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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In California, lawmakers today passed legislation making it the first state in the nation to require cuts in gas emissions that contribute to global warming. The law would require California industries to reduce greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. In a moment we'll hear exactly how the state plans to reach that ambitious goal.

First, NPR's Elizabeth Shogren introduces us to a legislator who played a major role in shaping the new law. Her name is Fran Pavley and she is an unlikely environmental pioneer.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Fran Pavley spent 25 years teaching kids history at Chaparral Middle School near Los Angeles. So when she was elected to the legislature six years ago, nobody expected she'd become a major player in environmental policy. But the first term Democrat made her mark early by pushing an ambitious plan for slashing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

Mr. JIM MARSTON (Environmental Defense): And it was a freshman against the automobile industry. Come on, how could she win?

SHOGREN: Jim Marston worked on the bill for Environmental Defense, an advocacy group.

Mr. MARSTON: And this little schoolteacher beat the automobile industry.

SHOGREN: That victory helped set the stage for today's climate change vote. And Pavley says her interest in the issue came from seeing so many school kids suffering from asthma.

Ms. FRAN PAVLEY (California Assembly): High absentee rates and kids with inhalers in school and so what hooked me at the beginning was my concern about air quality.

SHOGREN: She attended conferences and heard scientists make the case that global warming contributes to bad air quality.

Ms. Pavley: The hot summer days, whether it's in our central valley or the L.A. area, are our worst air quality days. And children and elderly people, particularly people that have respiratory problems or children with asthma, conditions will be made worse. So it's a health issue for California.

SHOGREN: But Pavley's passion has resonated beyond California. Ten other states have copied her blueprint for cutting car and truck emissions. And in climate change circles, this 57-year-old former teacher has become something of a rock star. Sheila Kuehl is a state senator, also a Democrat from the Los Angeles area. She went to Japan last year and discovered Pavley's work was even known there.

Senator SHEILA KUEHL (Democrat, California): In Kyoto, they knew Fran's name. They called it the Pavley Bill.

SHOGREN: Kuehl says Pavley was way out ahead of many of her colleagues.

Senator KUEHL: No one had really thought about automobiles and greenhouse gases, really, you know, in the legislature. Fran really brought that to the forefront.

SHOGREN: To win support for the current bill, Kuehl says Pavley used a distinctive approach.

Senator KUEHL: And, of course, she's been a teacher all of her adult life, so her approach to it is really to educate us one at a time about why this is been important and why this is the right solution. You know, she doesn't have any leverage, except for the truth.

SHOGREN: And Jim Marston of Environmental Defense says Pavley doesn't put up with shenanigans.

Mr. MARSTON: When other political people are flying off the handle or being emotional or threatening each other, it's kind of like she is dealing with a roomful of seventh graders. She doesn't raise her voice, but she also is firm like a schoolteacher. Everybody behave, this is not helpful.

SHOGREN: What is helpful, Pavley says, is for California to lead the nation in setting stronger environmental standards. It's done that for decades.

Ms. PAVLEY: I learned to appreciate the role California can play. You know, we're a state of 38 million people - I like to tell people more than all of Canada, which is 31 million people. We're the 12th biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. We should do our fair share.

SHOGREN: Under the new bill, California will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That's much more ambitious than proposals in other states. So Pavley's legislation is getting attention. Bill Becker represents state and local air quality officials across the country.

Mr. BILL BECKER (Represents air quality officials): Her name means it's real, it's credible. She has a track record. And people certainly in California, but around the country respect that.

SHOGREN: Becker says he expects that this time, like the last time, other states will follow Pavley's lead.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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