Capitol Alert

Why Jerry Brown’s shifting focus on pollutants could help the planet – and his political causes

Jerry Brown says reducing short-lived climate pollutants a "winner for everyone'

California governor speaks at United Nations climate summit.
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California governor speaks at United Nations climate summit.

Following the legislative defeat of his proposal to reduce petroleum use in motor vehicles this year, Gov. Jerry Brown adopted a shift in message around the climate policies he supports.

Instead of focusing so much on carbon dioxide and the broader effects of global warming, Brown began talking more about pollution in some of the most impoverished areas of the state.

In a memorandum issued days before he flew to France last week for the United Nations climate summit, Brown ordered his administration to review the impact of greenhouse gas emissions policies on poor and heavily polluted communities in California.

The memo followed speeches in recent months in which Brown has emphasized an especially hazardous class of pollutants, including methane, black carbon and fluorinated gases, that sicken millions of people worldwide each year.

These pollutants, unlike carbon dioxide, remain in the atmosphere for a relatively short period of time. But they are so potent, scientists say, that removing them from the atmosphere could both slow the pace of global warming and clean the air.

“This is probably the most immediate challenge, and the most important thing to do leaving this conference,” Brown said during an event at the climate summit Tuesday. “Short-lived climate pollutants are something we can tackle.”

Yet Brown’s shifting focus to these pollutants is not only an environmental matter. It is a political opportunity, as well. In focusing on local pollution, the Democratic governor is seeking to broaden the appeal of his climate agenda to lawmakers who resisted the petroleum regulation that he advanced – and ultimately withdrew – in September. That effort suffered not only from a multimillion dollar lobbying campaign by California oil interests, but also from an argument by some moderate Democrats that the administration was doing too little to improve the environment where their constituents live.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, said that during debate over the petroleum proposal in the Legislature, he reviewed a database showing the number of solar and electric vehicle rebates people in his district received. Compared to wealthier, coastal areas, he said, the difference was staggering.

“It infuriated me,” Cooper said. “I think you’ve got to have better incentives for low-income communities, because when I drive through my low-income communities, I don’t see solar there at all.”

During the past decade, as California ramped up its climate change program, Brown and his predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, focused heavily on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide through the establishment of a cap-and-trade program – in which polluters pay to offset emissions – and through regulations designed to reduce the carbon intensity of gasoline and other transportation fuels.

The programs were widely praised for reducing carbon emissions, and Brown and Schwarzenegger promoted them in joint appearances in Paris this week. But environmental groups and representatives of some of the state’s poorest areas accused the administration, in its focus on overall emissions, of paying too little attention to local environmental impacts.

“I’ve been speaking about short-lived climate pollutants since Day 1,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat who is also in Paris for the climate talks. “I have seven major freeways that crisscross my district like a serpent that chokes the air out of my constituents’ lungs.”

He described efforts to address short-lived pollutants as “a battle with the (California Air Resources Board) because … their mindset and perspective was it was (carbon) exclusively.”

I have seven major freeways that crisscross my district like a serpent that chokes the air out of my constituents’ lungs.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat

In Paris on Tuesday, Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Bell Gardens Democrat, said he will introduce legislation setting reduction targets of 40 percent to 50 percent below 2013 levels for emissions of black carbon, methane and fluorinated gases, which can come from refrigeration and air-conditioning systems.

“The reality is that we have asthma clusters, we have cancer clusters in southeast L.A,” he said. “Those are realities that my constituents face.”

Through diesel and other regulations, California has reduced emissions of black carbon, or soot, by more than 90 percent since the 1960s, according to the Air Resources Board, and the state has imposed standards on methane emissions from landfills. In addition, Brown signed legislation in 2012 dedicating 25 percent of cap-and-trade revenue to disadvantaged communities, including poor and heavily polluted areas.

Though most Californians “all kind of care about climate change, what people really care about is local pollutants,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego. “I think the environmental community is making a pivot to that.”

Noah Scovronick, a research fellow at Princeton University who studies short-lived pollutants, said they have become a hot topic in recent years because “the science has just really come online.”

In addition, he said, the public policy argument for addressing them is strong: The World Health Organization estimated in October that reducing short-lived climate pollutants could prevent about 2.4 million premature deaths annually by 2030, including from cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

“If you mitigate short-lived climate pollutants,” Scovronick said, “you get benefits locally, and you get benefits almost immediately in some cases.”

Former Air Resources Board Chairman Robert Sawyer said the ARB under Schwarzenegger did not initially focus on near-term climate pollutants because diesel regulations had already reduced black carbon emissions and the board was focused on other pollutants, including carbon dioxide.

“From Day 1 it was on my list of things to get done,” he said. “I guess it was just too many things to do.”

From Day 1 it was on my list of things to get done. I guess it was just too many things to do.

Robert Sawyer, former chairman of the California Air Resources Board

Over breakfast at the Best Western Trianon Rive Gauche this week, where many of the Californians in Paris are staying, Mary Nichols, the current ARB chairwoman, called de León’s criticism ironic because the administration supported legislation last year requiring the ARB to prepare a plan to address short-lived pollutants. Her board is now preparing it.

In an interview, Brown said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, convinced him to address short-lived climate pollutants “a couple of years ago,” arguing that reducing those emissions could significantly slow the warming of the Earth.

If the health benefits of reducing such pollutants can help him politically in future climate debates in the Legislature, Brown said, “I think that is a very good strategy.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders