Bill Whalen

Climate change is crucial, but so is pension reform

State Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, holds a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in Los Angeles on Sept. 8. The new law sets a new goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
State Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, holds a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in Los Angeles on Sept. 8. The new law sets a new goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The Associated Press

You know it’s a big deal when the governor leaves the Sacramento bubble for a bill-signing ceremony. For example, Jerry Brown traveled to Los Angeles this month to showcase a pair of laws meant to reduce gas emissions and increase legislative oversight of climate programs.

Brown wants climate change to be the legacy of his second reign. Nothing gets him hotter under the collar than critics suggesting his rhetoric is, dare we say, overheated.

Next week promises more self-congratulating for saving the planet. On Wednesday, Brown and his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, are throwing a party at the California Museum to mark the 10th anniversary of the landmark Assembly Bill 32.

Despite the piping headlines and pious talk, has Brown made headway with Californians?

Three times the Hoover Institution’s Golden State Poll has asked California voters to list their top policy priorities going into the new year. In 2014 and 2015, climate change finished No. 19 out of 21 choices (the economy always tops the list).

In 2016, it climbed to 16th – better, but still not so hot.

The point of this isn’t to dispute whether climate change exists, or to diminish Brown’s effort to make California a leader on the issue. My concern is the governor perhaps in need of a more conciliatory approach.

Brown labels climate change “the greatest threat of our time” (other than nuclear annihilation) and likens combating it to building Noah’s Ark. Old Testament adherents might rejoice at the thought of shrinking glaciers on Mount Ararat unearthing the genuine article. But the exaggerated talk probably doesn’t move skeptics, two-by-two. Brown calls skeptics “troglodytes” or ostriches with their heads in the sand, but as a former Jesuit seminary student, he should know that you don’t convert the unfaithful by lumping them into a California-shaped basket of deplorables.

Brown should throttle back on the diminution. It’s called good sportsmanship. His side is ahead.

A recent poll by the University of Chicago’s Energy Police Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 77 percent of Americans agree that climate change is happening; 65 percent say the government needs to act.

But getting people to put their money where their mouth is? By a 2-1 margin, they wouldn’t cough up $20 a month to fight climate change. It brings to mind that adage about taxing the man behind the tree.

Brown might also consider a larger conversation about other nightmare scenarios facing the Golden State.

For instance, warmer waters won’t melt the iceberg that is California’s long-term pension obligation. With the recent state Court of Appeal ruling that the Legislature can trim public retirement benefits for workers still on the job, there’s an opening for Brown to return to what got him a gubernatorial do-over: the earnest guy unafraid to ruffle feathers and take on sacred cows – not just the ones releasing methane.

Yes, Brown pulled off a pension reform deal in 2012. Then again, consider the regression in the time since: the California State Teachers’ Retirement System bailout and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System coming up with no less than 99 ways for a new state worker to receive pension sweeteners (fixing water sprinklers, working with police dogs or merely staying physically fit).

If Brown were to get serious about pension reform, the first call should be to David Crane. A former Schwarzenegger adviser and UC regent, Crane is as close as California comes to a Diogenes on pension reform. For years now he’s sought nonpartisan, courageous lawmakers.

It seems reasonable enough: If our governors can take curtain calls for turning back the tides, surely we can improve the climate under the Capitol dome.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at