05/17/2012 11:05 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

California Is Leading: Will the Nation Follow?

What do the iPhone, the silicone breast implant and the solar panel have in common?

Each has the most users in California. The companies that designed and marketed them are here, too.

California is the state of cutting edge, of firsts. We're Hollywood, Silicon Valley, gay rights, the first female Speaker of the House and the first Sierra Club. It's why I moved here from the Midwest. The sense of excitement, that anything is possible.

Now California is going first on climate change. There's a lot hanging in the balance. So far, Congress has failed to take meaningful action on the issue. Two weeks ago, the International Energy Agency scolded governments across the world for doing too little, with the organization's executive director warning: "The world's energy system is being pushed to breaking point."

Instead of taking steps to become more sustainable, many countries are accelerating their use of fossil fuels and unsustainable consumption patterns. Emissions have been rising, not declining, and the current course of climate change could result in temperatures rising 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2052 and 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

California is planning to counteract those trends with investment in three important areas:
• Greater energy efficiencies
• Renewable and zero-emission electricity sources
• Lower pollution from automobiles.

Measures to reduce energy waste and improve efficiency include new appliance standards, new efficiency standards for buildings and new technologies. In electricity, the state will produce fully one third of its power from solar, wind and other renewable sources. In the transportation sector, a major source of air pollution, cars will be mandated to become more efficient and the use of low-carbon fuels will be phased in.

California will also introduce the second largest cap and trade program in the world -- the biggest is in Europe -- starting in January 2013. Under cap and trade, pollution permits are auctioned to the highest bidder, and a business can either buy a pollution permit or reduce its emissions through a specific action.

All of this and more is happening under AB32, California's pioneering legislation passed in 2006. It's the most important piece of legislation of its kind in the U.S., as it stands to shape the course of national and international action on climate change and the broader issue of sustainability.

Although AB32 is often viewed as environmental legislation, it's much more. Under the law, we're not just cutting carbon, we're moving toward a sustainable society and improving our well-being by reducing pollution and the amount of resources we consume, including water and energy.

Here are a few reasons from the recent news cycle on why all this is so important (there are many more):

A group of scientists from the University of California of Santa Barbara published a new study in Nature, indicating that species loss significantly impacts ecosystem productivity and is a major player in environmental change. According to the scientists, continued species loss could precipitate a mass extinction.

Edward Humes, author of Garbology, told National Public Radio that globally we dump the equivalent of 40 aircraft carriers of plastic into our oceans every year, and that amount is increasing. Plastic from overflowing landfills and household trash ends up in our oceans, breaks down, absorbs toxic chemicals and gets eaten by fish we buy in markets and restaurants.

And just last week, Lynne Peeples, who writes about the environment and public health, told us about the recent asthma-related deaths of two Georgia children, Kellen Bolden, 10, and Brennan Passons, 11. Nearly one in ten children now suffer from asthma due in large part to air pollution that can be addressed through cleaner energy sources.

The success of AB32 will determine whether other states, our national government (which has rejected cap and trade legislation), and other nations follow California's lead. If they do, we could finally be on a path that scientists have long advocated: to reduce global emissions below 1990 level. Equally importantly, we'll be on a path to some measure of global sustainability, using less energy and water and producing less waste. California is the only experiment of this size anywhere in the world under a single government.

America needs to lead. We use the most energy. We use the most resources. And we generate more trash than anyone else on the planet (7 pounds per person each day, according to Humes).

It's not that we don't know how to do it. We do already. Here in California.