California was founded on the most environmentally destructive industry of the era: hydraulic gold mining. Meanwhile, loggers sought their own gold by harvesting the state’s ancient redwoods and sequoias. And oil companies struck black gold in rich on- and off-shore drilling sites.
Yet despite these powerful economic incentives to plunder the Golden State’s resources, California became the nation’s environmental leader—going out ahead to protect vast swaths of wilderness and coastline, adopt stringent emissions and energy efficiency standards, and enact the country’s most ambitious climate change regulation. It also became the richest state in the union.
“Things could just as easily have not turned out so well: the state could have been a paradise lost,” says Berkeley Haas Prof. Emeritus David Vogel.
In his new book, California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader, released this month by Princeton University Press, Vogel set out to answer a key question: “Why California? What is it about this state in particular that made it such an important regulatory innovator over so many years, in so many areas?”
A remarkable success story
His detailed account of the forces and feuds that shaped California’s environmental history is the first comprehensive look at California’s environmental leadership. It is, on balance, a remarkable success story. “California has often been on the verge of ecological, as well as economic, catastrophe, but it’s been resilient,” says Vogel. “Its environmental performance has been uneven and there are gaps, but California proves that you can combine environmental protection and economic growth.”
Vogel, an expert in international environmental regulation who has held a joint appointment at the Political Science Department and Haas, coined the term “the California effect” more than two decades ago to contrast with the regulatory race-to-the-bottom known as “the Delaware effect.” Vogel had noticed that other states and even countries had upped their environmental standards to meet trading partners’ requirements. For example, Germany had strengthened its auto emissions rules so that it could continue to export cars to California—its most important U.S. market.
Surprising business support
Though he had written extensively about the state’s regulatory history, Vogel said he was in for some surprises when he began delving more deeply into the reasons behind California’s green streak. Environmental wins are often cast as a triumph of citizens and regulators over business interests. But while grassroots and government forces have played a huge part in pushing for regulatory breakthroughs in the state, business support has been critical, he found.
“One of the things that was most striking to me was the importance of a politically divided business community, and how often some influential businesses found that they could benefit by protecting the state’s environmental quality,” says Vogel, the Solomon P. Lee Professor Emeritus of Business Ethics. “Without business backing, California regulatory laws would, without a doubt, be much weaker.”
In fact, one of the first victories for the state’s environment was the result of the rising power of the agricultural industry, rather than environmental activism. Hydraulic gold miners had choked the major waterways flowing from the Sierra with billions of cubic yards of debris. (At one point the Yuba River flowed 60 feet higher than in its pre-Gold Rush days, Vogel notes.) Sacramento Valley farmers, plagued by recurring flooding, sued the mining companies and ultimately won an 1884 ban on hydraulic mining—the first important environmental ruling issued by a federal court.
Yosemite and the Sierra’s sequoias also had powerful business allies, Vogel points out. The Southern Pacific Railway and the Central American Steamship Transit Company recognized their value as tourist attractions. Thanks to the support of the steamship firms, Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove became the country’s first federally protected wilderness in 1864, while lobbyists for the Southern Pacific played a critical role in persuading the federal government to expand the size of national parks in the Sierras.
Another example: As its infamous smog threatened to obscure Los Angeles’ glamour, the real estate community helped lead the fight for pollution controls. From the 1940s to the 1960s, L.A. led the nation in its research and enforcement against air pollution; in 1964, California passed the world’s first emissions standards for motor vehicle pollutants.
That led to the most influential example of the “California effect”. In a 1967 victory supported by an array of business interests, California won out over the Detroit auto industry and gained the right to enact its own automotive emission regulations, stricter than the federal government’s. After other states were given the option of adopting either EPA standards or California standards, thirteen states, plus the District of Columbia, followed California’s lead, representing one-third of the U.S. car market. Nine other states later followed California’s zero emissions rules. In 2012, California’s tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions rules became the basis for the Obama Administration’s new national rules—rules that are now under attack by the Trump administration.
Creating new markets
Vogel devotes chapters to efforts to protect the land, the coast, water resources, and air quality, as well as improve energy efficiency and fight climate change. He also details the extent to which regulation has benefited business, even opening up entirely new industries. As he noted in a recent op-ed, “How California turned green into gold,” more than 200 individual firms and business associations backed the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, including Silicon Valley venture capitalists who had invested $2 billion in clean technology.
California is now the nation’s leader in solar energy, with half the country’s rooftop installations and a quarter of its jobs, and in electric vehicle adoption, with 200,000 EVs on the road‚ not to mention Tesla headquarters and other manufacturing facilities. Energy efficiency standards for homes and appliances have kept per-person energy use nearly flat in the state over the past 30 years, while it’s risen nearly 75 percent nationwide.
Vogel, who has lived in California since 1973 and dedicates the book to his twin native Californian grandsons, says the research was a personal eye-opener. “I wasn’t aware of the extent to which so much of what we now take for granted as California’s natural beauty is only here for us to enjoy because of those who backed stronger environmental regulations. We owe those firms and activists an enormous debt.”
He ultimately concludes that in addition to its geography, it was these repeated and high-profile threats to its beauty that set California on its path of environmental leadership. “A lot of other places in the world have beautiful and fragile environments, but few places were threatened so continuously by resource extraction and rapid economic and population growth—which would have destroyed all the things people loved about it,” he says.
Big challenges remain, he acknowledges, especially in transportation and water efficiency. Yet as the Trump administration roles back federal environmental regulations, California is more important than ever as a model for how states can lead the way on protecting their natural resources, he says.
David Vogel will discuss “California Greenin’” at 7pm, May 10, at Books Inc., 1491 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley.