Gases: greenhouse and political

Hot air: Politics today, particularly as it’s practiced here in Sacramento, is all about the Big Gesture (a close cousin of the Bold Declaration and Hollow Sentiment).

Real, fundamental changes to the status quo are all but impossible these days given the one-two punch of corporate control of government and an electorate unwilling to endure short-term pain for long-term gain. So our leaders tinker at the margins or make big gestures.

This week offered a telling case in point when Governor Gray Davis signed Assemblywoman Fran Pavley’s greenhouse gas bill, AB 1493, amid much fanfare and statements of concern like, “Global warming is no longer a theory. It’s an urgent reality.”

And Davis is right. The effects to our coastline, sensitive ecosystems and the Sierra snowpack (i.e., creating more winter flooding and less summer drinking water) could devastate future generations. And that says nothing of the threat to other countries, a few of which could go the way of Atlantis as the seas rise. This really is, as our governor described it, “the greatest environmental challenge of the 21st century.”

Yet that kind of rhetoric isn’t on par with what this bill does, which is actually very little. In defending his signature, Davis notes that the bill does nothing to alter the public’s ability to buy SUVs, or require companies to switch to cleaner burning technologies, or to do much of anything until 2009 when there are some vague goals and standards to shoot for. Any teeth this bill ever had were amended away just so the Big Gesture could win narrow passage by the Legislature and get Gray’s John Hancock.

Which isn’t to say that this bill isn’t important, because it is. Our Big Gesture is at least an acknowledgement of the problem, and if the political pollsters show it flies here, it could begin to change our national policy on global warming (which is that it’s happening, we’re causing it, but we don’t care—something that has rightly made us the target of international scorn).

But let’s not hurt our arms by patting ourselves on the back for actually slowing the rising mercury.

Taking us for a ride: Opponents of the Pavley bill offered two main arguments. They said that combating global warming means limiting consumer choice, and that lowering the greenhouse gas emissions in California alone does little to stop the warming trend. And they’re right.

Americans need to stop buying huge SUVs—either by choice, peer pressure or government mandate—if we’re going to start to address this problem. But even most so-called environmentalist politicians are afraid to tell their constituents “no,” or even to alter their own choices.

So opponents of the bill made a good and telling point when they circulated a list titled “AB 1493 Supporters and the Vehicles They Drive,” complete with miles-per-gallon, city and highway.

The list is dominated by super-polluting SUVs such as the Suburban, Explorer, Blazer, Expedition and Navigator (the latter two get just 12 mpg!), as well as gas-guzzling luxury cars like Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson’s Cadillac Seville SLS or Assemblyman Tom Calderon’s Lincoln Town Car.

Only Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod’s Toyota Prius and maybe Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg’s Saturn SC2—and the five legislators who have no cars—represented choices consistent with concern over global warming (although Pavley’s Ford Taurus isn’t too bad).

Progress toward saving the planet requires sacrifice, particularly by citizens of the country that consumes and pollutes the most. So, what’s in your garage?

Mean streets: As long as Bites is bashing the car-driving public, let’s plug the Sacramento Critical Mass bicycle ride that gathers at the Capitol at 5:30 p.m. next Friday, and the first Friday of each month.

Open hostilities between bicyclists and car drivers have been getting progressively worse on each of the last couple of rides, and since the Sacramento Police Department got sued by the Bicycle Civil Liberties Union for civil rights violations, officers haven’t seemed very inclined to protect and serve the cyclists.

So if creating space for non-polluting transportation is a cause you support, show up with your bike … and a helmet … and even body armor if you’ve got it.