In the state where the car is king and the freeways go on forever,
revolution is in the air - and the water, and the landfills.
California is bravely blazing a trail in the fight against climate
change. Now its Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is being hailed as a
By Andrew Gumbel
Published: 10 April 2007
Afew weeks ago, residents of Catalina Island off the coast of
southern California were invited to a screening of Al Gore's global
warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The mayor of Avalon,
Catalina's one and only town, didn't have high expectations; the
island, 20 miles out from the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long
Beach, is known for its conservative politics and its population of
affluent weekend yachting types who don't believe in crimping their
lifestyles for anything as nebulous as the future of the planet.
The event, though, was a sell-out - attracting about 400 people, or
almost 12 per cent of Avalon's population - and the crowd stayed at
the end for a lively question and answer session.
Anyone who has seen Gore's film can guess why it had such a powerful
impact. If global warming causes the oceans to rise, Catalina will be
the first place on the US West Coast to feel the effect; mostly
probably, it will split into two islands at the point where its two
mountain ranges meet. The Pacific would quickly swallow up Avalon's
pretty semi-circular waterfront, with its pedestrian walkways, cafés,
ice-cream parlours and surf and diving equipment stores, which
attract hordes of weekend and holiday visitors.
Global warming is likely to hit Catalina hard even before matters
reach such a dire point. An hour's ferry ride from the mainland, it
is just far away enough to feel, in some ways, eerily uninvolved in
the problems of civilisation at large, but also close enough to feel,
in other ways, crucially bound up in them.
The island already suffers water shortages, which will only get worse
if temperatures rise and water supplies on the Californian mainland
become scarcer. If fuel costs rise, so too will the price of living
on an island almost wholly dependent on diesel barged in from the
mainland and burnt in an electricity generation facility.
Catalina is hitting the limits of sustainability in other ways, too.
Its landfill for household waste is projected to fill up in about 20
years, raising the prospect of shipping the waste back to the
mainland, at huge cost. Its saltwater sewage system is falling apart
because the salt is attacking the pipes, causing liquid effluent to
bleed into the very Pacific waters that attract the tourists, who are
the principal engine of the island's economy.
All this comes as a profound psychological shock to an island that
has enjoyed an idyllic existence as a carefree getaway for the past
90 years, ever since the Chicago chewing-gum king William Wrigley
bought it for $3m and turned it into a resort, complete with casino,
beachfront attractions and tours of the surrounding ocean in glass-
Present-day Catalina is not shying away from its problems; rather, it
is confronting them head-on. Its aim is a complete rethink of the way
it manages its lifestyle, so that it becomes as close to self-
sustaining as possible. Cutting carbon and other greenhouse gas
emissions to zero may be too much to ask, but it hopes, in the next
few years, to become an emblematic trailblazer in the fight against
global warming, inspiring and influencing communities on the mainland
"What can a small town of 3,500 residents do to solve the problems of
the world?" asks Avalon's mayor, a diving-shop owner and long-time
Catalina resident called Bob Kennedy. "We can educate a million
visitors a year. We can plan for a model community. We want to be
more responsible custodians of the environment, whether global
warming is truly a phenomenon or not."
The dream scenario, as laid out in a local blueprint known as the
2020 Vision Plan, would have Catalina generating most, if not all, of
its power from renewable solar, wind and ocean resources. The
landfill waste would be recycled as ethanol or used as a fuel source
in itself by being burnt using state-of-the-art, clean technologies.
The cars and golf carts the residents use to get around the small
network of paved roads would be zero-emission electric vehicles. Much
of the island's potable water would be produced by an energy-
efficient desalination plant.
The solid waste in the sewage system would be processed into hydrogen
and other fuels using bacterial fuel cells. The liquid waste would be
recycled for use as irrigation water, or pumped back into the
island's aquifer, or reused more directly to flush Avalon's household
toilets. As Bob Kennedy puts it, with just a hint of mixed metaphor:
"We're throwing 60 eggs in the henhouse and hoping that 20 or 30 of
them will make sense for Avalon."
The dreams of tiny Catalina are, in many ways, the embodiment of what
California as a whole hopes to achieve. While the Bush administration
in Washington has preferred to kowtow to the short-term interests of
the big energy companies and flirt with those who would deny that
global warming poses any threat at all, the Golden State has taken
matters into its own hands.
Indeed, California has, almost single-handedly, pushed the debate
forward across the United States. Since 2005, when he issued his
first executive order establishing emission reduction targets over
the next half-century, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has staked much
of his reputation and legacy on finding ways to roll back the effects
of global warming.
Last summer, he signed a landmark bill requiring California to bring
its emissions down to 1990 levels by the year 2020. He has
accelerated a programme to convert 20 per cent of California's energy
to renewables by 2010. He has taken advantage of California's long
history of air pollution controls and car-exhaust regulations to
offer incentives to drivers of hybrid petrol-electric vehicles, and
he has thrown his support behind the long-term construction of a
"hydrogen highway" - a possible future in which gasoline has been
entirely replaced by compressed gas in private cars and trucks.
As Schwarzenegger put it, with characteristic bluntness, back in
2005: "The debate is over. We know the science. We see the threat.
And we know the time for action is now."
In a political system notoriously susceptible to the lobbying power
of special industry interests, it's easy to be a little cynical about
how wide-ranging any reforms might be. The car and oil giants, in
concert with state authorities, killed an early experiment with
electric vehicles in the late 1990s, and they have successfully
resisted any attempts to impose significantly higher fuel-efficiency
But the symbolic value of California's involvement is huge. It is the
world's sixth-largest economy, and also the 12th-largest source of
greenhouse gas emissions. And Schwarzenegger has done something else
the Bush administration has resisted - he's joined forces with
partners, nationally and internationally. David Cameron has announced
that Schwarzenegger had accepted his invitation to speak at the
Conservative Party conference in Blackpool this autumn. Last summer,
the Governor signed a highly unusual joint memorandum of
understanding on global warming with Tony Blair.
California's regulators are now drawing up plans for an emissions
trading system along the lines of the one operating in the European
Union; in fact, a delegation from the California Environmental
Protection Agency was in Europe on a fact-finding mission a week ago.
Its members visited London to speak to officials at the Foreign
Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and
the Department of Trade and Industry to find out what works and what
doesn't. (In return, British officials are interested in California's
pioneering air quality and vehicle exhaust regulation system, which
has significantly reduced the smog hovering above Los Angeles.)
California has also signed cross-border emissions regulation
agreements with its near-neighbours Oregon, Washington, Arizona and
New Mexico, so that companies won't have the option of dodging new
standards by moving to a nearby state.
One person excited by these developments is Sir Nicholas Stern, the
British Government's top adviser on global warming policy. Sir
Nicholas was in the Golden State last week. "California joining up
[to the global emissions trading market] would be a big signal, not
just for the size of the market but of the direction the United
States and the world is going," he told a San Francisco newspaper.
"It would really move the debate in Europe, in China and elsewhere."
Schwarzenegger makes very similar arguments to Tony Blair's when he
says that combating global warming and finding ways to curb emissions
are actually a potential boon to the economy, not a drawback -
because of the energy savings involved and, in California, with its
vast scientific research infrastructure, because of the huge revenues
that could accrue from developing new green technologies.
A report by Schwarzenegger's Climate Action Team last year suggested
that reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 would, in itself,
create an estimated 83,000 jobs in California and an extra $4bn
(about £2bn) in income. That sort of talk has, in turn, seduced some
of the state's big electricity providers and other companies. Others
are being chivvied on by the nature of the emissions cap-and-trade
system - there are tangible financial incentives to meet the mandated
There is, naturally, some resistance - on the right, from companies
who instinctively distrust government regulation in and of itself,
and on the left, from environmental lobbyists who fear that the
emissions trading system will give companies greater rewards than
their progress on cutting greenhouse gases really deserves. That has
been a criticism in Britain, where carbon dioxide emissions actually
rose last year in spite of the flurry of regulatory efforts to cut
If anywhere, though, is destined to be the grand stage on which the
global warming policies of the future are to be forged, it is
California. In part, that is a matter of political culture; no other
place on the planet is more imaginative in putting green ideas into
practice, whether it is putting solar panels on the roofs of private
houses, or whether it is Hollywood stars ditching the traditional
limo and having themselves driven to the Oscars in a hybrid Toyota
Prius. It does no harm that Schwarzenegger, Republican though he is,
is a part of the Hollywood mindset that likes to lavish its patronage
on groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense
But California's interest in the subject goes well beyond trendy
political fads. It is, literally, a matter of survival. The state is,
in many ways, on the front line of global climate change. Its heavily
populated coast, especially around Los Angeles and San Francisco, is
under direct threat from rising ocean levels. Its suburbs are at
greater risk from forest fires. If the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada
mountains is allowed to melt (estimates suggest a loss of 70 to 90
per cent over the next century), a key water source for an already
thirsty state will dwindle away.
Rising temperatures would pose many direct threats to the farming
region in the Central Valley, the world's largest single food-
producing area, including lack of irrigation water, lower soil
fertility, disruption of the region's dam and flood control systems,
and the possibility of salt-water contamination. The Napa and Sonoma
valleys may get too hot for premier wine production. Smog would
return with a vengeance, both in Los Angeles and the agricultural San
Joaquin Valley south of Sacramento.
What are the prospects of forestalling these trends? Certainly,
government regulation is a big part of the answer. But it is also
about creating a sufficient sense of urgency to muster the political
will for change - perhaps even radical change.
Catalina Island is as good a place as any to test the political and
popular mood. Sure, it's on the coast, so it is very different from
the state's farming or desert regions (where population increase has
been fastest in recent years). Sure, it is a community that,
unusually, coexists with a vast natural wilderness.
But it is also distinctly detached from the progressive politics of
LA or San Francisco. Many of its residents have moved in from Orange
County, the suburban area south of LA that was once synonymous with
conservative Republican white males. Their ethos is the ethos of the
American West - let me have my property and leave me alone. When Bob
Kennedy first ran for office a couple of years ago, he did not so
much as mention the environment in his campaign; he knew it was not a
vote-winner. Too many people, he said, were "not as concerned with
the environment as they are with their pocket-book". As one Avalon
resident who did not want to be named put it: "People here are very
independent and don't like to be told what to do. It's as far west as
you can go."
Because of the layout of the island - most of the human transport is
restricted to the couple of square miles of the town of Avalon - the
most common vehicle is the golf cart, which is certainly a good start
where emissions are concerned. But most of the golf carts run on
fuel, not electricity. When a batch of Ford Think electric carts was
introduced as an experiment a couple of years ago, residents
complained that the charging stations were too few and far between,
and developed an aversion to all electric vehicles. The authorities
haven't pushed the issue - not least because the electricity for any
low-emissions vehicles would have to be generated by the same dirty
diesel fuel the island depends on (for the moment) for everything
Avalon's population has also given the thumbs-down to proposed car-
sharing schemes. Americans think of their cars as extensions of their
houses, taking personal pride in them and filling them with all sorts
of personal junk. Residents of Catalina are no exception. "People
can't visualise it yet," says a wistful Sue Rikalo, who introduced a
flex-car proposal as a member of the island's planning commission.
"If it was in place, everyone would love it. But getting them to
change is a real challenge."
That said, Catalina has several built-in advantages. It doesn't have
a major industry to mount significant opposition to the anti-global
warming measures. The power brokers on the island, relatively few in
number, include: the elected leadership of Avalon; the power company,
which handles electricity, water and gas; a foundation called the
Catalina Conservancy, which keeps the wilderness covering some 90 per
cent of the island thriving; the Santa Catalina Island Company, which
owns most of the rest of the land; the Chamber of Commerce; and the
University of Southern California, which maintains an environmental
and marine research facility funded by the Wrigley family. Together,
these players all agree on the need to fight global warming and are
reasonably confident they can steer popular opinion their way over
Making the 2020 Vision a reality has, so far, largely involved
entertaining offers from cutting-edge scientific research companies
who say they have come up with one dream technological breakthrough
or another and want to use Catalina as their shop window. Bob
Kennedy, who readily admits that he's dealt with a lot of "snake-oil
salesmen", isn't willing to spend serious money until he's quite sure
of what he's getting. Ann Moscot, the director of the Catalina
Conservancy, says she wants to rely only on proven technologies. She
expects the initial transition to take anything from five to 10
Some of the enthusiasm for the anti-global warming project has taken
forms that even a dyed-in-the-wool conservative can relate to. The
chairman of the Island Company, Paxson Offield, known as Poppy, is
enthralled with the idea of building a golf course at an idyllic spot
called Descanso Beach that would rely entirely on recycled liquid
waste - essentially, golf without guilt.
Sometimes, it's enough to lead by example. Just one house on Catalina
has solar panels on its roof, a large pink residence on a hill
overlooking the Avalon pier, belonging to a retired dentist called
Frank Blair. The tenant who lives in Blair's guest-house just happens
to be Avalon's city manager, Tom Sullivan. Sullivan can't help but
notice that, while the rest of the island had to endure a recent 50
per cent spike in its electricity bills, he and his landlord pay
nothing; the panels supply everything they need.
Sue Rikalo, the planning commissioner, runs the restaurant next to
Catalina's small airport. She is introducing compostable bamboo
plates and napkins, business cards made of recycled paper, non-toxic
toilet cleaner and "green" office-supplies. She is trying to get
every other business owner on the island to follow her example - with
some success. "We're just dropping seeds, getting things started,"
Mayor Kennedy and others argue that these are more than token
gestures - they are the inevitable wave of the future. He's staking
his reputation, and his re-election bid next year, on the proposition
that people will have to change, whether they like it or not. "Sure,
people here are anti-growth, anti-change," he says. "But they forget
that if things carry on as they are, one day they are going to flush
their toilet and nothing is going to happen. Nothing is going to