More bureaucracy could help … or point, once again, to the Law of Unintended Consequences

Maybe it\’s because California has sweltered through a bake-oven summer, but global warming and the environment have shot up from their "somewhat concerned" spots on the public’s list of crucial election issues.

A respected new poll shows Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is broadly trusted to do what\’s right on the environment, and is well ahead of Phil Angelides to win in November. But Arnold shouldn’t get a big head, as he has been known to do. He shouldn’t get ahead of himself on an issue that cries out for a reasoned, multidisciplinary, careful response.

The governor, under election-season pressure to look as if he is addressing global warming, is proposing a fancy new panel that would steal power away from the California Air Resources Board and give it to a special group concerned only with the gases and emissions linked to global warming.

I am always, always leery of new layers of government. We already have an extensive environmental protection agency at the state level, and a very activist and effective state air resources board. These two groups are government entities that actually work — quite a miracle, if you ask me.

So why try to fix something that is not broken? The air resources board, for all its flaws, has dragged California out of the polluting 1970s. The ARB has created far cleaner air (despite massive growth) from San Diego to Redding. Other nations copy our programs. Smoggy regions like Seattle and Denver are quietly stealing California’s ideas — after ridiculing California’s smog for years.

We’ve added millions of new residents since 1970, yet smog is way down in the inversion-layered Los Angeles Basin; it’s down in the Inland Empire, Bay area, Sacramento and San Diego. It’s even been reduced in historically cleaner and ocean-breezy counties like Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Moreover, the California Chamber of Commerce and big business were dead wrong when they predicted in the 1970s and ’80s that a massive air cleanup would cripple the business sector and destroy jobs.

Yes, a few really polluting industries were hurt, like the metal-plating industry. But the war on smog spawned a vibrant new industry that only a handful of economists even predicted, giving high-paying jobs to all sorts of engineers, scientists and other pros who design and build and install the smog cleanup devices, conservation equipment, smart buildings, efficient appliances and other green ideas.

My concern, in this election year, is that the governor is going to start believing his own press — and, in his excitement to jump on this new polling advantage, forget how easy it is to muck things up when you mess with a large bureaucracy.

According to a Public Policy Institute of California survey of 1,225 likely voters, Schwarzenegger has a big 43 percent to 30 percent advantage over Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides. That’s pretty huge.

Moreover, 85 percent of likely voters say the two candidate\’s positions on green issues are important to their vote, and eight in 10 California residents believe global warming will seriously threaten California’s economy and quality of life.

In part, Schwarzenegger has earned voters’ trust by proposing interesting ideas like the Hydrogen Highway, and by publicly disagreeing with President George W. Bush on offshore drilling, building roads in California’s wilderness and global warming.

Indeed, Bush is so unpopular in California that Arnold’s staff kept a lid on his visit to the White House on July 10. (Schwarzenegger was there to attend a lavish dinner honoring his mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.)

Especially on the environment, Schwarzenegger’s “I’m not Bush” approach is paying off. Today, among likely California voters, 44 percent approve and 36 percent disapprove of Schwarzenegger’s environmental policies — a remarkable showing for a Republican in a heavily Democratic state.

The governor revved-up his green push on May 31, when he unveiled his global warming plan at the United Nations World Environmental Day Conference attended by mayors from dozens of the world’s largest cities. His so-called "Environmental Action Plan" proposes that California roll back emissions of gases believed linked to global warming to California’s 2000 emissions levels by 2010, and then roll emissions back to the state’s 1990 levels by 2020, and so on.

By executive order, the governor established a Climate Action Team led by the secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, which would be responsible for meeting those goals.

And that brings us to the governor’s proposed Climate Action Board, a proposed amendment to Assembly Bill 32 that would, in essence, replace the air resources board as the control board over reducing statewide pollution emissions.

The ARB would continue to do its great work on emissions from cars, but the Climate Action Board would oversee a “comprehensive emission reduction system” to include emissions from buildings, landfills, the food and agriculture sector, the energy sector and so on.

BreAnda Northcutt, spokeswoman for the California EPA, tells me that the board would be an at-will appointed body — just like the ARB — whose multidisciplinary members would be appointed by the governor from key posts within his own cabinet and from top state agencies.

“The air resources board has made it clear they don’t have the expertise or manpower to operate a comprehensive emissions management system,” Northcutt says.

And let’s not kid ourselves; the air resources board is plenty busy. Currently, the board is fighting the United States Environmental Protection Agency so that California can enact tough tailpipe emissions standards that have already been approved in this state.

The standards are opposed by automakers — natch! — who filed suit in Fresno to stop the state. Northcutt says automakers are claiming that California is trying to regulate fuel efficiency, which is under federal jurisdiction. But when you reduce emissions from tailpipes, as California wants to do, one byproduct is better fuel efficiency. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has jumped in to help the automakers instead of having the vision to back California.

Looking at the long run, Schwarzenegger’s plan is to create this powerful new body, the Climate Action Board, made up of nine gubernatorial appointees — including his top business and consumer advisers and the chiefs of the state public utilities commission and energy commission chairman.

This board would not merely push through environmental regulations. It would also have the power to stop regulations that curbed greenhouse gases — if those rules hurt the state’s economy. One of the board’s key duties would be to decide upon "cap and trade" provisions that give financial incentives to low polluters (a great idea), but allow some polluters to pay to avoid sanctions (a necessity until we figure out how to make many industries cleaner).

Currently, Arnold is in negotiations with California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat, to amend AB 32 to create his Climate Action Board. But some environmentalists are very queasy about it, seeing the governor’s idea as possible end-run around the air resources board. Northcutt says the governor “wants a system that is workable and flexible and gets to its targets, and we’re optimistic that we are working toward a consensus” with Nunez.

The question is, do we want the governor to control this powerful new bureaucracy via an appointed body? To be fair, it should be noted that the air resources board is also appointed by the governor, and also serves at will. But the ARB has a long and steady history. We know their work. We know they do their jobs.

We don’t even know who the governor will be six months from now. Today, the polls are in his favor. But what if Arnold signs legislation to create this powerful new body and it immediately comes under the control of “Gov. Phil Angelides”?

I absolutely, positively don’t want Angelides choosing the nine people who make decisions crucial to California’s economy. Angelides is far too clueless.

But, more importantly, if Arnold has a vision for how this Climate Action Board would operate — and clearly he does — shouldn’t he wait until the next legislative year, when he knows whether he is actually the governor, before he signs that vision into law?

Nobody knows exactly what global warming is, or how to combat it, especially given new reports that burgeoning China is creating a lot of California’s smog and there’s not a thing we can do to stop them.

Nobody knows if we are on a short trajectory to climatological disaster, or, as some still argue, if we are overreacting to an eons-long process that will begin a vast self-correction and cool down without us. Or something in between.

I can’t fault the governor for wanting to act. But my advice is that he moves slowly on creating any new and far-reaching bureaucracy. In California, it is rare to see an agency that does its job and helps society, like the wildly successful California Air Resources Board. The more common outcome, by far, is the Law of Unintended Consequences.