Environmentalists and political leaders like Governor Jerry Brown have a major chance to advance the battle against climate catastrophe by pursuing a timeline toward the United Nations climate treaty negotiations in December 2015 in Paris.
So far, little public discussion has occurred about the climate talks. A sense of despair lingers from the collapse of the Copenhagen talks in 2009 and from the gridlock caused by climate-deniers in Congress.
However, the climate crisis has worsened and public awareness has increased, if too slowly, in the past five years. California, along with other states and countries, conplays a leading role in forming a Green Bloc attempting to curb greenhouse gas emissions. A green sustainable economy is rapidly developing in those cities and states where environmental awareness is powerful. A push by those cities and states toward the 2015 summit, even if it ultimately falls short of an enforceable agreement, will mark a significant advance for jobs and pollution reduction across many areas of the planet.
Mapping the timelines for a campaign toward an enforceable climate change treaty is the first step. The process received an important boost from President Obama's recent proposal to achieve a targeted 30 percent reduction in emissions from electric power plants by 2030. China followed the next day with its intention to engage. The two countries spew forty percent of the planet's carbon emissions.
Picture the process this way: California is the green "locomotive" pulling the country towards reductions of greenhouse gases, as California did for national tailpipe emissions standards starting in the 1970s.
As the New York Times reported on June 6 that at least ten states already have met the Obama goal by having cut their emissions by 30 percent or more between 2005 and 2012. That's the front of the train.
An anti-environmental bloc of US states is the heavy caboose dragging the country backwards. The effect of the new Obama standards is to pull the country towards the levels achieved already by California and the bloc of environmentally conscious states. The rise of this Green Bloc is being followed closely by many other countries, including Germany and even China, which has an active collaboration with California. The European bloc already has set a 43 percent reduction goal by 2030.
The pressure on nation states from civic society, social movements, and climate scientists to set stronger goals inevitably will mount as the deadline for the summit approaches.
Already this week meetings are being held in Germany on drafting an early action plan for the summit. California officials are present, as are many environmentalists.
In September, many thousands, even millions, of people will take to the streets and public forums around the world as a one-day UN climate summit convenes on September 23. What they demand will depend partly on local and national discussions, which have barely evolved beyond a think tank stage. It seems essential that whatever proposals emerge be populist, scientifically sound and beyond the standards being proposed by Obama.
The pace will quicken. California and Mexico officials will confer in July about a common platform on emissions reductions. Brown has signed low-carbon pacts with officials from Quebec, British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon, with more to come. In January, fifteen thousand people are expected at a Lima, Peru, summit where the draft action plan will be debated.
Between November's mid-term elections - which will be fought partly over coal and the Obama regulations, and early 2015, the Obama administration will reveal its proposals for the summit, based heavily on domestic considerations. John Kerry's State Department, under the direction of Todd Stern, gauges the opinions expressed by cities, states and the environmental movement in formulating the US position.
California has $120 billion to spend on clean energy over the next five years, making the state a relative powerhouse in the field. California currently plans to harness 33 percent of its electrical power from renewables by 2020, up from the present 23 percent. Under its landmark global warming law [AB 32, 2006], California is set to limit emissions by 2050 to 80 percent of 1990 levels, supposedly enough to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions to 450 ppm "carbon dioxide equivalent." No one can be certain that such a goal, if embraced globally, will stabilize greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent the end of the world, as we know it.
That same process of "de-carbonization" is supposed to be accompanied by a rapid rise to a new, efficient clean energy economy, and another assumption that can only be tested in laboratories of reform like California. So far California's progress has been spectacular compared to other states while still too little to meet the climate challenge.
A key question now facing the governor and his energy advisers is what goal to set for 2030. Some credible environmental analysts already are proposing a 51 percent renewables target, without including hydropower. One of them, state energy commissioner David Hochschild notes the scale of the achievements thus far: "California has the largest wind project in the world, the largest geothermal project in the world, the largest solar thermal trough, the largest solar thermal tower, the largest solar thin film photovoltaic project, and others in construction. We are putting more solar panels on new homes than anywhere else. The largest manufacturing operation in California today is an electric vehicle factory, Tesla, which employs 6,000 people." This is a, "very significant success story," Hochschild says, "but still not very well understood."
The recent "Climate Change Scoping Plan" issued by the state Air Resources Board sheds light on the options now before Brown. According to the report's conclusion of the transition will have to accelerate. "Emissions from 2020 to 2050 will have to decline at more than twice the rate of that which is needed to reach the 2020 statewide emissions limit."
The report further recommends "a 2030 target of, at a minimum, 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels, and a 2040 target of, at a minimum, 60 percent reduction from 1990 levels; and calls for an energy transition to 100 percent renewables and conservation in a few decades. Those are extraordinary goals which will change the nature of California and, if adopted widely, the nation and the world. California is on a road no one has traveled before, to be a model for a global green transition. The alternative is unthinkable.
If California hopes to continue its leadership, the 2030 goal now being considered in the governor's office might require a doubling the pace of the transition, simply to meet the ARB's minimum target of a 40 percent cut. That goal, which is less than Europe's is scientifically defensible but where is the public support? Where are the environmentalists? A public education and organizing campaign is called for, but thus far the brilliant wonks are the lonely vanguard.
The September UN climate summit will be the first meeting of world leaders since the derailed Copenhagen talks four years ago. The US government failed to endorse the Kyoto summit four years earlier, although American presidents have pledged voluntary agreement. There is an urgency to avoid another Copenhagen by building an early momentum. Obama's order is a start. With a Congress controlled by climate deniers, coal lobbyists and simple crackpots, California will have to provide the model.
How It Works
The organizing group is led by two co-chairs, one from Europe and another from Pakistan, both considered to be serious professionals. The goal is an "action agenda" built from national submissions and considered in a reasonably transparent process. City emission reduction plans will be a major focus, creating space for "sustainable city" and environmental justice advocates. Another focus will be deforestation, an opening for anti-logging activists, indigenous groups and those trying to end corporate supply chains based on the massive elimination of forests that serve as carbon sinks. All the arguments will circle back to the summit goal of "stabilizing" the concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere at or below the 450 ppm levels, beyond which most predictions become apocalyptic or, at best, beyond knowing.
The January 2015 Lima conference, two months after the US mid-term elections, hopes to define the "headline sections", or elements of the ultimate action plan. From there forward, working meetings will occur at a rapid pace next April, May, June and October, moving towards a treaty proposal for December. March 2015 is the tentative goal for all countries, including the US, to post their 2020 targets as California has done. There a palpable desire to have an actual agreement drafted next spring so that each country can engage in domestic political debates aimed at consensus before the Paris summit. While the climate summit process is relatively transparent compared to trade summits, the conferences are interminably long, up to two weeks, with 194 speeches before arriving at the end-game, small deal-closing discussions among power blocs of nations. Such groups as the NRDC, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Federation, and Environmental Defense Fund will dominate the American NGO participation, although any NGO can be accredited as an observer. Everything will be telecast and available on a UN website.
Although California represents the eighth largest economy in the world, it is considered merely a "subnational actor" and therefore doesn't have an official seat at the table. That's why California's multiplying pacts with other states and countries are critical in advocating a position the federal government will embrace. A bloc of US senators led by Ed Markey (D-Mass) will be influential too. John Kerry and Obama adviser John Podesta are expected to be strong advocates for the strongest position possible.
Since the State Department generally supports agreements, which it already is implementing domestically, the time for local and state action aimed at building greater public support is now. Allowing climate-denying critics to fill the airways with junk science and rants about a "war on coal" and "job-killing environmentalists" puts Obama on the defensive when he needs a stronger public mandate for an accelerated transition to conservation and renewables.
No such public interest offensive is possible if the policy debate is limited mainly to tedious and legalistic technocratic discussions, no matter how important the details happen to be.
In California and New York, where two incumbent governors are coasting to re-election, discussion of ambitious climate initiatives is not likely to be part of the election rhetoric - unless environmentalists and Democrats somehow turn up their volume. The Lima conference takes place just one month after the November election.
In formulating the US position, the State Department will reject the rabid climate-deniers but pay close attention to the parameters of "moderate" public opinion. However, if the debate is dominated by the Republicans, the "moderate" position may drift to the right unless there is vigorous support for a more progressive agenda.
1. Worst case: if the international proceedings collapse as they did in Copenhagen, many cities, states and nations at least will have moved forward towards a more rapid clean energy transition. Ground will have been gained, public opinion will have been shifted, and greater state goals will have been established, but there still will be no global mechanism to avert the predicted climate catastrophe.
2. Better than Copenhagen: a legally binding instrument is somehow achieved, something stronger than a vague promise like Copenhagen.
3. Even Better: If the US and other countries accept the notion of enforceable trade sanctions or embargoes, why not have environmental agreements with teeth too? The new Obama standard includes provisions for groups like the NRDC to bring legal actions to enforce compliance. Why not provisions to allow civil society itself greater powers to challenge rogue polluters? At the very least, why not establish the power to slap sanctions on a carbon polluter as is done now in WTO trade disputes? Will the day ever come when the world can react with sanctions for climate polluters as rapidly as the sanctions now inflicted on countries like Cuba, Iran and Russia?
Cynics will argue that no progress is enough. They may be right, but time has a way of speeding up when enough critical mass is triggered. As the local goes global, everything heats up.