The landmark climate change legislation expected to be passed Thursday by California’s legislature was the work of an unlikely environmental pioneer.
Fran Pavley spent 25 years teaching kids history at Chaparral Middle School north of 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.
“And it was a freshman against the automobile industry. Come on — how could she win?” says Jim Marston, who worked on the bill for Environmental Defense, an advocacy group. “And this little school teacher beat the automobile industry.”
That victory helped set the stage for Thursday's climate change vote in California.
Pavley says her interest in the issue came from seeing so many school kids suffering from asthma — high absentee rates and kids with inhalers in schools.
“And so what hooked me at the beginning was my concern about air quality,” Pavley said.
She attended conferences and heard scientists make the case that global warming contributes to bad air quality.
“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 particularly elderly people that have respiratory problems, or children with asthma, will be made worse. So it's a health issue for California,” Pavley said.
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.
“In Kyoto, they knew Fran's name. They called it the Pavley bill,” Kuehl recalled.
Kuehl says Pavley was way out ahead of many of her colleagues.
“No one had really thought about automobiles and greenhouse gases, really, in the legislature. Fran really brought that to the forefront,” Kuehl said.
To win support for the current bill, Kuehl said. Pavley used a distinctive approach.
“Of course, she's been a teacher for all of her adult life, so her approach to it is to educate us, one at a time, about why this has been important and why this is the right solution. You know she doesn't have any leverage, except for the truth,” Kuehl said.
And Jim Marston of Environmental Defense says Pavley doesn't put up with shenanigans.
“When other political people are flying off the handle, are being emotional or threatening people — it's kind of like she is dealing with a roomful of seventh graders. She doesn't raise her voice. She doesn't get frustrated. But she also is firm — kind of like a school teacher,” Marston said.
What is helpful, Pavley says, is for California to lead the nation in setting stronger environmental standards. It's done that for decades. For instance, California pioneered rules to clean up smog and improve the efficiency of appliances. And the federal government followed.
“I learned to appreciate the role that California can play. You know, we're a state of 38 million people — I like to tell people more than Canada, which is 31 million people. And we're the 12th biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. We should do our fair share,” she said.
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.
“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,” Becker said.
And Becker predicts that states will follow Pavley's lead with this legislation, just as they have with her earlier bill to cut emissions from cars and trucks.