Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown calls for ‘more ambitious’ climate change action at U.N.

Gov. Jerry Brown, appealing to world leaders for joint action on climate change, issued a forceful defense Tuesday of plans to expand California’s cap-and-trade program to vehicle fuels next year.

In remarks at a United Nations summit in New York, Brown held out California as a “hopeful example” of bipartisanship in the effort to reduce carbon emissions, even as Republicans and some moderate Democrats criticize Brown in California for regulations they say will increase the price of fuel.

Brown said California will meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and within six months will set a new goal for 2030 “that will be more ambitious, that will require more technology and will also require heightened political will.”

Brown’s remarks were the highest-profile yet in his effort to promote California climate policies on an international stage. The Democratic governor is widely expected to win re-election to a fourth term in November, and the speech prefaces what will be a point of focus in his final four years in office.

The New York summit, attended by more than 120 world leaders, was designed to push forward negotiation of a climate change treaty in Paris in 2015. Brown has argued climate change agreements reached between states and other sub-national governments can be used to pressure heads of state in Paris, a meeting he has called “the crucial event for the future of the world.”

“I believe that from the bottom up we can make real impact, and we need to join together,” Brown said.

Progress on a climate change accord has been tenuous, with difficulties evidenced by the failure to reach an international agreement in Copenhagen five years ago, and by partisan discord in Washington.

The president of China and prime minister of India – whose countries, along with the United States, are the world’s three largest emitters of carbon dioxide – skipped the event.

President Barack Obama said the United States will put forward a new emissions target by early next year.

“The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it,” Obama said. “The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call.”

In two statements lasting a total of about 7 minutes, Brown called climate change an “existential threat” to humanity.

“Carbon really has been at the basis of the incredible progress and prosperity and affluence that so many people enjoy,” Brown said. “But that progress now has the dark shadow of the toxicity of carbon itself: the pollution; the smog; the health effects; the rising sea level; in California, the forest fires, which are now burning for more days than historically was ever imaginable.”

He said, “It’s real, it’s here, and we’ve got to put a price on carbon.”

Oil industry groups in California have pressured Brown this year to delay an expansion of the state’s cap-and-trade program to vehicle fuels in January, with Republicans and some Democrats joining in the lobbying.

“Now the great challenge is to stay the course,” Brown said. “Even today as we speak, there are advertisements being purchased on the airwaves of California in an attempt to persuade the people that cap-and-trade should somehow go away, that it’s going to raise the price of oil.”

Industry analysts estimate expanding California’s cap-and-trade program to vehicle fuels in January could result in a 10- to 20-cent-per-gallon increase in fuel prices, but Brown has benefited in an election year from falling prices.

“Luckily the price of oil has been coming down ever since those ads went on the air just a month or so ago,” Brown said. “So somebody’s watching over California.”

Brown’s Republican opponent in the November election, Neel Kashkari, said Brown’s effort on climate change is “well meaning” but misguided. He criticized the use of a portion of cap-and-trade revenue to fund California’s high-speed rail project.

“The idea that by raising the cost of electricity and gasoline in California, that’s going to do anything to help the earth’s climate, it’s pure economic folly,” he said in an interview. “If he was serious about climate change, he would be taking the cap-and-trade revenue and funding basic research at Stanford, at Berkeley at Caltech, so we develop cleaner technologies that are also cheaper, and we export them around the world.”

Kashkari announced Tuesday that he would appear at a Mobil gas station in Burbank on Wednesday, giving $25 for gas to people who visit and smash a toy train.

Brown has championed environmental causes since he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, and it has become a legacy issue in his third term. He has traveled to China and Mexico to sign nonbinding agreements on climate change, and he has forged similar pacts with officials in Canada and other U.S. states.

“This is a heroic challenge that we have to face,” he said.

Though nonbinding, environmentalists consider agreements Brown is pushing to be significant diplomatically. The California market is so large that policies enacted have been replicated by other states and the federal government, including fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction standards.

“The whole game here is leverage on other countries’ emissions,” said David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the book “Global Warming Gridlock.” “We can work hard in California and that’s 1 percent of the problem, which is nothing. Or we can work hard in California and we can link our efforts to other countries. ... California has tremendous soft power, if you like, on the climate change issue.”

In talks on climate change at any level, Victor said, “Jerry Brown has a tremendous amount of credibility here.”

Brown was scheduled to meet privately in New York with Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, and Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, among others.

Brown cast combating climate change as a bipartisan effort, noting that his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed California’s landmark greenhouse gas reduction law in 2006.

“The California story is a very hopeful one,” Brown said. “It’s a story of Republican and Democratic governors pioneering innovative climate strategies. It’s not been easy, it’s not without contest, but we’re making real progress.”