David Vogel on California Greenin’

VogelOver the course of its 150-year history, California has successfully protected its scenic wilderness areas, restricted coastal oil drilling, regulated automobile emissions, preserved coastal access, improved energy efficiency, and, most recently, addressed global climate change. How has this state, more than any other, enacted so many innovative and stringent environmental regulations over such a long period of time? The first comprehensive look at California’s history of environmental leadership, California Greenin’ shows why the Golden State has been at the forefront in setting new environmental standards, often leading the rest of the nation. As environmental policy debates continue to grow more heated, California Greenin’ demonstrates that the Golden State’s impressive record of environmental accomplishments holds lessons not just for the country but for the world.

Why did you decide to focus your book on California?

Much has been written on every aspect of California’s environmental history. Books have been written on the state’s forests and wilderness areas, cars and air pollution in Los Angeles, oil drilling in southern California, the protection of the coast and the San Francisco Bay Area and, most recently, the state’s regulations to improve energy efficiency and stem the risks of global climate change. But no one had ever sought to answer what struck me as a central question, namely why has California long been the nation’s “greenest” state? I wrote this book to answer that question.

What are some important examples of California’s environmental leadership?

California enacted the world’s first emissions controls on automobiles and established the nation’s first coastal protection authority. Yosemite was the first protected wilderness in the United States and by 1890 three of nation’s four national parks were located in the state. California issued the nation’s first energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. Its greenhouse gas reduction targets are the most ambitious in the United States. Half of the nation’s rooftop solar installations are in California.

How do you account for the state’s long record of environmental innovation?

It traces back to California’s geography. The “Golden State” has an unusually beautiful natural environment. Its coastal area encompasses the best weather in the United States. It has a long and scenic coastline, miles of sand beaches, and inland there are the granite formations, rivers, lakes and valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The state’s forests contain the spectacular redwoods and sequoias, the largest and oldest living species on the planet. But every aspect of this attractive environment has been continually threatened by rapid economic development and population growth. It is in response to these threats that Californians have mobilized to protect the environmental amenities that they valued.

What is the “California effect?”

The “California effect” refers to the impact California has had in strengthening environmental protection outside its borders. The most important example is automotive emissions standards These were first introduced in California and then subsequently adopted by the federal government. Virtually all of the important innovations in emissions controls, such unleaded gasoline and the two-way catalytic convertor, originated in California and were then nationally mandated. California’s innovative greenhouse gas emission standards for vehicles were subsequently adopted by the Obama Administration. Significantly, California is the only state permitted by the federal government to issue its own automotive regulations. Other states then have the option of adapting California’s more stringent standards and several states have chosen to do so.

What most surprised you in writing this book?

I was most struck by the role business has played in supporting environmental protection. Business has been traditionally viewed as the main opponent of stronger environmental standards. But in the case of California influential business interests have often actively backed stronger regulations  For example, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Southern Pacific Railroad lobbied to protect the sequoias in the Sierra Nevada mountains, while during the mid 20th century, the Los Angeles real estate community led the political struggle to reduce air pollution. Southern California’s shoreline property developers were the main opponents of coastal oil drilling. California’s renewable energy industry and clean tech investors have benefited from and been strong supporters of the state’s climate change initiatives. In sum, many business interests have recognized the economic benefits of placing the state on a greener growth trajectory.   

What practical lessons can other states learn from California?

The United States is a federal system in which states can play important policy roles. They have enormous potential to improve environmental quality. What other states can also learn from California is that regulations are more likely to be supported if they directly improve the quality of life of local communities, provide economic as well as environmental benefits, receive some business 6backing, and are administrated by competent public authorities. California’s example of regulatory leadership can and hopefully should be followed by other states.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book? 

That protecting the environment and growing economically can go hand in hand. Since the 1860s California has consistently enacted the nation’s most stringent, comprehensive and innovative environmental standards and its economy is now the sixth largest in the worlds. Had it not made such vigorous efforts to protect its fragile natural environment, California would now be a much less desirable place to visit, to live to work, and to invest. California’s economy has benefited substantially from its environmental regulations. This can be true for all states as well.

David Vogel is professor emeritus in the Haas School of Business and the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include The Politics of Precaution and The Market for Virtue.