California Marches Into Paris to Fight the Climate Apocalypse
LE BOURGET, France — Hall 2 at the Paris climate talks is what I like to call the Warehouse of Nations. It is where each country maintains a space for public relations and a base of operations. The pavilion for the United States of America is exactly what you’d expect: really big, and right next to the damn front door.
Onstage at the pavilion, California governor Jerry Brown is sandwiched between the Saudi oil czar and US energy chief. Sweden’s top energy minister is also there, but the UK’s representative couldn’t make it. Brown is not like the others. For one, he is charismatic. Despite a habit of answering questions with circuitous, grunt-filled, statistic-peppered answers, the audience loves him: People laugh when he speaks, and leave when he passes the mic. Two, he represents a state—or subnation, in UN speak—not a sovereign nation. Three, perhaps more than anyone else on or off the stage at the Paris climate talks, he is the person most politically capable of taking a bite out of climate.
But wait: What about John Kerry, what about Prakash Javadekar, what about Xie freaking Zhenhua? Yes, top negotiators for the world’s largest per capita, fastest growing, and largest overall emitting countries are present. But unlike Brown, they are beholden to geopolitical constraints—the reason why people are here at Le Bourget in the first place. Comparatively, Jerry Brown is like the George W. Bush of climate change actions, a unilateral cowboy.
Subnationals are a big topic of conversation here. In order to keep global temperatures from rising 2˚C by 2050, the world needs to cut 8 to 10 gigatonnes of carbon emissions by 2020. According to a report from the UN Environmental Program earlier this year, emissions-cutting agreements between cities, counties, and states (or whatever you call those things in other countries) could keep 3 gigatonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere by 2020. That’s like 30 to 40 percent of the total cuts, y’all. And that would be in addition to the the 5 to 7 gigatonnes of cuts the UN expects federal-level initiatives to cover.
Earlier this year, Brown signed a law that requires half of all his state’s emissions to come from renewable energy by 2020. To me, 2020 still sounds like a long ways off, which is why I had to force myself to think of the law like this: Five years from now, half of the energy powering the most populous, technology-rich, economically-active state in the US will come from solar panels and wind turbines. It’s possibly the most significant environmental law in the state’s history since then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed cap and trade into law.
That cap and trade is the real reason Brown is so important here. Not simply because it exists, but because it existed during the 2007-2010 recession. Climate regulations are supposed to be expensive, job killing, economy crushing. And yet, California is freaking rich. If the state were a sovereign nation, it would be battling Brazil for seventh largest economy on the globe. In 2014, more than one seventh of the US’s total GDP came from California.
And its economy, regs and all, is durable. A day ago, on a different stage, Brown pointed out that despite having that cap and trade on the books, California weathered, and recovered from, the recession remarkably well. Brown’s rambling, wise-cracking, statistic-spewing, jargon-inventing, stage-dominating presence is here to tell Paris one important thing: If we can do it, so can you.
Well, maybe not all of you. Obviously not everywhere can be California. The Golden State didn’t earn its nickname by bootstrapping—California was born with a bullion trust fund. And its big four industries (tech, entertainment, tourism, and agriculture) owe much of their success to the state’s damn-near-perfect-year-round climate and preposterous abundance of natural resources. Few other places—especially those in the developing world—can boast such robust real estate.
So what does California say to countries and subnationals that didn’t hit the geographic jackpot? “Obviously, everybody comes from different local circumstances,” says Aimee Barnes, a ranking official with the California EPA who specializes in clean energy negotiations. “We try to look for opportunities where we have common interests. For instance, South Australia is bringing in lots of renewables, and we’re also working with other foreign jurisdictions on tropical forests.”
On December 7, Brown took the stage with a more representative peer group. Along with the governor of Washington, British Columbia’s environmental minister, and the mayors of Vancouver and Oakland, he was promoting the Pacific Coast Collaborative. The PCC was formed in 2008 by the British Columbian premier and the then-governors of California, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska (yep, that was Sarah Palin). It was like a best-case-scenario-miniature-Paris agreement (if the Paris agreement were being drafted by a UN where every country was rich). Everyone agreed to lower their CO2 emissions through things like cap and trade or carbon taxes.
It’s like a modern version of the 1975 cli-fi classic Ecotopia—you know, with diplomacy and economics instead of exclusionary counterculture. Hmm … that’s like a metaphor for what happened to the environmental movement over the last 50 years.
The PCC isn’t without its bugs (for example, California still exports a lot of coal), but has had some notable successes. British Columbia’s carbon tax is about to go up to $40 per ton, Oregon is on a wind-and-solar bender, and Washington is pushing forward a regulation that would limit coal power plants emissions. “Washington also has the highest per capita penetration for electric cars,” boasted governor Jay Inslee from the stage.
The crowd applauded, then the moderator asked Governor Brown about cap and trade’s impact on job growth. Ignoring the question, he stuck it to Inslee: “Well, on cars Californians are buying 40 percent of electric vehicles in US, and we have 12 percent of the population, so I have to question your statistic.” Never change, Jerry.