California's political leaders pledged Monday to advance the state's landmark laws on climate change and fend off challenges from opponents such as oil companies.
"We're just at the beginning," Gov. Jerry Brown said. "There's still lots of skeptics and lots of deniers."
Brown and top lawmakers spoke at a conference hosted by Tom Steyer, a major Democratic donor who has wielded his financial clout to urge action on climate change, and the event was a mix of wonky policy discussions and pep rally speeches.
At one point, Steyer unspooled a long "Star Wars" metaphor comparing oil companies to Darth Vader and environmental activists to noble Jedi warriors.
California has set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the amount of energy generated from renewable sources by 2020, but discussions have begun about expanding the programs and making new goals.
"It's vital that we continue to look toward 2030 and '50 and beyond," said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). "There's still a great deal of work to do."
Lawmakers said ideas under consideration would set tighter limits on pollutants like methane and make the transportation of water more energy-efficient. They also want to see more jurisdictions link with California's cap-and-trade program, which requires polluters to buy credits in order to emit greenhouse gases.
"We are hard at work … to make sure we move forward with the next steps," said Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).
He said California's environmental programs have helped create jobs and spur investment in clean technologies.
"Any efforts to undermine our climate change policies is undermining our global leadership and the future of our economy in the state of California, and the world is watching," De León said.
He announced legislation requiring the state's public pension funds, which include the two largest in the country, to divest from coal.
"Divestment is about matching your values with your investment strategy," he said. De León said he believes the goal could be reached without jeopardizing investment returns.
Brad Pacheco, a spokesman for California's primary public pension fund, said $167 million out of the system's total $293 billion in assets are invested in coal mining and producing companies. He expressed skepticism about De León's proposal.
"If we divest, we lose our ability to influence companies and the marketplace and ultimately our voice as a shareowner," he said.
Monday's event came as California prepares to apply its cap-and-trade program to transportation fuels next month.
Some Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern that consumers will be hurt with higher gas prices, an issue Atkins said has been mentioned in recent community meetings she's attended. She warned of an "Astroturf effort" by oil companies using a network of nonprofit organizations to sway public opinion.
"Maybe there will be a little bit of an increase in gas prices…. A few pennies maybe," she said. "But compared to the overall good it does for our economy and our environment, it's something well worth the effort."
The Western States Petroleum Assn., which represents oil companies, did not respond to a request for comment.