avatar
The Great Unifier


My dream is that California under Governor Jerry Brown’s leadership will become a multi-cultural world-class economy powered entirely by renewable resources and energy conservation, and a model to which President Barack Obama can point during the critical global talks on climate change in December 2015. This vision is one in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The overarching goal of projecting California as a renewable model for the world should unite the many tangled strands of California environmentalism. The challenge of climate change can be “The Great Unifier”, in the words of a February 2014 state report.[i]

The international goal is an enforceable climate treaty preventing greenhouse gas emissions from increasing global temperature another 2 degrees Celsius above current levels. Since that goal is impossible to achieve by top-down means, demonstrable bottom-up progress from places like California is the only way forward. Additionally, since previous treaty negotiations have collapsed because of the rich nation/poor nation divide; the battle against climate change, in California or the planet, is interwoven with the environmental justice movement. If the California model improves conditions for all its residents, including those most affected by pollution and unequal opportunity, California will have a message for the world.

California already leads in many ways. We are the most energy-efficient state in America. Since our renewable investments began with Jerry Brown and the no-nukes movement four decades ago, we have achieved 1.5 million clean energy jobs, $74 billion in consumer savings, and become the magnet for two-thirds of the clean energy venture capital investments in the country. We have rejected those myopic corporate voices that once warned that California needed 65 nuclear power plants built on our magnificent coastline. Today only one nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, stands in the way of California becoming a nuclear-free state.

There’s much more. The governor campaigned on a promise of 500,000 new clean energy jobs over his two terms. He is going to increase the percentage of our electricity generated from renewables, now at 23 percent, to at least 33 percent by 2020. There will be 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles in California by 2025. The plan is to cut in half emissions from passenger transportation. Brown seeks 75 percent recycling and composting by 2020. Under Title 24 of the state building code, “zero carbon buildings” will be sprouting, in which the annual energy consumption is no great than the renewable energy produced on site.

Brown knows that California is the leverage point for achieving a national transformation towards clean energy and climate protection, just as California standards in the 70s led to vast efficiencies in transportation, building, and appliance standards. The tailpipe emission standards ultimately adopted in California in 2003 became federal standards by 2010.

THE FIVE-YEAR $120 BILLION CLEAN ENERGY BUDGET

California is beginning to invest $120 billion in renewables and clean energy between this year and 2020. California is in the process of spending at least $20 billion per year fighting climate change through an alternative energy budget. It’s no moonbeam fantasy to visualize California as a clean energy model for the US and the world. The categories of California’s green energy spending are:
The $14.9 billion contained in the 2012-13 budget for energy efficiency, renewables, advanced transportation and low-carbon fuels. (LAO Report, Dec. 19, 2012, cumulative figures).

$2-5 billion yearly in cap-and-trade revenue through 2020. (Total: $30 billion). (Estimates from Senate Office of Research and Legislative Analyst Report, Feb. 2014);

At least $550 million to one billion dollars yearly for five years to a Clean Energy Job Creation Fund created by the voter-approved Proposition 39 (2012), which imposed a progressive taxing formula on multi-national corporations. (Projected total: $5 billion).
In summary, California environmentalists can count on a guaranteed clean energy stimulus package of $120 billion over the next six years. There may be no comparable opportunity to forge a clean energy anywhere in the country. By comparison, the United Kingdom, with nearly twice the population of California, is spending $110 million, one-twentieth of California’s annual clean energy budget, on renewable sources like wind farms.

 

Last year Brown was circulating and promoting an article in Nature by Anthony Barnosky at UC Berkeley suggesting that eco-systems can suddenly collapse. Brown also sent out a series of CIA charts forecasting environmental calamity in The Atlantic. In an internal email, Brown asked his contacts what should be done. He’s been meditating on that question ever since.

 

A US-CALIFORNIA ALLIANCE

President Obama and Gov. Brown need each other more than ever. Obama does not receive enough notice for the unprecedented $71 billion for clean energy initiatives contained in his 2009 stimulus package. But there the “green New Deal” stalled, as coal-breathing Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2012. Now, however, the Obama administration is poised to sharply limit carbon pollution with new EPA rules. The conservative US Supreme Court recently ruled that the EPA can regulate pollution, which drifts from 28 mainly coal-based states to the East Coast. In June the EPA will issue Obama’s most important regulation so far, a sweeping order to cut CO2 emissions which, if Obama succeeds, means a cut of 700 million tons of carbon pollution yearly by 2020, and will be a serious obstacle to present and future coal plants. Assuming Rolling Stone is correct that the Obama administration will reject the Keystone XL pipeline, the president will be looking for serious partners outside the climate change-denying House of Representatives as he prepares for the December 2015 Paris talks on a global treaty to reduce the carbon plague.[ii]

Enter Jerry Brown. Obama’s pending decisions will accelerate the need for a growing clean energy economy, which California is poised to deliver. In addition to California’s record on renewables, efficiency, conservation and planning, Brown is encouraging development of a Clean-Energy Bloc that transcends the red-blue political divide with one based on bioregions. So far the bloc includes the Pacific Rim states, British Columbia and Quebec.[iii] Brown spent much of last summer in intensive conversations with Germany’s green energy experts. He soon will carry his green flag to Mexico. Perhaps most importantly, Brown has built a permanent collaboration with China, offering advice on how to rescue Beijing from the suffocating air pollution, which prompted California to launch its energy initiatives decades ago. China, which along with the US accounts for 40 percent of global emissions, has already invested $65 billion in renewables, more than the US and Germany combined, and is developing new sustainable megacities. Brown, of course, is interested in Chinese investment in California.

Key timetables lie ahead. Brown presumably will be re-elected this November. Just one month later, from Dec. 1-12, 2014, UN climate delegates will assemble in Lima, Peru, to draft a global deal to cut emissions. The Paris talks will follow one year later, in December 2015, when a final decision either will be reached or not. If a treaty is agreed in 2015, it will enter into force in 2020, the same period as most of California’s current emissions deadlines. Since the US Senate may well oppose the ratification of any treaty, the most likely path forward will be through federal executive orders combined with compacts between those US states that consider the threat real. [The 1997 Kyoto Protocol ended in just such a scenario: the US Senate rejected Kyoto while President Clinton signed on.] In any of these time frames, the California role will be critical.

Brown and California therefore are pivotal for the US, China, and the planet on climate change issues. None of this will be easy, but a common vision of “the great unifier” – the challenge of climate change – is critical to navigating the many divisions and stumbling blocks which stand in the way, and which often exhaust environmentalist energy.

HOW TO DETER FRACKING IN CALIFORNIA

The first challenge to this agenda is to prevent industrial fracking from going forward in California during Brown’s next five years. Environmentalists are united in opposing expanded fracking. Labor and legislative Democrats are sharply divided over fracking in California’s vast Monterey Shale deposits. The opposition to fracking is so intense among community groups and fracking-focused environmental groups that any attempts even to regulate the process are denounced as legitimizing an apocalypse. The oil thought to lie in the Monterey Shale formation must “stay in the ground” if this scenario is to be avoided, “fracktivists” say. The very concept of regulation, they add, implies that fracking can be managed safely. The threat of methane emissions and water contamination during a historic drought, make fracking a leading environmental menace for this generation.

Brown’s caution on fracking so far has drawn such vigorous environmental protests that it damages his credibility as a global leader on climate. Being Governor is his day job, however, and the shiny promises of jobs from the fracking “boom” are difficult to dismiss without a rigorous cost-benefit calculation. The Fracking lobby notes that 150,000 horizontal wells have been drilled during the past decade alone, increasing employment in the oil and gas sector by 40 percent since 2007.[iv] They claim that a new era of American energy supremacy is at hand, “so long as politicians don’t get in the way.”[v]

Brown aides claim he has never explicitly endorsed fracking. He did oppose a moratorium bill in the legislature last year, while signing a fracking regulatory bill, which many environmentalists and grassroots activists opposed. His customary Socratic give-and-take sessions on the issue leave many frustrated. Whatever Brown’s ultimate decision, the current moratorium bill by Senator Holly Mitchell, SB 1132, faces stiff opposition from the fossil fuel industry in the Capitol. However, the campaign for Mitchell’s bill is far from fruitless. A demonstration of 50,000 anti-fracking protestors at the governor’s Oakland office could change Brown’s calculations or timing, just as 200,000 demonstrators at the Washington Monument in 1963 changed President John Kennedy’s mind. Public opposition to fracking increases almost daily, demanding action from elected leaders.

Support for the Mitchell bill is an important step towards environmental justice, thus bringing the controversy from remote Kern County to the super metropolis of Los Angeles. Sen. Mitchell is African-American and in response to her constituents’ outcry, the LA City Council recently passed an ordinance directing the City Attorney to draft a fracking moratorium, for final review by the City Council. If the anti-fracking movement applies enough pressure, a Los Angeles county supervisor campaign this November between Sheila Kuehl and Bobby Shriver could result in a 3-2 margin to extend the fracking ban countywide, tripling the scale of the city’s moratorium. Both candidates have promised to vote for a county moratorium.

There are multiple other avenues for the anti-fracking movement in California. There may be a referendum in Santa Barbara County where fracking threatens state coastal waters. Environmental lawyers are considering an action under Proposition 65, a state law prohibiting any leakage of known carcinogens, which “affects” the state water supply. Campus activists have successfully pushed Stanford University to divest from coal, although not oil and natural gas, a precedent other trustees will follow. In wake of Stanford’s decision, Brown, who is a very influential UC Regent, is supporting targeted UC divestment, at least from coal, from 67 of the largest fossil fuel companies. Student and public pressure will build as the Regents formally open hearings on a new divestment policy by the fall.

Meanwhile, the pressure, from the fossil fuel industry and allies like the Koch brothers, is being partly offset by rich “green” donors like San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, who are bankrolling environmental causes and candidates in close races. Steyer, a Stanford trustee, gave the university tens of millions for sustainability programs; he also contributed $30 million to proposition 39, the 2012 measure providing billions to the clean energy economy.

A combination of all these forces can lead to a de facto and indefinite moratorium on fracking in California. Contributing to the standoff will be a formidable, science-based regulatory apparatus, which might force industry to pause. The irony is that the deterrence may come from the very regulatory apparatus which environmentalists opposed just a year ago, after oil industry amendments were added. That law, Senator Pavley’s SB 4, 2013, failed to include a moratorium, but required a new independent scientific study that allows Brown to add a heavy layer of environmental staffing to the state regulatory agency, known as DOGGR, which is considered pro-industry.[vi] Under SB 4, the governor’s office is beefing up its independent oversight team by adding four top officials and adding 65 professional staff. The addition of other environmental regulators, like state water and air quality officials, to the oversight process will add even greater scrutiny.

In summary, the new regulatory process is potentially a significant obstacle course to an industry already nervous about Brown and legions of California environmentalists. A de facto multi-year moratorium, if not yet an official permanent one, is a very possible outcome of this year’s battles.

THE ROOT IS ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

“We need to teach the electric car to speak Spanish.” That humorous remark from Senator Kevin de Leon, the likely incoming Senate leader, sums up the necessity of environmental justice. If fighting climate change consists of selling more Priuses to the affluent, there will be no motivation or benefit California’s majority of middle, working class, and poor people. Since the nature of the unregulated market is to widen inequality, only progressive public policies will galvanize majority support for the full transition to a clean energy future. Every environmental organization will need to assure that communities of color are allocated a fair share of the resources for renewable energy and conservation programs. In addition to the Mitchell moratorium bill already mentioned, Sen. de Leon’s SB 535 already assures that ten percent of cap and trade revenues go to disadvantaged communities; his proposed SB 1275, developed with Environmental California, is designed to put one million zero emission vehicles on the road in ten years, with emphasis on affordability and pollution abatement; and his SB 1204 aims at lessening emissions from trucks and freight trains.[vii] In addition, the Blue Green Alliance’s program to fix methane leaks from aging pipelines adds a potential trade union role in partly mitigating the crisis. These are only a few examples of how the environmental agenda is being expanded to reflect racial and class interests for a movement often limited to university towns. This is no longer only a moral imperative but a practical necessity given the composition of the new California electorate.

MANAGING GREEN DIFFERENCES

Another complication in pursuit of “the great unifier” is the inevitable tendency of politicians and interest groups to carve up the $120 billion for their own specific agendas, weakening the cumulative impact of the green budget. Harshly put, there is a danger of a green pork barrel. One example is Brown’s insistence on taking $250 million in a continuous appropriation of the cap-and-trade funds for his proposed high-speed rail project. The first leg of hte project may not be operational until 2022, beyond the 2020 mandate for greenhouse gas reductions. It could reduce 278,000-674,00 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2020, by the governor’s projection, through CalTrain electrification, efficent connectivity, greener construction modes and tree planting. It also is projected to generate 30,000 mentric tons of greenhouse emissions in the profess.[viii] The governor’s insistence on the train project has caused legislators to pull out their carving knives to capture funds for their own favored projects.

REMEMBERING THE BIG PICTURE

The bruising fights over specific issues, regulation versus moratorium, electric rail or environmental equity, etcetera, can drain collective energy to a point where any unifying vision is lost. Indeed, no human being, not even Jerry Brown, can fully synthesize and implement a perfect five-year plan to invest in the fight of his lifetime. There are others on the battlefield, of course, led by the powerful Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). The judiciary may throw up obstacles. There could be green spending scandals too, triggering a voter backlash.

As the LAO noted in 2012, “the state currently lacks a comprehensive strategy that fully coordinates these activities…” This concern remains valid today.

Therefore, a conversation is needed about how the ultimate vision of renewable resources that gave birth to this historic process can be preserved and expanded for the next five years. The governor, as the original visionary, must begin to articulate his plans as soon as he feels ready, but no later than the beginning of his second term in January. The governor has to engage, insofar as possible, the whole state of California, and places far beyond, to achieve his mission. A bold educational television campaign may be necessary, modeled on the effective “tobacco-free California” campaign against smoking. Consortiums with other states and countries will have to be organized in the run-up to 2015.

Environmentalists have a central role to play. Their efforts over many decades, after all, have brought California to this point. They can educate, organize, litigate, lobby, go to jail, plant their gardens, run for office and vote. Environmentalists have pre-existing international networks. What is needed is a common plan for the next five years to build a greener California, which can be a model for the nation and the world. One place to begin is with a more inclusive discussion to map the steps and stages ahead, through the end of the Obama presidency and Brown’s final year in office. Environmentalists owe themselves and the governor a last best chance to change the climate debate in the direction of a sustainable future.

AN AFTERWORD: IS HOPE ALIVE?

Despite solar and renewable energy’s great leap forward in just the last decade, the rate of progress falls far below what climate scientists predict is necessary. For one example, last year 48,000 all-electric vehicles, 49,000 plug-in hybrids and 490,000 traditional hybrids were sold across America – amidst 14 million conventional cars and light trucks.[ix] Skeptics in the energy industry predict it will be 2030 before rechargeable batteries can replace gas powered ones.[x] As Al Gore concluded in 1992, “the maximum that is politically feasible still falls short of the minimum that is truly effective.”[xi] So will Earth Day end in an Earth Night?

An apocalyptic sensibility is raising everywhere as science reports the terrible news. A whole generation has been told essentially that catastrophic and irreversible climate change, the end of the world, as we know it, lies ahead in their lifetimes. The NASA scientist James Hansen says its “game over” if the Canadian tar sands are excavated, no matter which delivery system carries the bitumen. Combined with $1 trillion in student debt, downward economic mobility and shorter life spans for the next generation, that’s one of the darkest shadows ever to fall on a nation’s young.

I recall a similar doomsday mood when I was young, about the imminent threat of nuclear war. Millions of us passed through a near-death experience during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists posted its five-minutes-to-midnight graphic. One response to this apocalyptic warning was the retreat of the new counter-culture into an organic lifestyle, alternative music and art, and the poetry of the Beats. Another response, from a smaller number, was underground sabotage. In both cases, it was assumed that American society [our parents’ generation] would be too clueless to catch up with the apocalypse ahead.

But here we are, fifty-two years after the Missile Crisis, still on the brink of nuclear conflict but still not yet plunged into hell on earth. The early predictions were wrong, at least about the time span before a nuclear apocalypse. A combination of surprising statesmanship, the JFK-Kennedy talks in 1962, and unpredicted global mass resistance, the nuclear freeze in 1982, helped keep the world on the living side of the brink.

A nuclear holocaust still may occur and, if not, climate change may be the end of us. But there does seem to be an instinct for human survival, an adaptive creativity, that propels young people forward when enough feel, at the deepest level, the shutting down of the eco-system that is the very basis of human life itself. That is why we have witnessed spectacular protests in recent years by millions of young people against dramatic threats to their future. Movements like 350.org and the fossil fuel divestment campaigns have arrived just on time – from an evolutionary standpoint. They could not have happened sooner. Their appearance is a Sign of a creative and adaptive spirit in life.

The mood of these new protests is far from patient. It is not supposed to be. They are the vanguard of an evolutionary leap. One lesson the new movements might learn, however, is from California history, where the solar energy, conservation, anti-nuclear, and small-is-beautiful movements, with their visions of a different world, arose towards the end of the Sixties. The sensibilities are the same, despite the decades. Jerry Brown is the same person forty years later, made different only because he carries the burdens of state. California is a living laboratory, or living museum, of the environmental movement, illuminating the gradual forward process of building a sustainable economy for a world of limits. California can measure the progress by its own metrics: the number of nuclear plants avoided, the clean energy jobs created, the consumer savings, the electric cars on the road, the homes weatherized, the green buildings erected, the solar electric and rooftop applications, the young environmentalists graduating every year, and so on. Those metrics are very different, though related, to the usual metrics of social movements including the numbers of marching bodies, mass arrests, and mainstream media coverage, and so on.

Institutional walls never fall overnight, but when they do, the collapse comes suddently when their traditional support has eroded, and when an alternative has begun to appear. One does not have to picture the Berlin Wall, only those sixty-five nuclear plants which were so recently projected for California’s coast. The anti-nuclear movement triumphed when it became clear to the public that conservation and renewables were worth the leap. Now the lords of fracking tell us a “Golden Age of Gas” can restore their kingdom. They are as wrong as the nuclear priesthood in an earlier time. They fear a new generation that says no and insists that conservation and renewables must come first; not simply as token afterthoughts. The new generation is building its yes in places like California. What Germany’s early green hero, the late Rudi Dutschke, called, “the long march through the institutions,” is reaching its climax phase.

Leave a comment