07/29/2015 02:09 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2015

Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Gray Davis? Which Governor Spearheaded California's Climate Change Program?

It's like deja vu all over again. The Governor of California, with global efforts on climate change seemingly stalled and the concurrence of nations dangerously lacking, is talking up the role of subnational governments and California's pioneering programs, signing international agreements with some and appearing with concerned international leaders.

In other words, it sounds more than a little like December 2008, with Arnold Schwarzenegger's first annual Governors' Global Climate Summit at the Beverly Hilton in LA. But it's not, it's summer 2015 and Governor Jerry Brown's intermittent road show, which last week took him to Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome, as I discussed here. Brown aims to stir up support that President Barack Obama has yet to garner as the critical UN Climate Summit in Paris approaches at the end of the year.

But the core elements were all there at the first Schwarzenegger summit which, like the subsequent summits in 2009 and 2010, I attended and which I reported on here.

So Brown, who has ramped up Schwarzenegger's already big programs on renewable energy, conservation, clean transportation, and climate change in general, is following in Schwarzenegger's footsteps, right? Yes. And no.

Jerry Brown, then California attorney general, and then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined forces in November 2007 to protect California's landmark law curtailing tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases from the Bush/Cheney Administration.

Actually, both followed on programs enacted by Schwarzenegger's predecessor and Brown's former chief of staff, former Governor Gray Davis, who was recalled in the dramatic special election won by Schwarzenegger in October 2003.

In 2002, Davis signed the most expansive renewable energy requirement in the country and the first law sharply curtailing the vehicle tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. Davis's 20 percent renewable requirement became Schwarzenegger's 33 percent requirement, which in turn has become Brown's 50 percent requirement. And there would be no pioneering California program to curtail greenhouse gas emissions without the tailpipe emissions law Davis signed, with Robert Redford beaming in approval, on a suddenly sunny San Francisco day in the summer of 2002.

That's why Brown, then California attorney general, and Schwarzenegger joined forces in November 2007, more than a year after Schwarzenegger signed the omnibus AB 32 (also in San Francisco), to protect the tailpipe law from Bush/Cheney Administration legal moves against it.

So it's really Gray Davis who spearheaded the California agenda, right? Sure. And, ah, no.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which chicken? And which egg?

Brown promised dramatic action in his record Fourth Inaugural Address in January of this year.

And he delivered.

In 2002, well before Davis's re-election and the subsequent 2003 recall election, Schwarzenegger, then working on Terminator 3 and an after-school programs initiative, told me he liked what Davis was doing on renewable energy and climate change but would go bigger if he ever got the chance as governor. He delivered.

For his part, Davis had been involved in Brown's pioneering efforts during the Brown governorship on energy conservation/efficiency -- on which California set the national standard for emulation -- and renewable energy. The conservation/efficiency focus eliminated the need for many power plants. That and the Brown administration regulatory push for cleaner-burning natural gas power plants reduced what would have been an explosion in greenhouse gas emissions in California at a time when the world was just starting to become aware that it might have a big problem.

In his own governorship, as I learned early on when he momentarily embraced a space program, Davis was very cautious about seeming too "Brownie." (After deciding against a space office, Davis did facilitate commercial space development, including the Mojave Spaceport.)

Brown's "alternative energy" approach, as it was known back in the day, was at times even more controversial than it needed to be, and Davis could be preternaturally cautious.

So energy was not a focus for Davis early on, but soon became a problem when merchant power generators gamed the deregulation scheme Davis inherited from Republican Pete Wilson, creating a 2001 crisis Davis never really recovered from.

As part of his omnibus energy program in 2002, Davis decided to support the then biggest renewable energy portfolio standard in the country. But, as he told me while discussing the situation on his campaign jet during a springtime tour, he was not yet ready to sign the greenhouse gas vehicle emissions bill by then LA area Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. (Now a state senator, Pavley has been a principal author of most of the climate legislation. Little-known fact: Pavley is the great-granddaughter of legendary populist presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan. "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.")

A few months later, Davis was ready to sign the bill and did -- despite a threatened auto industry referendum against it -- on what felt like the happiest day of his governorship.

So maybe it really was Davis who spearheaded the climate agenda. But Brown, then mayor of Oakland, and his associates urged the bill.

And Brown's interest goes back a long way. I remember discussing Brown's plans, at his sister's LA home on the morning after what was probably his last ever presidential primary, to take part in the UN's first ever Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1992. The threat of climate change, which had grown since its '70s glimmerings, was very much on his mind.

So, with regard to the chicken/egg question, Brown is responsible for the egg. It's obviously true that, had he been governor during the terms of Davis and Schwarzenegger, as well as his own, California would have a very big program, as it has now. But he was not governor for those terms.

The reality is that it took all three for us to have what we have.

Davis took the big steps to break the ice after 16 years of Republican governorships.

Schwarzenegger, in his inimitable style, ramped things up dramatically, usually over the opposition of most of his fellow Republicans, not to mention much of the business community.

Now Brown, going back to the future, has upped the ante even further as the global crisis deepens.

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