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Editorial: Brown’s U.N. speech on climate change rallied Californians, too

Gov. Jerry Brown had encouraging words for world leaders at the United Nations climate summit. They were no doubt a comfort, given the decades of international dithering on climate change.

Embedded in the governor’s two sets of remarks, however, was also a message to Californians in the thick of their own war on global warming.

“The great challenge is to stay the course,” Brown told the assemblage.

In other words: Pay no attention to the anti-cap-and-trade rumblings of the fossil-fuel forces, California. Don’t back down. Stick with me.

Those words were encouraging here, too. And useful.

The U.N. summit was arguably more symbol than substance. Leaders widely regarded it as a preamble to international negotiations next year in Paris. China, which now leads the world in CO2 emissions, and India didn’t even bother to show up.

The gathering did, however, spotlight the potential for subnational players, like California. And here, in the past couple of years, there has been serious momentum.

The state’s cap-and-trade program, which requires companies that pollute to buy permits at auctions, is expected to raise some $832 million this year for programs to help curb greenhouse gases.

That pot is expected to grow into the billions next year, when vehicle fuels are brought into the system, raising gas prices by perhaps a dime per gallon.

Some of the programs it will fund will have national impact because of the size and clout of California’s market. Others will help clean the air in impoverished neighborhoods that have breathed freeway exhaust for generations.

Combined, the efforts are aimed at bringing emissions below 1990 levels by the end of the decade, and lowering them by another 80 percent by 2050.

Whether cap-and-trade will work remains to be seen – the proof will be in the cap part, as we gauge whether the mitigation it pays for actually puts a sufficient dent in emissions.

But it’s what we have for now, and Brown has thrown the force of his credibility behind it.

He has forged nonbinding agreements with other states, Mexico and China, and last week, the administration announced that California and Quebec will try holding a first-ever joint cap-and-trade auction in November. Attendees at the summit said there was intense interest in the California model.

Even as Brown spoke in New York, though, the oil industry was seeding the airways with ads to keep vehicle fuels out of the cap-and-trade system.

“There goes the college fund,” a dad grouses in one spot as he fills his minivan’s gas tank.

And oil is just one powerful, entrenched interest.

The California Chamber of Commerce has sued, charging that cap and trade is tantamount to illegal taxation. And other initiatives – calls for greener building codes at the local level that could make a huge cumulative difference, for instance – are bound to generate costs and resistance among property owners, developers and landlords.

So even here, even amid ravaging heat, drought and wildfire, action on climate change is a big ask and an uphill battle. Or a “great challenge,” as the governor put it in his remarks.

Either way, Californians are going to need resolve and focus. The sea level is rising, the Sierra is burning and the clock is ticking.