The federal government is "asleep at the wheel," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at a conference in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Friday.

The Republican governor was talking about the fight between the Golden State and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which denied a waiver that would have allowed the state to enforce a law requiring lower greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles (see Will U.S. Policy Drive Green-Car Tech Away?).

"They don’t get it," he said.

While climate-change-fighting activities are happening around the world, he said, the U.S. government has yet to enact national climate-change legislation.

"They’ve really failed in coming up with guidelines … and coming up with an energy plan that [reduces our reliance on fossil fuels]," he said. "For three or four decades we’ve been talking about it, but we haven’t done anything."

Moving back to the battle over California’s tailpipe-emission standard, Schwarzenegger said he would prefer that states follow a single national standard regulating carbon-dioxide emissions from cars. But if nothing happens, he said, California has to do something.

"I really care about people’s health," he said. "We are killing people right now."

Although California originally passed environmental policies such as the tailpipe standard to clean up the environment, not to stimulate the economy, the changes are boosting greentech, he said.

"It’s technology that will save us at the end," he said. "It’s all about technology."

Some larger corporations also have recognized that California is serious about adopting a carbon cap-and-trade system and "have come to the table," Schwarzenegger said, and the state is working with utilities and other partners to avoid blackouts in the future.

He supports a cap-and-trade system, which would limit the amount of carbon that some companies could emit and set up an auction for less-polluting businesses to sell credits to heavier polluters, because simply setting goals isn’t enough, he said.

"Unless you put a cap on it you’re [probably] not going to get there," he said.

He likened emissions targets to deciding you would like to lose 20 pounds "to be a little sexier on the beach this summer" -- adding that it’s "probably not going to happen" -- while putting a cap on carbon is like a fighter keeping weight off to fit into a certain category.

Carbon Tax Terminator?
Adding to a long-standing debate about whether a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system makes more sense, Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, said during a speech Wednesday that the word "tax" is too polarizing to be politically acceptable.

Kimberley Strassel, an editorial board member at The Wall Street Journal, asked Schwarzenegger whether a carbon tax would be better than a cap-and-trade system, if it weren’t for the word "tax."

"In Sacramento, they love talking about taxing everything," he said, to laughter, referring to the possibility of a carbon tax. "Every single tax. There’s not a tax they don’t love. I think the people of California sent me to Sacramento to be a sort of tax Terminator."

But isn’t a carbon cap and trade also really a tax?

"You can call it whatever you want," Schwarzenegger sidestepped. "We want to make sure we are … doing everything we can about global warming."

The California governor also advocated looking into nuclear power, saying that technology advances have solved many of the problems, bringing about "unbelievable" reductions in nuclear waste.

"I know some people are scared about it," he said. "I myself think that nuclear power has a great future."

Schwarzenegger, who has taken some heat from environmentalists for driving a Hummer and for frequent flying in a private jet, said he loves big cars and plans to keep using the jet.

"I don’t feel the big cars are the problem," he said, getting some guffaws from the audience. "I believe it’s the engines in the big cars."

He said General Motors is testing a Hummer that uses hydrogen instead of gasoline and another that uses biofuel, and said he also is testing another big car -- boasting 458 horsepower -- equipped with a device that turns some of the exhaust into hydrogen, reducing emissions by 40 percent and traveling twice as far on the same tank of fuel.

While he said environmentalists are important partners, Schwarzenegger also blamed them as part of the problem for preventing the state from building the better infrastructure needed to transmit renewable energy to the electrical grid.

"Environmentalists want to have renewable energy and love thermal, biothermal, solar, wind power -- all of those things -- but when it comes to delivering [the energy], they don’t want to go through parks and don’t want to go through certain areas," he said. "We have to go and build more delivery lines because that’s the only way to deliver power to the grid. … Our administration is pushing 100 percent to get that problem solved."

Schwarzenegger also said he sees nothing good in global warming.

"The people who don’t believe in global warming are those that don’t believe in the globe," he said. "They think the world is flat.