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Editorial: Brown’s climate pact contains lofty goals but no money or staffers

In some parts of the country, talk about the need to combat climate change can be viewed as downright subversive.

So Gov. Jerry Brown and the leaders of Oregon, Washington state and British Columbia are to be commended for gathering in San Francisco this week to sign a pact in which they agree to work collaboratively to fight climate change.

The question comes down to follow-through.

By signing the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, the three governors and one premier pledge to work to “harmonize 2050 targets” for greenhouse gas reductions and “inform policy with findings from climate science.” It’s hard to argue with either goal. It’s also hard to put your finger on exactly what the goals mean.

Brown correctly said that three states and one province signing a nonbinding agreement is a modest step, and that “if we only do it ourselves, it doesn’t do much because we’re only 1 percent of the problem.” China, India and even Texas and Alabama need to buy into the concept, he said.

The pact includes important statements of intent. Gov. John A. Kitzhaber of Oregon and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington promise to place a price on carbon pollution. British Columbia already taxes carbon, and California has imposed a “cap and trade” method of pricing carbon.

But there are political realities in each state. Unlike California, where Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, Republicans hold a majority in the Washington State Senate.

The Seattle Times quoted Sen. Doug Ericksen, the Republican chairman of the Washington Senate energy committee, as cautioning that reducing carbon in Washington “could put our manufacturers at a serious disadvantage compared to other states like South Carolina.” Seattle-based Boeing has operations in South Carolina.

Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California and six Western states and four Canadian provinces created the Western Climate Initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent by 2020. That agreement fell apart when the recession hit, leaving California to go it alone with Quebec.

The latest proposal is more modest. No money is earmarked for it and no staffers are assigned to focus solely on the collaboration. Its success will depend on policymakers making good on their promises.

Compared with most governors, Brown has not gone in much for photo opportunities in his third term, to his credit. That will change as he runs for re-election.

We urge that he keep sight of the need to reduce common pollutants such as the black carbon that spews from older diesel engines, though such efforts are less flashy than signing multistate pacts. At the same time, he and the other leaders need to make good on the lofty if vague promises made in San Francisco.