Sunday, August 30, 2015

Showdown in Sacramento

California is poised to extend its leadership on climate change as a pair of sweeping bills seek passage this week. Supported by Governor Jerry Brown, both bills passed the state senate in June, but passage by the Assembly looks like a close call as the bills advance to a vote as early as this Tuesday. Legislators are well aware that climate activists all over the world are watching them, and the Assembly's action will massively shape the message Governor Brown hopes to bring to Paris in December.

How sweeping are these measures? One requires the state to reduce all greenhouse emissions by 80% over 1990 levels by 2050. Another mandates a 50% reduction in automotive emissions by 2030, and requires as well that 50% of the state's electrical production come from renewable sources. Together the bills would mandate a seismic shift in California's energy systems, with changes in automotive habits and technologies happening with uncomfortable speed in this particularly auto-dependent culture. The changes required by these mandates are epochal, and would set a high bar for the rest of the world in the run-up to Paris.

How will these mandates be achieved? That's the sticking point--the bills don't say, and this gap has given force to a massive lobbying campaign by automotive and petroleum interests. Legislators say they are reluctant to vote for a bill whose enforcement provisions are unspecified, and who can blame them? Meanwhile authors of the bills are working to fill in some of the gaps with amendments that at least rule out measures such as gas rationing and fines for overconsumption. The amendments are designed specifically to win over moderate Democrats to make a majority in the Assembly, and they may prevail. But larger questions remain about the strategy of sweeping mandates, with implementation to be decided later, i.e. by subsequent legislators.

But of course the whole UNFCCC process is built on the same model: nations are committing to goals, sweeping or otherwise, but not generally to modes of achieving them. The struggle in California in that sense mirrors the global one, where promises are only as good as the methods for achieving them. The maneuvering in the California Assembly, powered by interests largely opposed to any climate change measures, will be instructive as to how much of the detail can be mandated along with the goals. A lot hinges on what happens over the next several days in Sacramento.

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