Capitol Journal

The forecast: Blowing hot? Cold? Only Gov. Brown knows

Jerry Brown, who has blown hot and cold over the years, seems to have settled down. But you never know ....

Throughout Gov. Jerry Brown's record-length political career, we've never known quite what to expect. What's real and what's not? He has blown hot and cold.

This came to mind Monday as I watched Brown, inaugurating his unprecedented fourth term, advocate that California escalate its pioneering attack on global warming.

"Taking significant amounts of carbon out of our economy without harming its vibrancy is exactly the sort of challenge at which California excels," Brown told a packed state Assembly chamber.

"This is exciting, it is bold and it is absolutely necessary if we are to have any chance of stopping potentially catastrophic changes in our climate system."

But Brown also once was a zealous political reformer. Then he wasn't. Then he was again, advocating a $100 limit on campaign contributions. Then never mind.

He advocated a flat income tax — everyone paying the same rate. Then, 20 years later, he went in the opposite direction and socked it to the rich with Proposition 30.

There are many examples.

He does seem to have settled down considerably in his mid-70s, however.

Brown's long-ago dream of a bullet train was turned into a program reality by his predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and this governor has been pushing it seemingly every waking hour. He "broke ground" Tuesday in Fresno.

Brown is determined to re-plumb the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a tough task politically that he attempted three decades ago until stopped by voters. Achieving that goal on a second try, however, probably will require a significant re-drafting of the current delta-gouging plan.

Schwarzenegger also launched California's assault on global warming — ahead of any other state or nation — and now Brown wants to step it up significantly.

It is bold and ambitious. The governor proposes, within 15 years, to reduce our gasoline and diesel use by half. He also wants to raise from one-third to one-half the share of electricity we generate from renewable energy — mainly solar, wind and geothermal. And he aims to double the efficiency of existing buildings while making heating fuels cleaner.

"We must also reduce the relentless release of methane," Brown continued, hopefully including all that smelly cow manure along I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley.

He talked about updating the electrical grid, adding rooftop solar, expanding battery storage and driving more electric cars.

"How we achieve these goals and at what pace will take great thought and imagination mixed with pragmatic caution," he said. "It will require enormous innovation, research and investment. And we will need active collaboration at every stage with our scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, businesses and officials at all levels."

Yes, collaboration, but especially gubernatorial commitment and leadership to bring business on board. Compromise will be essential if California is to be unified in leading the country — perhaps the planet — in containing global warming.

Brown apparently didn't discuss the proposal with anyone outside his inner circle before popping it in his inaugural address.

"He took folks by surprise," says Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable. "He never talked to anyone. It's almost as if he were speaking to Tom Steyer in the balcony. We can't figure where that was coming from in terms of reality and practicality."

Steyer, a San Francisco hedge fund billionaire, has made climate change a personal crusade. The political relevance is that he donated more than $74 million to gubernatorial and congressional campaigns across the country during the last election cycle, about triple what any other contributor gave.

At the request of new state Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), Steyer wrote a $1-million check to finance voter registration for the November election, helping California Democrats. Steyer is a good political pal to have.

But Steyer actually sold De León on the perils of climate change long before last year, the senator's staff says. The Senate leader will be an essential ally in helping Brown push his legislation.

Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), a longtime pollution fighter, already has introduced a bill to accelerate the battle against global warming. "People don't like change," she says. "It'll be a very tough political fight."

"People can't even begin to grasp or understand this," asserts Lapsley, who says California business was prepared for a second round of fighting global warming, but not to the extent Brown advocated. "Our economy won't be able to absorb it. It's going to drive industries out of here."

That's what critics said in 2006 when the Legislature passed and Schwarzenegger signed AB 32. It required California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, roughly 15% under what had been projected. That led to a complex cap-and-trade program, a polite government name for allowing industries to pollute for a fee.

That fee — generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year — is helping Brown build his bullet train. Presumably expanding cap-and-trade would pump even more money into high-speed rail.

But AB 32 is working to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions — California is already close to meeting its 2020 goals — without, so far, destroying the economy.

Brown's guru on pollution is Mary Nichols, his longtime advisor who heads the California Air Resources Board. She's the general in the war. "It's time to move on to our next target," she says.

If Brown's truly worried about the danger to our planet, however, he should reposition himself to the nation's capital. A Senate seat? The presidency? He is hard to predict.

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