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Feature Story
Illustration of Arnold Schwarzenegger
The Jolly Green Giant?

by Wade Graham

Governor Schwarzenegger could teach other Republicans a thing or two about protecting the environment. That is, if he doesn't self-destruct first.

On June 1, this past spring, I got to glimpse a day in the life of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California. That afternoon, at City Hall in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom was hosting United Nations World Environment Day, the U.N.'s equivalent of Earth Day. In a huge, high-ceilinged room, ranks of state officials and big-city mayors from six continents sat onstage, while several hundred invited guests and nearly half again as many members of the press waited for the governor to appear and kick off the event.

Outside on the square, a small fleet of prototype hydrogen cars was parked, attended by banners, blaring music, and clots of PR people ready to answer questions. All of the major German and Japanese auto companies were represented, each with a small minivan. Ford was there, with its 2006 low-emission Focus sedan. So was General Motors, with its massive, military-style hydrogen Hummer, developed expressly for Schwarzenegger -- emblematic, perhaps, of the governor's clunky evolution from Conan the Barbarian to environmental statesman.

After making the dignitaries and press rabble wait for an hour, the governor arrived and proceeded to announce a groundbreaking global-warming initiative. "I say, the debate is over," he boomed, explicitly dismissing the Bush administration's contrary position. "We know the science, we see the threat, and we know the time for action is now." The targets he set were impressive, going beyond what even the Kyoto treaty would mandate: By 2010 California's per capita greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced to 2000 levels; by 2020 reduced to 1990 levels; and by 2050 reduced to 80 percent below 1990 levels. Then the governor sat down at a Lilliputian desk and signed an executive order. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation.

But before the applause died down, a stir of chanting and hooting was heard from a picket line of 50 or 60 nurses, many of them men got up in outrageous drag (this being San Francisco), carrying signs and marching in a circle, chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Schwarzenegger's got to go!" As the doors were opened to the grand rotunda, where a reception had been prepared with smiling hostesses, tables piled high with hors d'oeuvres, and bartenders pouring wine, the nurses burst into the building and swirled up the staircases into the upstairs galleries, their chanting echoing off the walls. Below, prominent environmentalists nibbled shrimp and smiled somewhat uncertainly. An R&B band began to play as loudly as it could, but the musicians couldn't possibly drown out the political ruckus threatening to engulf Schwarzenegger's remaining term as governor.

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Wade Graham has written on the environment and urban affairs for the Los Angeles Times, New Yorker, Harper's, Outside, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.

Illustration: Mark Ulriksen

OnEarth. Fall 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council