As the U.S. Withdraws from the Paris Agreement, the World Turns to California to Fight Climate Change. But Should It?

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Eric Jung, C+S ’17

“SACRAMENTO – The Governor has left the state” – Governor’s Press Office.

That was the message in the inbox of all office staff one weekend in early June, to notify that Governor Jerry Brown was headed to Beijing to discuss climate change and diplomacy with Chinese officials. The event was rare. Governors rarely travel abroad for international diplomacy. Governor Brown, however, not only met with regional leaders but also President Xi Jinping himself to discuss climate change. The trip came only days after President Trump announced his intent to formally withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Accord, the climate agreement inked by his predecessor Barack Obama in 2015.

The ambitious goal of the agreement is to put the world on track to reduce carbon dioxide emissions so that the global temperature increases no more than 2°C (3.6°F) above the pre-industrial era. The U.S. is the world’s second largest carbon emitter, accounting for nearly a quarter of global emissions. That means the U.S. has a large obligation in helping meet the agreements from Paris.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris greatly jeopardizes the positive trajectory of climate mitigation, especially as the president also publicly denounces the Clean Power Plan and argues for more coal power plants in the country.

Despite Trump’s backwards step at the federal level, other leaders have taken great strides to address climate change at the local and regional levels. Shortly after the 2016 election, Governor Brown vowed that California would continue to fight climate change despite what the Trump administration may do. California has served as a model for progressive climate action, as the state and Governor Brown have passed substantial environmental and climate legislation to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, as well as work with other governments on these issues.

A large part of Governor Brown’s administration has been this work around intergovernmental climate action. The governor started the Under2 Coalition in 2015 with 12 subnational government signatories such as Washington, British Columbia in Canada, and Baden-Württemberg in Germany. It has now grown to more than 170 cities, states, and provinces in the coalition. The coalition signatories are committed to reducing their carbon emissions to under 2 tons per capita by 2050, which is what is necessary to also achieve the Paris Agreement target of 2°C. For California, this would mean reducing its per capita carbon footprint by over 10 tons.

“SACRAMENTO – The Governor has returned to the state.” – Governor’s Press Office.

Shortly after Brown’s return, the governor met with Germany’s federal minister in San Francisco to discuss climate action. Soon after that, the prime minister of Fiji, who will be the UNFCCC COP 23 president, signed onto the Under2 Coalition in a historic signing in Sacramento.

As the sixth largest economy in the world and the most populous state in the U.S., California’s climate action will have direct impacts on the global carbon budget. California is currently on track to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and currently produces a third of its power through renewable energy sources. To meet the Under2 Coalition target, California will have to reduce it’s greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

In mid-July, the state’s progressive legislature voted to extend and strengthen the cap and trade policy on carbon emissions to 2030. The cap and trade policy was first adopted in California during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration in 2011. The policy was set to end in 2020. However, after a viral testimony by Governor Brown shouting, “This isn’t for me, I’m going to be dead! This is for you!” the continuation cap and trade became a reality. Governor Brown signed the bill to extend the program to 2030 on Treasure Island in San Francisco with Schwarzenegger.

Jerry Brown Testifying in front of the California State Senate (Source: Facebook/Jerry Brown)

The world has turned to California for fighting climate change through greenhouse gas mitigations quite literally, as international governments work with the state and sign onto the Under2 Coalition. Other governments such as Oregon, Quebec, and China are following California’s model to implement cap and trade policies on greenhouse gas emissions. California’s innovative and strong climate action policies are some of the most ambitious in the U.S. if not the world.

Despite the amazing mitigation portfolio of the state, California has only just started to take action on climate adaptation work. While state agencies are now mandated to consider climate change into their projects, very little has been done to build resilience within the state. With just over a year left in the Brown Administration, chances are that the governor will continue to elevate greenhouse gas mitigation efforts. Governor Brown himself warned in the testimony, “You’re going to be alive in a horrible situation.”

Under projected climate models, California is expected to endure extreme drought, wildfires, and also sea level rise. However, can California really be a model for climate change when it is not protecting itself from the very hazards that it is working so hard on to mitigate? Perhaps this is the last task for California to really be a leading model for climate change.

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