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California Is America's Climate Hero. But Who Gets the Credit?

Inside the (mostly) friendly tug-of-war at the Global Climate Action Summit over who's greenest of them all.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks during a panel discussion at the C40 Cities kickoff event at San Francisco's City Hall on September 12th, 2018.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks during a panel discussion at the C40 Cities kickoff event at San Francisco's City Hall on September 12th, 2018.

In the story most people are writing about climate policy in the United States, California is the national leader. But there's an interesting subplot about who gets credit.

Governor Jerry Brown has been campaigning for the position of America's Climate Hero ever since President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris accords.

But there are plenty of people who reject this version of the story—including the hundreds of climate protesters who descended on the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this week to say that the governor has been too soft on fossil fuel companies. Since he began his last terms as governor, Brown has approved more than 20,000 oil drilling permits.

Still there's no question, as Brown pointed out to reporters Thursday, that, under his leadership, California has maintained one of the strongest climate records in the country.

Yet in his own state Brown faces considerable competition for the title of climate savior.

Among Brown's fellow (or is it rival?) climate heroes is Kevin de León, leader of the state senate, whose S.B. 100, mandating statewide carbon-free electricity by 2045, Brown signed into law on Monday.

Not to be outshone, Brown introduced an even more ambitious executive order the same day, pledging that California would be entirely carbon-neutral by the same year.

The timing is interesting, particularly since no one seems to have known that Brown's order was coming. And de León, usually a prominent Californian presence at global climate summits, has been relatively scarce at the talks hosted by Brown in de León's own backyard.

"It was done purely as a political move to steal thunder from Kevin de León's hard work on S.B. 100," says R.L. Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party's environmental caucus and the president of of Climate Hawks, a non-profit that works to elect climate-friendly candidates. Brown's office denies that the rollout of his executive order was done out of any political malice, insisting that Brown signed it simply to spotlight the fact "you can't have one [a carbon-free future] without the other [a de-carbonized electrical grid]."

Brown had hoped to tie S.B. 100 to his grid regionalization plan, which would link California's energy grid to a larger market for Western states. "Without a regional grid, renewable energy cannot expand in an integrated and efficient manner, nor can California continue its climate leadership," he argued at the time.

Still, many on the left are unconvinced by Brown's leadership.

"Frankly most of us are yawning," Miller says of Brown's executive order. It has no roadmap to show how one gets from here to carbon neutrality, she says, but, more importantly, it's impossible to get the state to carbon-neutral as long as some of the dirtiest, most-carbon intensive oil fields in the world continue to operate out of California. "I don't see how you get the state to carbon-neutrality while at the same time being the fifth or sixth petroleum-producing state in the country," she says.

Another of Brown's California climate rivals, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, didn't even bother pretending he'd known that the governor would sign such an executive order, arguably the most ambitious state-level climate goal in U.S. history—and politicians usually hate to admit they were caught flat-footed.

But Garcetti does want people to know that his city actually had a similar idea first. "We had made a pledge [for Los Angeles] to be carbon-neutral by 2050 in June, so it just raises the bar a little quicker," he said of Brown's order, speaking to a handful of reporters at the Moscone Conference Center on Thursday in San Francisco. "I'm excited by it. I'm always excited to push the goal higher and to bring that date closer."

So does Garcetti see himself in competition with other California Democrats? "It's more like one team than a competition," he says. "We're in competition as mayors around the world with each other in a friendly way, like: 'Oh you did that? I'm going to go even further!'"

Besides, Garcetti notes, his city already committed to 100 percent renewables, so who's the one playing catch-up? "It's great to see the state follow that, kind of like when we raised the minimum wage and then the state did, or made community college free and then the state did."

Garcetti, who is clearly positioning himself for a presidential run and has paid conspicuous visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, also had some predictably stern words for Trump. "He will be a footnote of history and a bad one at that. The last member of the flat-Earth society," Garcetti told a gaggle of reporters, "but more than that, a man who never saw what was possible, who lived an isolated political life, who invented problems he couldn't solve and ignored the ones that could be solved for him."

Garcetti isn't the only California climate aficionado thought to be considering a run for president. Another is billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer, among the A-list line-up of speakers at the GCAS, though, unlike Garcetti, Steyer has signaled he would wait to see what happens with the mid-term elections before jumping in.

Steyer openly praised de León on Friday for his work bringing together "a broad coalition of groups" to pass S.B. 100—though Steyer didn't fail to mention that his own advocacy group, NextGen America, had backed it. "Kevin has provided that leadership for years," Steyer said.

These rivalries, while both petty and innocuous, are also strangely refreshing, given that climate leadership at the national level has become something of a lonely, even futile endeavor.

Democratic Representatives Edward Markey and Henry Waxman campaigned valiantly to pass cap-and-trade legislation in 2009 (it failed), and the lonely climate soliloquies of Sheldon Whitehouse still regularly haunt the U.S. Senate.

But the fact remains that nearly two decades after Al Gore campaigned for president on the issue of climate change, nobody in Washington has really taken on his mantle.

Conference-goers were reminded as much on Thursday by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has climate bona fides both federally and as a California native. She was supposed to be introducing former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-host of the talks, and to hype Bloomberg's new film about climate change, which airs on National Geographic in December. But what had been billed as brief introductory remarks turned into an ode to her state's environmental record—and a tribute to its leaders.

"We are proud of our tradition of being a hotbed of bipartisan environmental fervor, a place where John Muir established the Sierra Club in 1892. And it was another Bay Area leader, David Brower, who established the League of Conservation Voters. For us, combating global warming is not an issue. It is an ethic. It is a value. And it is imperative that we act upon that value," Pelosi said. "Despite what is happening in Washington now, I am ever hopeful."

Mostly though, Pelosi wanted "to thank and recognize the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown."

And then there's Miller, who's been giving Brown hell over his record on fracking and oil for years, but who still acknowledges that there's something pleasing in all this climate one-upmanship. "It is nice to have infighting about who's the purer climate hawk, rather than the utter denial coming from D.C.," she says.