Perspectives

California's Climate Strategy Needs a Tune-Up (Editorial)

In polls, Californians are overwhelmingly supportive of working to stop global warming, but the state's strategy is gathering problems and crying out for a tune-up.

by The Sacramento Bee / August 1, 2016
Like a 10-year-old Prius, California's climate strategy is showing its age. Flickr/Matt Calkins

(TNS) -- As Philadelphia baked and wildfires roared like the apocalypse in California, Gov. Jerry Brown last week called on the nation to remember the impact this presidential election could have on climate change.

“What America needs today are not deniers, but leaders. Not division, but common purpose. Not bombast, but bold action,” Brown told the Democratic National Convention, lambasting Donald Trump and lauding Hillary Clinton. “Trump says global warming is a hoax. I say Trump is a fraud.”

The crowd cheered wildly. But cheers are cheap. Outside California, curbing climate change has been a far harder sell than it should be, given the peril. And here in the state capital, the matter of how best to combat it is devolving into a trickier question than Brown implies.

As state lawmakers return Monday from their July break, one of their toughest orders of business is how best to protect and expand California’s push to stop global warming, including the state’s signature climate change law. Passed in 2006 and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it calls for the greenhouse gas pollution that underpins global warming to be cut to 1990 levels by 2020; a proposal by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, would extend it to 2030 and reduce those levels even more.

In polls, Californians are overwhelmingly supportive. But, like a 10-year-old Prius, the state’s strategy is showing its age, gathering problems and, as it clunks along, crying out for a tune-up. As lawmakers puzzle over how best to do that, the clock is ticking.

For example, there’s the drag of litigation. A state Chamber of Commerce lawsuit, now pending appeal, contends that the system created to implement greenhouse gas cuts, California’s famed cap-and-trade program, is actually a tax that should have required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass.

The program, which essentially levies fees on major polluters, is also suddenly stalling. After a roaring start last year, when every quarterly auction for emissions “credits” raised hundreds of millions of dollars, an auction in May generated an embarrassing $10 million.

Some groups have never gotten past the sticker shock of California’s decision to lead the charge on climate. The oil industry desperately wants to get rid of the current law’s low-carbon fuel standards. Pro-business Democrats and Republicans balk at the impact on gas prices and the costs for people trying to make a living in less affluent and more polluted regions.

Others wonder whether California’s prodigious push even matters. California’s emissions represent only about 1 percent of the global problem, and if we are really trying to get the biggest bang for the buck, they ask, why are we fiddling with electric cars and methane digesters in the Central Valley instead of focusing on green technology that will work in Third World countries, or restoring rainforests in Brazil?

Meanwhile, since term limits were eased, lawmakers of both parties have started asking why so much important policy is being driven, not by them, but by unelected regulators at the California Air Resources Board.

These and other factors are playing out in an election year, and it’s unclear whether Brown and state lawmakers will be able to agree on a game plan. But they need to get busy; these questions aren’t getting easier and the law’s 2020 expiration date is approaching.

Speeches are fine, but the governor and legislative leaders need to roll up their sleeves, start counting votes and get everyone on board with a workable plan for hitting long-term climate targets. For a state on the road to existential climate disaster, we’re relying on an unsettlingly shaky vehicle.

©2016 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.