Global Climate Summit Lite, in California

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A bicyclist rides their bike down Market Street in San Francisco, California.

One never quite forgets just how odd the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, really is. Of course there's the bodybuilder physique that still bulges against his business suit, the Austrian accent seemingly untouched by his decades in the U.S., the aura of celebrity that turns him into a walking photo op in a way that, I'm going to guess, governor-to-be (again) Jerry Brown just won't be. But what's really strange about Schwarzenegger as governor is that he is a Republican — and he still is, I checked — who is dedicated to fighting climate change at a moment when just about every other member of his party seems to be dedicated to the idea that global warming is a myth.

But as he enters the last months of his governorship, Schwarzenegger isn't backing down from his green convictions. Far from it — he helped lead the fight against Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would have all-but repealed his 2006 climate change law. (The initiative went down decisively, thanks in no small part to a major funding advantage from California's powerful clean-tech community.) And this week he hosted his third Governor's Global Climate Summit, a gathering of state and local leaders from around the world who share Schwarzenegger's belief that climate change is a danger — and an economic opportunity.

"We want to learn from other states and provinces," Schwarzenegger told me in an interview at the conference, held at the University of California at Davis. "The more we get together, the more we learn — and then we can go back and get ready to battle."

The summit had a lower profile then the gatherings Schwarzenegger convened over the past two years in Los Angeles and San Francisco — but then, climate isn't quite the international priority it once was. Nonetheless, there were concrete achievements. More than 100 regional and provincial leaders — most from North America, Europe, Mexico and Africa — formed an alliance called the R20 coalition, pledging to fight climate change and shift towards a greener global economy. (The "R" in R20 stands for "Regions of Climate Action" — the pact aims to have at least 20 subnational governments enact comprehensive low-carbon policies.) The idea is that in the absence of international or even national leadership, subnational regions could create green markets on their own terms.

"The green movement is going full steam ahead without an international agreement," Schwarzenegger told delegates at the conference, which drew about 1,400 people.

It's not a global deal — it's not even close — but in a dim environment for climate advocates, it's a little bit of light. Broadly the agreement aims to provide a platform for more progressive states and regions to experiment with green initiatives, although the details at the summit were sketchy. Of more lasting value might have been another announcement made at the end of the gathering, which saw California sign a memorandum of understanding to include credits for saving tropical forests in Brazil's Acre state and Mexico's Chiapas state. The credits would be granted in California's coming carbon market, which is set to begin operation in 2012. If the agreement signed in Sacramento actually becomes part of California's carbon policy, it would mark the first time a compliance carbon market would include carbon offsets that come from avoiding deforestation. (In avoided deforestation, also known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD, tropical countries are paid not to cut down or burn their trees.) With REDD on the agenda at the upcoming U.N. climate summit in Cancun, California's decision represents a much-needed vote of confidence in avoided deforestation as a legitimate way to cut carbon.

"This pact is a significant and concrete step to protect the climate by protecting the world's forests," said Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Still, you couldn't shake the sense in Davis that the environmental movement is going backwards, not forwards. Subnational agreements and efforts by cities and regions to move ahead on energy are fine — indeed, California has always led the way on environmental regulations in the U.S., with the rest of the country eventually following. That might be the case here as well, and it's natural for more progressive parts of the world to press on — if only because global action remains elusive. But the scale of the climate challenge dwarfs what can be done on the local level, even in a state as large and as influential as California. Echoing that, British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking at the summit via satellite, emphasized that individual actions wouldn't be enough, but still played down the chance of much progress at Cancun. Worse, just at the moment the world needs more climate champions, it's going to have fewer. Nearly all the politicians on Schwarzenegger's stage — Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, Premier Gordon Campbell of British Columbia — are leaving office. As is the Governator himself, of course.

But if you're looking for climate pessimism, you're not going to find it from Schwarzenegger. (Optimism is a useful political quality when you're in charge of a state that may be as fundamentally ungovernable as California.) He believes that it's possible to convince Republicans to support climate change action once again, by focusing on more bedrock beliefs — public health, energy independence, fighting terrorism — and he thinks the defeat of Prop 23 proves that those arguments can work. "We won by 22%," he says. "You don't get that much support just with Democrats." Of course, that's California. And even Schwarzenegger worries about what long-term political paralysis could do to America's efforts to fight climate change, create a new energy industry — and just plain function. "I think if we don't do something very quickly, this country could be frozen," he says. "We've got to get our act together if we want to be number one."