For most of its history, California has symbolized the American dream: a sun-splashed paradise of wide beaches and boundless opportunity. These days, however, the old images of surfboards and convertibles have given way to a far less inviting picture of life in the Golden State. Los Angeles, infamous for congested freeways and unbridled growth, now suffers from the worst smog in the United States—even though the area has the country’s toughest air-pollution controls. In an average year, according to the California Air Resources Board, there are 200 days on which pollution levels in Los Angeles exceed state health standards.
With a display of pioneering spirit that would make the state’s early settlers proud, Californians are fighting back. In the process, the state has become a testing ground
for stringent new environmental regulations— including measures that some ecologists say are necessary to limit carbon dioxide emissions and alleviate the threat of global warming.
To accomplish their goals, California’s airquality authorities are pushing the state’s 28 million residents to make major lifestyle changes. Last year, state officials approved an ambitious 20-year plan consisting of 125 separate pollution controls and targets. The plan recommends that, by 1998, 40 per cent of all cars and 70 per cent of all commercial trucks in the state should run on electricity or cleanburning fuels, such as methanol. Other provisions include bans on barbecue lighter fluid and gasoline-powered lawn mowers.
But even those measures may not be enough to clean up California’s air. As a result, the state legislature recently passed a bill that would tie the amount of sales tax on new cars to the level of five major pollutants they produce. Currently, the state receives about $700 in tax for each average-priced new car. Under the new law, buyers of low-polluting cars would
receive a full or partial tax rebate. But consumers who purchased high-polluting cars would pay the tax, plus a surcharge.
Californians will soon have a chance to take the green revolution even further. A citizen initiative—led by onetime student radical Tom Hayden, now a state legislator—which will be on the ballot in November, would force the introduction of a wide range of laws to eliminate harmful pesticides, outlaw new offshore oil drilling and ban logging in ancient redwood forests. Proposition 128—also known as “Big Green”—also sets a target of reducing carbon emissions by 20 per cent by the year 2000. A recent poll found that 44 per cent of state voters supported the initiative, with 42 per cent opposed—a virtual dead heat. The outcome of the vote on Big Green could provide a model for environmental policies elsewhere in North America.
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