China, California and Pope Francis make good news on climate change

Humans, not the planet, will suffer with climate change

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

There has been some very good news on the climate change front recently, but all the positive news is still far from being enough to make anyone rest easy.

The biggest news is China’s plan to initiate a cap-and-trade system. During his visit to the White House at the end of September, President Xi Jinping surprised the world by announcing that, by 2017, his country will be setting up a national system for limiting emissions of harmful greenhouse gases and creating a market to provide incentives to reduce those emissions among core Chinese industries, including power generation, chemicals, iron and steel, building materials and papermaking.

Not only does this commit one of the world’s two biggest polluters to a better path, but it also undercuts the argument against a cap-and-trade scheme in the other big polluter, the United States. When they are not denying that climate change is a global threat, Republicans in Congress are insisting the U.S. should not shackle its industries with emissions limits because it will merely give a big economic advantage to the Chinese. With China giving up that “advantage,” it is now harder to argue that Americans would be hurt by doing the right thing.

By the way, to say it is an advantage to stick with our antiquated dependence on fossil fuels instead of rapidly developing the kind of alternative energy system that will drive the most successful economies in decades to come is a canard anyway. As California Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday, “What has been the source of our prosperity now becomes the source of our ultimate destruction, if we don’t get off it.”


Brown’s comment came during a ceremony at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in which he put his signature on ambitious new goals that commit the state to use renewable sources for 50% of all energy by 2030. This is the next bit of good news.

“It’s monumental,” said Alex Jackson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, speaking to the Associated Press. “For an economy the size of California to commit to getting half of its power needs from renewable energy resources, I think, is a game changer.”

If California can transform its energy use that quickly and, in the process, strengthen its economy, it will have a strong ripple effect through other states as they try to catch up.

The third positive story was the strong climate change message Pope Francis delivered during his recent visit to the U.S. By putting the issue at the top of his agenda, he may have raised awareness of the issue, not only among American Catholics, but also among a wide range of voters and that might tip the political balance in the direction of action on the climate.


So what is the damper on these positive stories?

Regarding the pope, his call for Congress to take “courageous actions” to protect nature did not seem to make a dent in the Republican wall of opposition. The oil and coal interests still rule the GOP, the climate change deniers still rule key congressional committees and a Republican member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, dismissed the pope’s influence, saying, “I don’t think he moves the needle at all.”

As far as Gov. Brown’s ambitious plan, the petroleum industry will spend a ton of money trying to convince people that clean energy means lost jobs and a wrecked economy. It’s a lie, but that will not stop them from trying to confuse voters and retard the transition to a greener energy regime.

And China? The government in Beijing can make declarations of intent, but corrupt local and regional officials beholden to industrialists can undermine the emissions goals, and China’s weak legal system may not be up to the task of enforcement.

Despite the negatives, there are reasons to think all three of these developments stand a good chance of making a difference. But not only do they need to bear fruit, they also need to be just the start of a dramatic global effort to shift consciousness and policy. We have a long way to go before humanity can escape the worst environmental calamities that are looming. To get there, we will need many more transformational leaders standing up with Xi Jinping, Jerry Brown and Pope Francis.

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