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At Paris climate talks, California has a message for the world

California has long considered itself an independent country on climate change. In the Paris climate change talks, it gets to act like one. 

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    California Gov. Jerry Brown (c.), flanked by the minister-president of the German state of Baden-Württemberg (l.) and the governor of the Mexican state of Baja California, signs a nonbinding climate change agreement in Sacramento, Calif., in May. Governor Brown will travel to the UN climate change conference in Paris this week to promote California's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emission and urge other governments to sign on to his climate pact.(AP Photo/, file)
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California might not be a country, but it is acting like one, given the way its politicians are planning to hobnob with world leaders at the international climate talks in Paris. And its presence – with Gov. Jerry Brown, eight members of the legislature, and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger all there at various times this week – comes with a message: The world can take a few lessons from the Golden State. 

Indeed, California has acted almost like an independent nation on climate change – from then-Governor Schwarzenegger bucking the Bush administration to set aggressive greenhouse gas targets to current Governor Brown crisscrossing North America to find partners for his climate agenda.

For nations laying out a new path forward on climate change in Paris, California has decades of experience to draw on and an eagerness to share.

“California is not new to this game,” says Andrew Ricci, vice president of Levick, an international strategic consulting firm in Washington. 

For some, California’s greatest lesson has been its ability to grow economically even as it takes robust steps to address climate change.    

“The single biggest lesson is that if you turn the dial up on climate change policy, you can also see tremendous economic benefits,” says Derek Walker, associate vice president on global climate for the Environmental Defense Fund, who is in Paris at the talks. “It’s not a tradeoff.”

He says California shows it is possible to increase jobs and cut harmful emissions – reducing per capita energy use and saving citizens money through energy efficiency and cleaner cars. “That is the most alluring element of the California story ­– the phenomenon of saving money while saving the environment.”

California’s economy has grown at a 3 percent clip – above the 2 percent national rate in recent years. Meanwhile, from 2006 to 2014, California clean tech companies garnered more than $27 billion, according to The Desert Sun.

That is a poignant lesson for many countries in the European Union, which embraced carbon restrictions and renewable energy subsidies early on, but have recently cut back in the face of fiscal crisis, says Sterling Burnett, research fellow at the Heartland Institute and a climate change skeptic, in an e-mail to the Monitor. 

“The EU nations that have followed that course have significant budget gaps, growing unemployment. They are cutting back on their renewable subsidies … and are beginning to embrace fossil fuels again,” he adds.

There is no doubt the transitions are difficult, says Mr. Ricci. “You will have plenty of naysayers.”

But each cycle of investment, research, and development lowers costs and raises efficiencies, he adds. For instance, solar panels that recently took 50 years to pay off can now be done in 10.

California’s most aggressive strategies include a cap-and-trade policy, which allows industries to buy and sell carbon credits, and a state requirement that all utilities must draw 50 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030. In addition, state lawmakers in 2002 passed groundbreaking legislation limiting the amount of carbon cars and light trucks could emit – legislation mimicked by the Obama administration in 2010. 

California has not only implemented such policies but also pushed hard to engage across borders.

“The biggest lesson to learn from California is that a lot of action and progress can be achieved at the subnational level beyond the agreements that can be reached by treaty  negotiations,” says Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of California Coastkeeper Alliance. Brown has made lot of progress with Under 2 MOU, a voluntary agreement of states and regions around the world to commit to reducing greenhouse emissions.

Well before Paris, Brown’s administration had met with officials from Mexico, China, and Canada, among others, to address carbon emissions. The governor who once studied to be a Jesuit priest has a moral passion for the issue.

“The real source of climate action has to come from states and provinces,” Brown told a climate summit in Toronto earlier this year. “This is a call to arms. We’re going to build up such a drumbeat that our national counterparts – they’re going to listen.”

What the state can also show is the possibility of change, even with mistakes, says Josh Sawislak, global director of resilience for AECOM, a global engineering and environmental design firm, in an e-mail to the Monitor from the Paris talks.

Los Angeles’s decisions to build a massive transport infrastructure for cars, instead of taking steps to reduce congestion, were not ideal for greenhouse gas reduction. But recent policies to reduce congestion and more seamlessly integrate public transportation are “all steps in the right direction,” Mr. Sawislak says.

“We must learn from these mistakes, or we are destined to repeat them.”

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