Capitol Journal: Jerry Brown is right: California should build a ‘damn satellite’ to track climate change

Gov. Jerry Brown announces how states, cities and businesses are leading the U.S. to a low-carbon future on the first full day of the Global Climate Action Summit at the Moscone Center on Sept. 13 in San Francisco.
Gov. Jerry Brown announces how states, cities and businesses are leading the U.S. to a low-carbon future on the first full day of the Global Climate Action Summit at the Moscone Center on Sept. 13 in San Francisco.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Many of us undoubtedly snickered last week when Gov. Jerry Brown announced — again — that he was going to build a state satellite. Yes, “a damn satellite.” Gov. Moonbeam was back.

Just what the state of California needs: its own Earth-orbiting satellite, right? Never mind all the other pressing priorities: lower college tuition, more affordable housing, lots more renewable energy, beefed up wildfire fighting ability…

That was the initial, natural reaction to Brown’s surprise announcement at the close of his big climate summit in San Francisco that drew an estimated 4,000 people from around the globe.

“No more talk. Now’s the time for action,” he told departing delegates. “In California, with science under attack — in fact, we’re under attack by a lot of people, including Donald Trump, but the climate threat still keeps growing. We want to know what the hell is going on all over the world, all the time.


“So we’re going to launch our own satellite — our own damn satellite — to figure out where the pollution is and how we’re going to end it with great precision.”

He added: “This initiative will enable us to spotlight the methane — the pollution — and then be able to … point out those who pollute and develop the remedies to end it… This is an existential threat.”

Fine, but did Brown forget that he’ll be governor for only 3 ½ more months? The satellite — they’re actually talking about several — will probably take two to four years to develop and launch. The next governor, presumably Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, will wind up giving the A-OK for development or scuttling the project.

Has anyone asked Newsom? Apparently not. I contacted his campaign headquarters and learned he was non-committal, which he should be.

“He hasn’t seen the specifics of the proposal, but he has a very high regard for Gov. Brown’s climate leadership generally,” spokesman Nathan Click emailed.

I asked again: Does Newsom think a state satellite is a good idea or not?: “Again, he’s looking forward to reviewing the details.”

John Cox, the underdog Republican candidate for governor, emailed me: “While we need to continue to lead on combatting climate change, if there’s money to spend on a satellite, I’d rather see it spent to update firefighting equipment and outdated helicopters. I see that as a bigger near-term priority.”

That makes total sense. Brown, however, has already budgeted $285 million to start buying 12 state-of-the-art helicopters.

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After my initial satellite skepticism, I looked into the project and concluded that Brown’s idea probably is a pretty good one. It might not cost the state much, if anything. And it would reap a lot of free climate data.

The satellite will be developed in a public-private partnership between the California Air Resources Board and Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based Earth imaging firm founded by ex-NASA scientists in 2010.

“We’re not asking the state of California for any sort of money,” says Robbie Schingler, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Planet Labs. “We think this is a big enough idea that we can get funded with grants from foundations. What we’re thinking about is making the data available as a free public good.”

That’s specific climate data, principally about methane. The company thinks it will also be able to develop other types of data that can be sold for a profit. And the state could essentially serve as a rainmaker for the firm, attracting new clients.

Two foundations have already kicked in a total of $3 million for initial financing.

One reason Brown announced the project at his high-profile summit was to generate interest among foundations and perhaps draw some grants, says his spokesman, Evan Westrup.

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Schingler won’t talk about a satellite’s cost. That’s private information. He says that satellites have gotten a lot smaller and much cheaper in recent years.

It won’t be private info, however, if Planet Labs ever asks the state to kick in money. That sort of detail would need to be aired publicly by legislative budget committees. So far, the state’s only investment is a handful of staff researchers assigned to the project.

The satellite’s size will be somewhere between a bread loaf and a washing machine, Schingler says. The more sophisticated, the bigger the bird.

“We’ll find out in the next six months.”

The chief state honcho on the project is Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the Air Resources Board. She was a board member when Brown was governor in the 1970s. Nichols says Newsom has asked her to stay on the job if he’s elected, and she has agreed.

“If the state is going to continue to have a climate program,” Nichols says, “it’s important to base [the program] on science.”

Brown has been talking about launching a satellite for 40 years.

In his proposed 1978 state budget, the governor set aside $5.8 million to begin developing a communications satellite. That year, however, voters rebelled against taxes and overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, cutting property taxes substantially. Brown quickly backed off his satellite.

But Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko had already pinned on Brown the moniker that would last a lifetime: “Gov. Moonbeam.”

Right after Trump was elected president and was threatening to junk climate programs, Brown defiantly declared in a San Francisco speech: “If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellites.”

Hopefully Brown’s successor finally will. The satellite should be named after Royko.

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