Californians will play unique role at Paris climate change summit

Police officers patrol outside the venue for the U.N. climate change conference in Paris, which starts Monday and runs through Dec. 11.
Police officers patrol outside the venue for the U.N. climate change conference in Paris, which starts Monday and runs through Dec. 11. The Associated Press

The attack on Paris will shadow the United Nations climate summit that starts Monday, but we cannot allow terrorism to derail the last-ditch effort to stabilize the climate and avert what most scientists see as an unfolding catastrophe.

While huge street demonstrations planned by environmental activists already have been suspended by Paris authorities, the U.N. conference is expected to go forward, with California delegates led by Gov. Jerry Brown playing a leading role.

The Governor’s Office is plunging ahead with its plans to promote the California agenda of a clean-energy economy and steady reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

California already sets a global standard, but it generates only 1.3 percent of total global emissions. That has spurred the governor to forge pacts with at least 50 clean-energy allies, including states in China, Germany, Mexico and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and British Columbia. These agreements cover a total of about 500 million people with a gross domestic product of $4.7 trillion. That’s a lot of leverage for this new Green Giant.

Besides its well-known initiatives on renewable sources and energy efficiency, California has a unique role to play in Paris because of its multicultural political leadership. Besides Brown, the state is sending Sens. Kevin de León, Ricardo Lara and Fran Pavley, and Assemblyman Richard Bloom.

Also, our state is putting more emphasis on environmental justice for the poor. California is required by law to spend half its climate-change budget on benefits for disadvantaged communities, such as agricultural towns in the Central Valley or heavily polluted inner cities. Environmental justice is an issue that will dominate the summit since less-developed countries complain of being hit hardest by extreme weather and pollution while being shortchanged in funding to mitigate or reverse the environmental damage.

A key opportunity that will be highlighted in Paris is to reduce “short-lived climate pollutants,” including black carbon from diesel soot; methane in oil and gas extraction and agricultural sectors; and leaks of fluorinated gases from refrigerators and air-conditioning systems.

In the next legislative session, California can become the first government in the world to set targets for slashing these emissions. They stay in the atmosphere for a much shorter time than longer-lived carbon dioxide, and their removal can cut global warming in half by 2050 and save 2 million lives annually, health experts say.

Overall success in Paris depends on decisions by the U.S. and China, which combined emit half of all global carbon emissions, as well as leadership from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and moral exhortations from Pope Francis.

The recent terrorist attacks are no reason to retreat from the climate challenge. They are more reason to act. Two years ago, Brown circulated a CIA threat assessment with charts depicting threats from climate change, including the rise of civil wars and immigrant upheavals. It was one case where the CIA was prescient.

Tom Hayden is a former state senator who was Gov. Jerry Brown’s first solar energy commissioner in 1979 and attended the first United Nations climate summit in 1992. He can be contacted at