As he prepares to leave office, California’s ‘Governor Moonbeam’ Jerry Brown wants everyone to know how much he cares about global warming. That was why, on Sept. 12-14, Brown invited an international milieu of subnational actors to come to San Francisco for his Global Climate Action Summit.
I never thought it was possible to make the blaring fire alarm that is the climate crisis into your own personal vanity project. And the youth climate activists who picketed the summit, claiming Brown’s policies had let them down, certainly didn’t think so.
Perhaps Brown can be excused for a little vanity. At least, unlike his counterpart in the White House, when Brown boasts of something, it’s usually something he actually deserves credit for. And there is no denying that perhaps the most far-reaching legacy of Brown’s tenure is California’s emergence as a global leader in climate action.
For all his shortcomings, leaders with Brown’s expert ability to maximize their gains while knowing when to cut their losses are the best hope this planet has.
The Global Climate Action Summit ultimately resulted in the largest cumulative pledge ever made on the subnational level to combat climate change — over 500 pledges by public and private sector entities.
But leading up to the summit, the online campaign Brown’s Last Chance called on Brown to freeze new oil and gas permits and phase out oil and gas production in California. Since Brown’s reelection as governor, he has granted over 21,000 oil and gas drilling permits, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.
However, if he immediately halted oil and gas production in California, too much would be sacrificed for too little benefit.
Severin Borenstein, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that the estimated cost of phasing out oil production to California oil producers would be at least twice as high as the social cost of carbon ($40 to $50 per ton of greenhouse gas), of which California only emits about one percent of the world total.
Oil prices might rise slightly worldwide (although California only produces half a percent of the world’s oil), but rather than reducing consumption, that would simply transfer wealth from consumers to producers outside California, many of them in autocratic regimes in Russia and the Middle East.
Additionally, it bears mentioning that California oil production has still declined in Brown’s tenure, going from third-highest nationwide to sixth.
Many of the other criticisms of Brown certainly represent missed opportunities. In particular, emissions from California’s oil refineries are mostly exempt from Brown’s signature cap-and-trade legislation. Greg Karras, senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, calculated that, without tougher limits on refineries, the state would miss its 2050 emissions reduction goal by 40 percent.
Still, even Brown’s missed opportunities, disappointing as they are, represent why he deserves to be remembered as a climate trailblazer.
“I get impatient with him at times as well,” Pomona College’s Professor of Politics Richard Worthington said. “But I think he’s been successful. … He’s committed to action, and action means you’re not going to get everything you would want.”
For example, if the fossil fuel industry wasn’t largely exempted from cap and trade, they might have blocked the crucial 2017 extension of cap and trade to 2030. The influence of fossil fuel money in politics is a serious problem, but Brown’s concessions mean he has the rare capacity among politicians to pragmatically accept the situation, and work with it for maximal gain.
I’d much rather have a cap-and-trade program that can be made stronger than none at all.
Nevertheless, Brown leaves important battles to fight if California is to meet its climate goals, against refinery exemptions and more generally against fossil fuel influence in politics. And no future governor, even one as goal-oriented as Brown, can do it alone.
The political will must come from the bottom up, in actions by businesses, schools and universities, nonprofits, and especially citizens who make it a priority to be informed and to vote.
This is what the Global Climate Action Summit was all about — lower-level action when the government is unwilling or unable to do more — and the reminder couldn’t have been more appropriate.
“Climate change is affected by so many factors: It’s the energy that we use, the cars we drive, the food we eat,” said Alexis Reyes, director of Pomona’s Sustainability Office. “And I think if we’re all much more aware that we do have an impact, that’s a huge contributor.”
In 2017, Pomona reduced electricity consumption by 12 percent compared to 2016, according to the latest Sustainability Annual Report from the Sustainability Office. Pomona is pursuing a goal of carbon neutrality by 2030, and it’s just one of the 5Cs.
If it can happen here, it can happen everywhere. And it must.
Ben Reicher PO ’22 is a contributing writer from Agoura Hills, CA. He is also a member of Sierra Club.