With potential for ‘catastrophic’ future with rising temperatures, fires, Gov. Brown pushes California as leader in climate change discussion
By Paul Rogers
This week, thousands of political leaders, scientists, activists, journalists, celebrities and business leaders will arrive in San Francisco for a global summit on climate change, an event that makes California a worldwide flag-bearer on the issue at a time when the federal government is in retreat. The event at Moscone Center, dubbed the “Global Climate Action Summit,” is something of a swan song for outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown. He leaves office in January, having led California to major gains in renewable energy and cuts in greenhouse gas emissions — all amid a backdrop of record drought, floods and massive wildfires that brought the issue into stark focus.
The event’s top names include Brown, United Nations dignitaries, former New York
Climate rally in San Francisco. Page A8.
Electricity California receives from solar, wind and other renewable resources
of electric vehicles Gov. Jerry Brown wants on California roads by 2030
California’s goal to have all electricity from clean energy sources by 2045
City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Vice President Al Gore, English primatologist Jane Goodall and others. Their hope: to essentially go around the Trump administration and secure pledges from cities, states, countries and corporations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions beyond promises made three years ago at the Paris climate summit.
“We’re not where we need to be,” Brown said in an interview. “With the climate changing, crops will fail, certain parts of the world will become unlivable, migrations will increase by the millions. We are looking at something that is quite catastrophic.”
President Donald Trump has rejected the scientific consensus on climate change and worked to increase oil drilling and coal production during his 20 months in office. Last year, he announced he will not follow through with commitments the Obama administration made in Paris to reduce greenhouse gases up to 28 percent nationally by 2025. That made the United States the only country in the world to reject the agreement.
“The Republicans, the deniers in Washington, the president, they are really deviant to the international norm,” Brown said. “It’s important that America maintain its climate actions through the states and the cities, private organizations and nonprofits. We can’t just let Trump undermine and sabotage America’s part. We’re facing a truly devastating challenge. Climate change, although it comes on gradually, has an irreversible quality.”
Critics say that for all the fanfare, climate summits can be long on symbolism and short on measurable results. “It’s a nice going-away party for Jerry Brown,” said Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell LLP, a Houston-based law firm that lobbies for oil companies and other energy interests.
“It’s OK to put your heads together and have idealistic goals,” he said. “California thinks they are their own country, and Jerry Brown thinks he can conduct his own foreign policy. But he really can’t, because California is part of the United States, and the Constitution gives power to the president, whether you like him or not.”
Summit supporters disagree.
“That’s B.S.,” said Kathryn Phillips, executive director of Sierra Club California. “Those are the kinds of things the oil industry says because they know they are wrong. Things start in California and are carried to the rest of the world.”
Phillips noted that delegations of leaders, engineers and business executives regularly come to California from places such as India and China to learn about new clean technologies and laws, from reducing diesel bus pollution to increasing renewable energy.
“The summit is a way to go around Washington’s inaction,” Phillips said. “It’s important to demonstrate to the rest of the world that the United States has not entirely stepped away.”
California is the most high-profile opponent of the Trump administration’s view that climate science is either a hoax or too expensive to confront.
Overall, 32 percent of the state’s electricity now comes from solar, wind and other renewable sources. California has the most electric cars of any state. It has the only mandatory “cap and trade” market that requires factories, power plants, oil refineries and other large polluters to buy permits for each ton of heat-trapping greenhouse gas they emit. And it has cut such emissions 13 percent since 2004, even as the state’s economy has grown 26 percent over the same time.
“From a technological point of view, I’m really very optimistic,” said Sally Benson, a professor of energy engineering at Stanford University. “Wind power is cheap. Solar power is cheap. Electric car prices are coming down. Batteries are getting better. And natural gas, compared to coal, is beneficial. But the sense of urgency and importance around these issues is not anywhere near where it needs to be.”
The state keeps setting the bar higher.
Last month, lawmakers in Sacramento sent a bill to Brown’s desk, SB 100, that requires 60 percent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045. For the latter target, “noncarbon” sources such as nuclear power, large hydroelectric dams and natural gas plants that capture and store carbon also can count. Brown may sign the bill at the summit in San Francisco.
Scientists say the measures are critically needed. Global warming is not something decades away, for our grandchildren’s generation, they note.
“Climate change is happening now,” said Dan Kammen, a professor of energy at UC Berkeley and director of the university’s renewable energy lab. “We’re observing it. We’re seeing fires, droughts, species loss, changes in agricultural productivity, extended heat waves. These are immediate issues for Californians.”
The Earth’s climate continues to warm— up 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century and on track to go up 9 degrees by the end of this century. The 10 hottest years since modern temperature records began in 1880 all have occurred since 1998, according to NASA.
The sea level in the San Francisco Bay has risen by about 8 inches over roughly the same period. Forest fires are more severe, and Arctic sea ice has shrunk 13 percent per decade since the late 1970s.
Already, 1.2 million acres have burned in California this year — an area four times the size of Los Angeles. Four of the five largest fires in recorded state history have happened since 2012. A report out last month found that at current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, California will see 50 percent more large fires by the end of this century.
Even sooner, in 2050, only 32 years from now, the snow melt from the Sierra Nevada — a critical source of water for cities and farms — will decline by two-thirds at the current rate of warming, according to state estimates.
Along the coast and San Francisco Bay, 20 inches of sea level rise, a level included in many projections, could cost the state $18 billion a year in buildings lost to flooding by 2050, scientists estimate. San Francisco voters will consider a $425 million bond in November to help fund a $2 billion project to rebuild the Embarcadero sea wall to stop flooding on city streets, BART tunnels and structures such as the Ferry Building. Water in recent years has been splashing up over the road during high “king tide” events.
Kammen, who has a degree in physics from Harvard, said it’s not too late to prevent the worst damage with major reductions in fossil fuels.
“A lot of climate change is already baked in,” he said. “But we can still avoid the really critical tipping points.”
California faces huge hurdles. The Trump administration has moved to cut back national rules that would increase automobile gas mileage and strip the state of its ability to set tougher tailpipe rules than the federal government. Some of Brown’s goals — such as 5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030 — are a long way off, given that there are about 330,000 now. And business is worried about the impact of all the new regulations on electricity and gasoline prices.
California’s industrial electricity rates are 86 percent higher than the national average. And although the state has grown manufacturing jobs such as food processing and oil refining in recent years, it has done so only half as fast as the rest of the nation, said Michael Shaw, vice president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, an industry group.
“We shouldn’t be in a position where we are saying to anybody who does not have an advanced degree that California isn’t interested in maintaining those jobs,” he said.
Brown says costs have to be considered in the broader context. Fires, floods and failing crops will be staggering in the decades ahead, he said.
“Just ask the people of Redding or Napa or Santa Barbara or Riverside if they think the price is too high,” he said, referring to recent wildfires. “We’re going to be talking devastation, tragedies that are going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. … The do-nothing option is by far the most expensive.
“This summit,” he said, “is another attempt to wake people up.”
The Global Climate Action Summit is by invitation only. But there are hundreds of affiliated talks, panels, workshops and other events open to the public around the Bay Area all week. For a list go to https://globalclimateactionsummit.org Contact Paul Rogers at 408- 920- 5045.