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The Growing Power Of The Green Regions


Governor Jerry Brown will play a pivotal role in the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23 as he encourages the growth of a virtual Green Bloc of regions committed to serious fossil fuel reductions during global climate talks in the coming year. Brown’s unorthodox strategy becomes critical as the Obama administration deals with a hostile Congress beholden to fossil fuel lobbyists, climate deniers and religious fundamentalists.

The Brown strategy uses the UN timetable to assemble a powerful bloc of states committed to building low carbon clean energy economies. The policy goal of this de facto Green Bloc is to progress towards the goal of 80 percent greenhouse gas reductions below 1990 levels by 2050, a reduction considered essential to avoid a catastrophic overheating of the planet.

Since House Republicans are in climate denial and the US Senate lacks sixty votes to ratify a climate treaty, Obama’s hope is to build on the existing 1992 Rio climate treaty, which was ratified by the US Senate.  Obama can “update” that 1992 treaty by adding national pledges to cut emissions and fund mitigation in poorer countries.  Such an arrangement would be defined as updating the enforceable 1992 treaty, Any progress would depend on concrete steps taken in the greener regions of America and the globe where energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy programs are taking root.

As Michael Grunwald documents in The New New Deal (2012) Obama planted several green building blocks in his 2009 stimulus package, which included $90 billion in clean energy funds which leveraged $100 billion more in private capital. In bailing out Detroit, he won a new fuel-efficiency standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Low-income residences were weatherized. Over 100,000 buildings were retrofitted. 400,000 LED streetlights were funded. Renewableelectricity was doubled. By 2011, the wind and solar industries employed 200,000 Americans, more than jobs number for coal. Most of these advances were based on previous standards written in California. Obama followed up with acontroversial executive order limited coal plant emissions in 2014, setting off a firestorm similar to the GOP reaction to Obamacare. [1]

In summary, during the Obama years, America has been sharply divided along race, class, gender and increasingly environmental lines. That leaves only the option of a progressive federalism built on local and statelevels – in no more than 25 so-called blue states.

Enter Jerry Brown and the rapidly growing alliance of countries, states, and cities making commitments to greenhouse gas reductions consistent with climate science forecasts. Brown will appear at UN luncheon and policy panels during the all-day events on September 23rd, representing not only the California green model, but also a loose green alliance he has been forging for years.

The policy goal of this de facto Green Bloc is to maintain progress towards the international climate science goal of 80 percent greenhouse gas reductions below 1990 levels by 2050. That dramatic reduction is considered essential to avoid overheating the planet to an irreversible catastrophe.

The state goals are contained in executive orders (S-3-05 and B-16-2012) consistent with the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm (parts per million) carbon dioxide equivalent, considered the point of no return.

There already is considerable pressure to relax the IPCC goal to, “50 percent by 2050,” a retreat with frightening implications. (See, for example, an ad hoc UN working group report calling for the 50% goal.) A Green Bloc may be the only hope to circumvent the extreme limits placed on Obama by American Republicans and corporate energy interests.

California leads the country and most of the world in its clean energy achievements due to policies initiated by Jerry Brown and visionary environmentalists in the 1970s, then advanced during the Arnold Schwarzenegger years by passage of global warming legislation (AB 32), and now being accelerated in Brown’s second administration. Brown can lay claim to fostering an advanced, high technology economy powered by energy efficiency and renewable resources with diminishing dependence on coal and nuclear power. That’s a green model, which threatens the fossil fuel industry and its political allies.

Last week the Brown administration beat back the fossil fuel lobby’s push to exempt Big Oil from coverage under California’s expanding cap-and-trade program. Senate president Darryl Steinberg refused to allow the last-minute Big Oil exemption bill to come to the floor.  While such rejections are often communicated behind the scenes, in this case two extraordinary letters rebuffing Big Oil were sent by state officials. The first was from Brown’s longtime climate adviser Mary Nichols to Sen. Henry Perea who carried the legislation for Big Oil. The other came from Senate president Darryl Steinberg, justifying his reasons for blocking the legislation from being taken up in the final hours of session. Together, the letters are long, detailed, and defiant declarations of independence from Big Oil.

The Brown administration is planning to spend $120 billion on clean energy programs in his second four-year term, assuming he is re-elected. The cap-and-trade program, now covering the fossil fuel industry, may account for as much as $5 billion yearly for clean energy programs.

Another looming threat to the fossil fuel lobby are divestment resolutions now being for the UC Regents and the state’s pension investment portfolio, motivated by Stanford University’s recent decision to divest from coal and study other fossil fuel holdings. When the UC student regent recently suggested that the University follow the Stanford model, Brown, himself a powerful regent, said, “that’s is a good idea.”

A Regents vote is scheduled as early as September 17-18. The process is likely to take years, which was the case with divestment policies aimed at South African apartheid and Big Tobacco in the past. Advocates will utilize recent reports by Bloomberg L.P. that fossil fuels are a “risky business” from an investor’s standpoint.

Events geared towards the huge climate rally Sept. 21 and the UN summit two days later will unfold rapidly after Labor Day. For the actions planned by 350.org, see “September Climate Protests & 350.Org”. By that time, the Green Bloc will emerge from months, even years, of cultivation through Brown’s green climate diplomacy.

A California-Mexico climate accord was signed last week, aimed at collaboration on greenhouse gas reductions and positioning the two states to play a leading role in the Lima summit in December, where the global powers will attempt to hammer out a provisional agreement. That event will lay bare the global divide between the have-not nations and the dozen countries that constitute seventy percent of global carbon emissions. The demand of the Third World for a Green Bank to finance mitigation measures for damage the First World has caused is an exact parallel to the debates at home over environmental justice.

Incoming California Senate leader Kevin de Leon accompanied Brown to Mexico City and is the author of major legislation assuring hundreds of millions of dollars for disadvantaged communities in implementing climate policies. That environmental justice vision could be a template for the UN talks with de Leon being a valuable ally in outreach to Latino communities at home and developing countries abroad. The chairman of the Senate’s Latino Caucus, Ricardo Lara, also is proving to be an effective author of environmental justice measures as well, including limits on short-lived climate pollutants and emissions from trucks routed through inner-city neighborhoods.

Whom does the unofficial global Green Bloc cover?  Besides Mexico [which gets 97 percent of its power from fossil fuels and is the fifteenth largest carbon emitter in the world] three states in the Federal Republic of Germany are likely to be included, as Germany’s green sector seeks global partners. California is working with officials in China on ending urban air pollution, an issue provoking a powerful citizens’ outcry. British Columbia, which has a carbon tax, is formally linked with California, Washington state and Oregon. Quebec has a cap-and-trade program with California.  Ontario is likely to follow if voters throw out the incumbents this year.  Low-carbon regional alliances already exist in the Northeast and Midwest.

California officials are talking with so-called red states as well. Current right-wing governments in Florida, the Great Plains and Texas are ignoring rising opportunities to exploit their wind and solar resources. Gov. Brown, who is engaged in economic rivalry with Governor Rick Perry’s Texas, laid down a challenge to Perry in the presence of Mexico’s president on Tuesday, “There’s more energy from the sun in California than there is under the ground in Texas. We’re not waiting here in California. We are joining hands in Mexico.”

Green local and state alliances also have been formed by former Governor Schwarzenegger and retired NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave the Sierra Club $50 million to fight the coal industry. These existing efforts – the R20 and C40 – will be foundational to the Green Bloc. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is well positioned as an advocate for global cities.

Within the confines of the US, the Green Bloc includes at least half the American population and over 40 percent of the economy (measured in GDP). More important, the green sector is growing rapidly from its starting point at zero just three decades ago. There already are more green jobs in the US than jobs in the coal, oil and gas industries, and the gap will widen. In California there already are nearly 200,000 jobs in the “core clean energy economy”[2] according to the Green Innovation Index (www.next10.org), with greenhouse gas emissions declining 17 percent since 1990. Wind energy is the largest sector of California’s renewable energy generation (about 40 percent), geothermal next at 25-30 percent, biomass at 15 percent, with solar rapidly growing from 6.5 percent. While these accomplishments fall far short of the state’s ambition, a “tipping effect” may leave the fossil fuel economy behind in the next decade if environmental advocates build a greater base of power.  The UN process, with its timelines, only accelerates the transition and draws the battle lines for the historical fights ahead.

Three serious objections can be raised to this unfolding scenario. First, the gains being made still leave, “miles to go before we sleep,” as Brown says. Using 2012 data, California renewables accounted for 15.4 percent of total electricity generation, while across the US renewables represented only 5.4 percent of electricity sources. Second, the corporate and right wing pushback is feverish and unlikely to abate. The Koch brothers and polluter advocacy groups, for example, are pushing bills in 34 states to block renewables and protect fossil fuels. The major battleground is the energy distribution grid; with the fossil fuel lobby being deathly afraid of consumers installing rooftop solar panels and selling their surplus back to the utilities. Republicans, who otherwise are champions of tax breaks for the wealthy, target existing tax breaks and other incentives for renewable energy for closure.  A constant grass-roots ground war against these well-funded dinosaurs can lead to defeats.

Finally, the criticism is heard from some that most of the policies driving the clean energy economy forward are generally voluntary in nature, and thus not enforceable. Many of the gains of the environmental movement have been the enforceable provisions inserted into federal laws from the 1970s, a time when President Richard Nixon proclaimed himself a conservationist.  Setting targets without enforcement can be an exercise in futility, but the anti-regulatory, anti-government mood is unlike to lift soon or on its own. The power of the environmental movement will be needed to make legislators stick to their promises. But the material growth of the clean energy movement – measured in lower consumer bills, cleaner air, health benefits, green jobs, tangible greening projects at community levels, the protection of wildlife and fisheries, etc., is steadily altering the expectations of everyday life for millions of people and defining what they have to lose and what they will fight for. More climate catastrophes will be the catalyst for green infrastructure spending, just as the 1929 Wall Street crash and Depression caused the growth of the “Big Government”.

The stolen election of 2000 robbed Americans of an environmental presidency and brought fourteen lost years. Nevertheless the grass roots environmental constituencies have continued to grow wherever openings and leverage points exist. This year will see the surfacing of the Green Bloc in America. As the Dark Ages encroach on one side, the fight for a Green New Deal will accelerate too.

[1] Specifically, the Obama order requires power plants to cut carbon pollution by 30 percent under 2005 levels by 2030. While states are granted flexibility, that has not prevented twelve states from suing the EPA for its “war on coal”, and opposition becoming a battle cry for Republicans and oil oligarchs like the Koch brothers. The fate of the regulations is far from clear.

[2] The core clean energy economy consists of businesses providing products and services more energy-efficiently and facilitate a transition away from fossil fuels.

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