THIRTY YEARS AGO AND change, Gov. Jerry Brown put the brakes on building new freeways in California. Oil dependence, painfully highlighted by the recent OPEC crisis — and more and more single-occupant cars belching filth into the atmosphere — convinced him that mass transit is a far smarter way to go.

The Democratic governor’s policy, personified in the Santa Monica Freeway’s three-passengers-per-vehicle diamond lanes, won resounding jeers from 1976 commuters. Lawsuits were filed. Mike Royko’s famous sobriquet of Brown — Governor Moonbeam — was coined.

So ugly was the reaction to the lanes and the no-new-freeways policy that Brown’s director of transportation, Adriana Gianturco, received death threats.

The political oddsmakers say Brown is two years from reacquiring the governor’s seat he left in January 1983. And being aspiring governor, er, attorney general, is pretty much the most bitchin’ place to be for a gubernatorial wannabe. As California’s top lawyer, the A.G. can focus on everything from Medi-Cal waste and timber practices to consumer protection, product labeling and crime fighting. Hell, do a little of everything. There’s something north of 4,000 active cases filed by Brown in various courts or being probed by his lawyers and investigators.

Brown has wrapped himself in what he hopes is a winning issue: crusading to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. When the current green governator blows town, Brown is hoping people will ask, Who better than he to heft the barbell? “I want to make something happen,” Brown said in a recent interview. “When you get to my age, you want it to happen fast.”

GLOBAL WARMING IS NOT UNLIKE WELFARE fraud and child abuse ­— it has no supporters. As one child-abuse-prevention volunteer puts it, “The only people against us are the pedophiles, and they’re not well organized.”

Similarly, no constituency is eager to further rend the ozone layer. A July 2007 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that two-thirds of Californians believe the effects of global warming are already being felt, and a majority of Californians — 54 percent — say global warming is a serious threat to the state’s economic future and quality of life.

Even better for Brown, 81 percent think action should be taken sooner rather than later. Check this: 92 percent of California Democrats want something done immediately; 82 percent of the sought-after independent voters say the same, as do 60 percent of Republicans.

“There’s no political downside whatsoever,” says Ray McNally, a GOP political consultant in Sacramento. “People are looking for action on this issue, and if you put yourself at the front of the greenhouse-gas parade, you score points. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.”

Oh, and, as a bonus, environmental groups soil themselves over Brown’s actions. “Attorney General Brown has really taken the initiative to enforce the California Environmental Quality Act and use it to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from sprawling development. That’s going to lead to smarter growth and to reducing the growth in the miles traveled by our vehicles,” says Bill Magavern, a Sierra Club lobbyist in Sacramento.

A reporter calling Brown’s office about greenhouse gases is quickly offered voluminous media-monitoring reports that lay out the coverage — of Brown — in excruciating detail. On December 6, 2007, the Bay Area’s KRON-TV featured a story about Brown teaming with Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico and Pennsylvania to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from aircraft.

And the media gave Brown lots of play when he sued the federal government on January 2 over its refusal to grant California a waiver to implement the state’s landmark law that ratcheted down carbon-dioxide and other emissions from vehicles.

A September 2007 clip from the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Brown is the architect of a first-of-its-kind deal with ConocoPhillips, which agreed to spend $10 million to plant trees, restore wetlands and bankroll other air-quality efforts to offset the emissions caused by expansion of its Contra Costa County refinery.

It was a lawsuit Brown filed against San Bernardino County in spring 2007 that jump-started his crusade to cut the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Brown’s suit claimed the Inland Empire county’s new General Plan — the blueprint for its future growth in housing and other development — didn’t specifically detail how it would decrease greenhouse-gas emissions. Within a few days of Brown’s actions, the Sierra Club, et environmentalus al., filed a comparable lawsuit.

San Bernardino says it thoroughly examined the impact of its growth plan on air quality, as required under the California Environmental Quality Act. Its only mistake was being the first California county to complete its General Plan after global-warming legislation was signed into law to reduce emissions from stationary sources — for instance, buildings.

“The county was being used as an example,” says David Wert, a San Bernardino County spokesman. “The attorney general used us to send a message to other counties and cities that he was going to take global warming seriously and that there would be consequences for not addressing the issue.”

Brown’s message, that he’s willing to stop counties from pursuing long-planned zoning and housing expansions, was not lost on Senate Republicans. They promptly insisted on guidelines to help local governments mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions — still an area of intense debate over what really works.

While San Bernardino compliments Brown’s subsequent handling of the matter — he swiftly settled and tried to find money to cover the county’s legal expenses brought on by his lawsuit — Brown’s timing sucked. San Bernardino had just completed an environmental-impact report — a real big, time-consuming, superexpensive one — and the A.G. hadn’t bothered to point out any problems before suing. Hearings and hearings and more public hearings took place. Written comment ad nauseam.

Moreover, the enviros — who sued San Bernardino a few days after Brown did — had openly participated in the public review of the San Bernardino Environmental Impact Report. Yet, they didn’t say diddly about greenhouse gases, according to the county’s spokesman.

IT WAS LOOKING MORE AND MORE LIKE San Bernardino got bushwhacked by Brown and the enviros for press-coverage purposes. “There was plenty of opportunity prior to the plan being adopted to say, ‘You’re not doing enough about global warming.’ That was never said,” Wert says. “There’s proof” that the groups knew the details of San Bernardino’s plan but did not request changes — in order to sue later.

After suing San Bernardino, Brown sent comments to 23 localities, urging them to evaluate, avoid or reduce carbon-dioxide emissions through their land-development and zoning choices.

An attorney general who inserts himself into local planning is not new. Brown’s predecessor Bill Lockyer routinely sent comments to localities. An 11-page letter in 2006 from Lockyer to Glen Campbell, analyst for the Orange County Transportation Authority, says the same things Brown said in his San Bernardino lawsuit: Environmental-impact plans should consider climate change.

But Lockyer’s missive arrived in time for the county to address it rather than force a lawsuit, as Brown chose to do with San Bernardino. “I want to mobilize the political will of local governments,” insists Brown, who is promoting a series of workshops to educate localities on how to fight global warming and thus avoid getting a ruler across their knuckles. “I want to build the political base from the bottom up,” Brown says. “[California’s greenhouse-gas law] is top-down. These workshops are from the bottom up.”

Nobody really knows whether Brown and his workshop leaders — all advocates of “smart growth” — have an actual clue how to reduce emissions by tweaking housing- and land-use plans. Scientists studying global warming don’t begin to agree on what kinds of housing and commercial development are worse — or better. (See accompanying article.)

Brown, aiming for buzz as he pursues another stint as governor, isn’t concerned over that level of detail. Two days after Schwarzenegger leaves office in 2010, final state regulations for producing reduced greenhouse gases are due. If progress hasn’t been made, Brown says, the “whole thing will fall on his head” — meaning the next governor.

Some years after that, San Bernardino and other California counties under orders from Brown to change their development blueprints will be able to measure whether his views on reducing emissions work the way diamond lanes, freeway bans and the other legacies of Brown’s first governorship did.

LA Weekly