a two-day Global Climate Summit in Beverly Hills. More than 600 environmental officials and activists from Borneo to Bulgaria, along with five U.S. governors and regional politicians from foreign nations, are expected to attend.
Grandiose gabfest? So whisper the Sacramento cynics, but Schwarzenegger calls it a "historic summit" that will create "an alliance of states, provinces and regional governments" to influence upcoming negotiations on a new global climate treaty.
He plans to join Illinois and Wisconsin in signing agreements with two Indonesian and four Brazilian states to work on tropical forest preservation.
Schwarzenegger also will issue a declaration endorsed by 12 U.S. governors, along with regional representatives from Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia and Mexico, to share technology and cooperate on reducing global-warming emissions from high-polluting industries.
California, being merely a state (albeit the eighth largest economy in the world), has no standing in treaty negotiations, which are conducted between nations. That would be the purview of an Obama administration.
Even Mary Nichols, Schwarzenegger's top greenhouse-gas regulator, acknowledges that she wondered, at first: "Why are we doing this now, with a new administration in Washington? I was concerned it would look like grandstanding."
But on reflection, she concluded, "The governor is established as a leader on climate issues. It is something he cares about passionately." Moreover, she added in an aside, "it is a lot more fun than working on the budget."
The summit agenda includes panels on greenhouse-gas measuring and reporting, and on developing methods to cut emissions in the energy, forestry, agriculture, transportation, cement, steel and aluminum sectors.
"American states have coordinated regionally, as in the Western Climate Initiative," said Eileen Tutt, deputy secretary of California's Environmental Protection Agency. "But as states, we haven't reached out to China, Brazil and India before. That's a big step."
The Western Climate Initiative, endorsed by seven U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, would slash regional global-warming emissions by 15% below 2005 levels in the next 12 years.
Fast-developing nations such as China, which has surpassed the United States as the globe's biggest emitter of planet-heating greenhouse gases, have refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty to limit global-warming pollution, claiming it would limit their industrialization.
The Bush administration has refused to ratify a climate treaty until China, India and other emerging nations agree to cap emissions. The U.S. is the only nonsignatory among major industrial nations: European countries, Australia and Japan have agreed to national caps, and the European Union has set up a carbon-trading system.
Tensions are far from resolved as diplomats prepare to gather in Poland next month to begin negotiating a successor to the 2005 Kyoto pact. A new treaty is expected to be signed in Copenhagen in December 2009.
Schwarzenegger's summit, Tutt said, will allow California to "set an example for Poland and Copenhagen" by showing that even if nations don't agree to overall caps on emissions, they can still reduce greenhouse gas pollution in heavily emitting industries such as automobiles and cement.
California was the first U.S. state to design a comprehensive, technical plan to slash its own emissions across every sector of its economy. Five other states are following suit.
"Provinces and states can move the ball down the field a lot faster by targeting specific sectors and sharing best practices," Tutt said. "We are more nimble. When they sit around the huge table at the U.N, we can point to progress at the local level. . . . It is hard to say to India: 'You must cap your emissions' when it has 40 million people without electricity. But India can still reduce emissions in its energy sector."
Nichols, who as chairwoman of the Air Resources Board has been struggling with how to lower cement-related emissions without driving the industry overseas, said she hopes that the summit will produce concrete results. "If California and a couple of Chinese states and one or two others could get together and decide on common rules for the cement industry, then we don't have to wait for Copenhagen to be signed," she said.
Forestry agreements could offer benefits to California if industries in the state are able to fund preservation initiatives in nations such as Brazil as a cheaper way to reduce global warming and get credit under state climate plans. But the so-called offset projects are controversial, with some environmental groups questioning the validity of foreign projects.