Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday cast his new plan to fight climate change as essential to the fate of American democracy — and humanity itself.
"America is facing not just a climate crisis with the rest of the world, we are facing a political crisis," Brown told lawmakers at the first public hearing on his proposal to reduce the state's carbon emissions. "Can democracy actually work? Is there a sufficient consensus that we can govern ourselves? That, I submit to you, is an open question."
Brown wants to extend through 2030 the state's cap-and-trade program, the centerpiece of California's carbon-fighting effort, which forces businesses to pay to pollute.
His proposal, unveiled on Monday with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), has faced criticism from Republican legislators, who argue that it will cause gas and energy prices to surge, and some environmental advocates, who contend that the measure doesn't do enough to protect the state's most polluted communities. The plan has two components, continuing cap and trade, which is set to expire in 2020, and legislation to increase monitoring and impose stricter penalties on polluters.
Brown defended cap and trade as the most efficient program to regulate carbon while also allowing flexibility for economic growth. California's system, Brown argued, serves as a model for carbon-reduction efforts across the world, from China to neighboring Oregon. The state, he said, needed to contrast itself with the federal government, which has taken a dim view of fighting climate change under the Trump administration.
Without cap and trade, Brown said, state regulators would be more heavy-handed in working to reduce carbon emissions, efforts that would cost businesses and consumers more. And he warned of mass migration, forest fires, floods, disease and other pestilence should lawmakers not act. Climate change, he said, "is a threat to organized human existence."
"I'm not here about some cockamamie legacy that people talk about," said Brown, 79, as he turned to the crowd in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee hearing. "This isn't for me. I'm going to be dead. It's for you. It's for you and it's damn real."
In a rare move for a governor who shies away from engaging with lawmakers in public, Brown stayed for the entire four-hour committee hearing, sparring with committee members and turning in his chair to listen to a long line of supporters and opponents who testified on the cap-and-trade plan and a companion bill to tighten the state's air quality rules. As they spoke, the governor took notes on a legal pad.
But even though both measures advanced on a party-line vote of Democrats out of the committee Thursday, Brown still faces hurdles on both the left and the right to pass the plan before lawmakers depart for summer recess at the end of next week.
Earlier Thursday, Brown made his case to Assembly Democrats in a closed-door caucus meeting.
Democratic lawmakers asked the governor about his support for affordable housing legislation, a key demand among the caucus' more progressive members. They also lobbed questions on details about the cap-and-trade auctions and how revenue raised by the program would be spent. The bill spells out a list of broad spending priorities, including tackling air pollution and promoting sustainable agriculture, but the governor said there were no specific commitments made on how that money would be allocated, according to several members who requested anonymity to discuss the closed caucus meeting.
Some environmental advocates raised similar concerns during Thursday's hearing, saying the state should do more to advance its leadership role on climate.
"A bill like this in Oklahoma is a winner," said Parin Shah, senior strategist at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. "We would be popping the champagne corks. But this is California."
But a cavalry of outside interests have stepped up their advocacy for the legislation, with groups backing the deal — including labor unions such as the Service Employees International Union, utility companies and green businesses — releasing letters of support.
The California Chamber of Commerce endorsed one component of the package, the reauthorization of the cap-and-trade system, as "balanced [and] well-designed," while staying silent on a companion measure meant to reduce local air pollution.
Support from business interests so far hasn't swayed Republicans, whom Brown has been wooing to secure a two-thirds vote to guard the program against legal challenges. Assembly GOP Leader Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley), who has shown a willingness to negotiate on the proposal, said there were no "yes" votes among his caucus members for the proposal "in its current form."
"Today, we are in sight of a bipartisan agreement to cut taxes, roll back regulations and government overreach, and reduce costs for ordinary Californians and businesses while doing our part to protect the environment for future generations," Mayes said in a statement. "Unfortunately, this historic agreement remains elusive."
Senate Republicans also staked out opposition. Senate GOP leader Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Nigel) wrote in a letter to Brown that cap and trade's reauthorization, coupled with the higher gas taxes approved earlier this year, would be a "crushing blow" to Californians. All but two members of her caucus, Sens. Anthony Cannella of Ceres and Tom Berryhill of Modesto, signed on. Both Cannella and Berryhill are termed out of office next year.
California's representatives in Washington chimed in as well. Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged legislators to extend cap and trade in order to "demonstrate to the world that we remain committed to fighting climate change." On the right, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), along with GOP Reps. Devin Nunes of Tulare, Ken Calvert of Corona and Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, urged Republican lawmakers in a letter to reject the plan, arguing the program helps finance Brown's high-speed rail project, which they slammed as a "boondoggle."
Brown said in the hearing he realized extending cap and trade was politically difficult, and indicated he was open to more deals to get reluctant lawmakers on board. The decision, Brown said, addressing the senators on the committee, "is the most important vote of your life."
"As we get older we have less patience," he said. "I want to see this thing get done. We are going to get it. Whatever I gotta do, I want to do it."