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Jerry Brown's work to seal his climate legacy is only half done

Jerry Brown's work to seal his climate legacy is only half done
California Governor Jerry Brown in Stuttgart, Germany, on November 7, 2017. (Sina Schuldt/TNS)

It seems a little churlish to prod Jerry Brown on carbon issues. He's done as much as any leader in the world to move forward on the climate and energy crises that are the defining challenges of our time.

But the truth is Brown's not done anywhere near what he could, nor what the situation demands. As a coalition of nearly 800 groups from across the state, the country and the planet make clear in a letter to Brown released Wednesday, he's addressed no more than half the crisis: All of California's environmental measures have been aimed at reducing the demand for energy, and none at slowing down the production of fossil fuel. Supply and demand are two equal halves of this fight; if we don't recognize that fact we simply will not solve the climate conundrum.

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With his time in elective office winding down, Brown has the rare chance to set an example that truly will never be forgotten: He has it in his power to begin the strategic phase-out of the oil and gas industry. He could simply stop granting new state permits for oil and gas extraction and fossil fuel infrastructure, and instead start setting up a transition to sustainable fuels that would protect the workers, communities and economies that now depend on the industry. As the Trump administration tries to push us back to the 1950s, those steps would be a ringing endorsement of the future — and the future has always been Gov. Brown's strong suit.

All of California’s environmental measures have been aimed at reducing the demand for energy, and none at slowing down the production of fossil fuel.


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But let's also look at the past for a second, because it tells us a lot about the present. As early as 1856, men with pickaxes were cutting channels to drain oil from seeps at LaBrea Ranch; the state's first refinery (and one of the world's earliest) dates from 1866 in Kern County. In the early decades of the 20th century, California was America's leading oil producer. Because the oil industry was here early on, the state accommodated itself to its demands; nowhere else in the world are there derricks, storage yards and refineries so tightly packed into dense cities. By 2018, the resulting respiratory illnesses, cancer risks and accidental injuries seem an awfully high price to pay — especially for the poor and the people of color who bear most of that cost.

There have always been two arguments standing in the way of action.

The first is that California uses a lot of oil, and indeed it does: The capital of car culture helped teach the rest of the world this particular habit. But that argument no longer need apply. California's engineers and entrepreneurs — busy pioneering electric cars and giant batteries — have proved we can move beyond oil, and just in time. The state recognizes the need: Brown's team has declared its intention to protect California's unique right to demand cleaner cars, a right now threatened by the Trump administration.

The second argument is that if California cuts back its oil production, some other place will simply produce more. That sounds right, but when the Stockholm Environmental Institute ran the economic models, its researchers concluded that if Sacramento began to turn down permits for new wells, much of that capacity would not be duplicated elsewhere — indeed, they found that such a step would be just as effective in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions as the demand-side steps that California has taken over the years.

Economists in Britain and Australia make the same point: Policies that restrict the supply of fossil fuels "squarely belong in the climate policy toolkit," as one team put it. Otherwise, you're only "cutting with one arm of the scissors."

President Obama agreed. When he nixed the Keystone XL pipeline — the first fossil fuel infrastructure ever turned down on climate grounds — he said: "If we're going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground."

Because California was one of the very first places in the U.S. to drill for oil, it make sense it should be one of the very first to stop.

Because a portion of California's drilling takes place close to schools and homes in poor communities, the phase-out should start there. Because California's residents have experienced so brutally what climate change will bring — drought, fire, flood and mudslide — it should start quickly. Because California's future economy depends far more on green technology than on oil drilling, it should start confidently.

And because California's green-minded governor never plans to run for office again, Brown can make it all happen without worry about the political clout of the oil industry.

Brown has summoned the world to the Bay Area in September for a global climate summit. If, in the months beforehand, he signals his willingness to take real steps to address the supply side of the fossil fuel equation, that gathering will be a moment of dramatic new hope for progress on global warming, a hope that the Trump-addled world badly needs. If he doesn't, the longtime student of Zen will leave the stage to the sound of one hand clapping.

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, teaches at Middlebury College.

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