Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will get a break next week from the miserable business of trying to solve California's wrenching budget woes, jetting to Los Angeles to take on a role he genuinely seems to relish: standing on the international stage as a leader on climate change. This will probably be his last chance to play the part, and we wish him well. But it's past time for this particular show to close.
Schwarzenegger has emerged as a national leader on global warming, the one whose name most frequently comes up in foreign capitals when international cooperation on reducing carbon emissions is discussed. Al Gore might have a Nobel Prize, but Schwarzenegger heads a state that, if it were a country, would rank among the 10 biggest economies in the world. Given the Bush administration's unwillingness to seriously address the problem, Schwarzenegger's initiatives to mandate hard emissions targets and set up carbon-trading schemes with other states and Canadian provinces make him this country's most forward-thinking governor, and its greenest Republican.
But our superstar is about to be upstaged. President-elect Barack Obama is even greener than Schwarzenegger, and he intends to pursue federal policies similar to California's. That's a positive development because Schwarzenegger's pursuit of international climate pacts is in danger of doing more harm than good.
The Governors' Global Climate Summit kicks off Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, bringing together governors of several U.S. states and environmental ministers from a host of important countries, including Brazil, China and India. Schwarzenegger has attended similar gatherings before -- last year, he made a splash at a major United Nations conference on global warming -- and they typically amount to little more than feel-good exercises for countries that want to promote their concern about climate change without actually doing very much to stop it. Yet, occasionally, business gets done at these meetings that might be better left undone.
Indonesia will announce at the governors' summit that it wishes to join California's carbon-trading program. That could mean polluters in California would be granted permission to emit greenhouse gases here in exchange for buying "offsets" in Indonesia that compensate for the damage -- for example, a California refinery might buy a chunk of rain forest in Indonesia to act as a carbon sink. Schwarzenegger seems to favor such offsets, but they would undercut the effectiveness of the program. It's extremely hard to verify whether offsets reduce carbon as much as the amounts claimed, and they discourage innovation because they use existing technology to clean the air somewhere else rather than encouraging new technology to clean it here.
The cap-and-trade schemes advanced by both Schwarzenegger and Obama aren't the ideal way to fight global warming (carbon taxes would be far simpler and more effective), but they could work -- as long as the programs are tightly regulated and monitored. That's nearly impossible to do across borders, which is why even California's plan to trade carbon credits with Canadian provinces is problematic. Getting involved with distant and corruption-plagued countries such as Indonesia would be outright disastrous. So while we appreciate the international goodwill Schwarzenegger will generate next week, this is one global conference at which we'd be happy to see nothing accomplished.