Environment: California out in Front

By Schmidt, Charles W. | Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Environment: California out in Front


Schmidt, Charles W., Environmental Health Perspectives


When it comes to ecological diversity, California has it all: snow-capped mountains, wide deserts, scenic beaches, and some of the worst environmental problems in the country. Six of the country's ten most polluted cities--Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno-Madera, Visalia-Porterville, Merced, and Sacramento--are found in California, where children face fivefold greater risks of reduced lung function compared with children who live in less-polluted areas. Beyond its air pollution problems, California could also face catastrophic consequences from climate change. Assuming warming trends continue at their present rates, experts generally agree that the Sierra snowpack--which is crucial to the state's drinking water supply--could decline by 50-90% by the century's end.

With statistics like that, environmentalism has become a powerful force in California. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a San Francisco-based research organization, 65% of Californians don't think the federal government is doing enough to combat global warming. Two-thirds of the population support state efforts to address climate change, while an equal number support tougher air pollution standards on new vehicles, even if it makes vehicles more expensive.

California legislators have responded with some of the strongest environmental laws ever passed. Whereas the U.S. government has yet to regulate carbon dioxide, California recently passed AB 32, a groundbreaking law signed by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2006 that directs industries to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions by 25% over the next 13 years. Another law--AB 1493, which was enacted in 2002--directs automakers to reduce greenhouse gases emitted by passenger vehicles sold in California after 2009, with a 30% reduction in statewide vehicular emissions by 2016. (That law is currently being challenged by a lawsuit from the automotive industry.)

This year, California will consider a statewide green chemistry policy that could exceed the scope of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which sets national policy on chemicals used in products and industrial processes. Local governments have also tightened environmental controls. San Francisco, for instance, recently passed the country's first ban on baby products containing bisphenol A and has also regulated levels of phthalates in these products. Bisphenol A and phthalates are both suspected endocrine disruptors.

Coming from one of the world's largest economies, these preemptive legislative efforts have impressive clout. "California provides an example [for other states]," says Cympie Payne, associate director of the California Center for Law and Policy at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. "Other states find it easier to model their own laws on those that another state has already put into effect."

Clearing the Air

California's aggressive environmental policies build on a long history. In 1965, the state became the first to regulate vehicle exhaust by setting limits on hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide emissions. Two years later, the newly formed California Air Resources Board (ARB)--now part of the California EPA--set the nation's first air quality standards for total suspended particulates, photochemical oxidants, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other pollutants.

Early on, U.S. lawmakers recognized that California had a terrible problem with air pollution. Living in low-density sprawl, Southern Californians travel everywhere by car, generating exhaust plumes that get trapped at ground level in the area's low-lying valleys. Truck traffic across the Mexican border, in addition to emissions from the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex--the largest man-made harbor in the western United States--also contribute to the region's poor air quality.

To give the state more leverage on pollution control, Congress allowed California to enforce pollution standards that might be more stringent than those passed by the federal government. …

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