Dan Morain

Using windfalls and paper to fight climate change

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, holds up a memorandum of understanding that was signed last week in Sacramento to curb greenhouse gases. Representatives from Germany, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States also signed the document.
Gov. Jerry Brown, center, holds up a memorandum of understanding that was signed last week in Sacramento to curb greenhouse gases. Representatives from Germany, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States also signed the document. rbyer@sacbee.com

Amid much pomp, Gov. Jerry Brown and dignitaries from Germany, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States gathered at the meticulously restored Stanford Mansion last week. There, they signed a piece of paper.

With international flags providing an impressive backdrop, the leaders agreed to abide by the paper, a memorandum of understanding, that says they intend to limit global temperature rise to less than 3.6 degrees, or, because this was a cosmopolitan event, 2 degrees Celsius. Hence the name, “Under 2 MOU.”

The paper decrees that “measurable progress must be made in the near-term to establish the trajectory of reductions needed.” Who must make progress and what the trajectory of reductions might be is open to interpretation.

“Parties will look to natural or ‘green’ infrastructure solutions that maximize ecological benefits while providing protection,” the paper says. “Parties will share best practices in designing and deploying these solutions.” That makes sense. No rational leader would want to hoard worst practices.

The piece of paper is not binding. No matter. The point was more about political positioning and egging on prime ministers, presidents, Congress or their equivalent bodies to focus on climate change. At least, I think that was the point. Once the dignitaries signed the paper, they filed out of the room. No time for reporters’ questions, which tend to distract from nice backdrops.

Brown organized the auspicious paper-signing as he prepares for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year.

“By the time of Paris,” Brown said, moments before he signed the paper, “there will be many, many states from throughout the entire world committed to the overall objective of reducing the rising temperature, the rising generation of greenhouse gas.”

This is familiar territory for Brown. Forty years ago, he mused about Spaceship Earth and getting by with less. Now, he seeks a 50 percent reduction in gasoline use by 2030, bold by any measure.

He presides over a cap-and-trade program that is intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not clear that reductions have occurred. But as an incidental byproduct of the regulation, cap and trade will generate $2.24 billion in the coming year, enough to catch any politician’s eye.

All that suggests Brown is deserving of a prominent role in Paris. But there are potholes between here and there. The symbolism of the “Under 2 MOU” collided with reality last week when a Santa Barbara pipeline ruptured, spewing more than 100,000 gallons of oil onto the Central California coast. That will encourage anti-fracking activists who hector Brown about permitting the practice.

Then there is cap and trade, itself, a complicated system that, boiled down, also could be known as “polluters pay to pollute.” As a moneymaker, cap and trade is succeeding beyond politicians’ wildest dreams.

In January, Brown estimated cap-and-trade auctions would generate $922 million in the coming year. He was low; as it happens, the state will be collecting at least $2.24 billion, an embarrassment of riches.

Brown proposes to give $500 million to high-speed rail; $400 million for affordable housing and to encourage developments built close to workplaces; $265 million for transit; and $30 million as a hedge against tuition increases at the University of California and California State University. The money is supposed to be used to reduce greenhouse gas.

The California Chamber of Commerce has sued to gut the portion of the cap-and-trade program that generates money. The chamber lost before a trial court but has appealed to the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento.

The landmark Assembly Bill 32 of 2006 requires that California reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The legislation also led to the cap-and-trade program, though it doesn’t include the term. Instead, AB 32 makes oblique references to authorizing the California Air Resources Board to use markets to reduce greenhouse gases.

The California Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes. But the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved AB 32 by a simple majority. The bill makes no mention of a tax.

If lawmakers had known they were authorizing the air board to create a program that would raise billions of dollars from businesses, “there would have been spirited legislative debate and dissent by Republicans and moderate Democrats.” There was none, the chamber told the appellate court, in a brief written by the law firm Nielsen Merksamer.

Attorneys for the air board say cap and trade is not a tax. Nor is it a fee of the sort you pay to cover the cost of renewing a driver’s license. What to call the mechanism by which the state raises the billions of dollars is murky. Whatever its name, Democratic politicians have grown quite fond of it.

An Assembly budget subcommittee last week estimated that Brown is underestimating revenue by $175 million and offered plenty of ways to spend the extra. All the better if the money will get spent in their districts.

Helpful lobbyists lined up to testify at the budget hearing on behalf of clients seeking slices of the money to turn dairy and human waste into energy, improve forests and farms, restore rivers, provide more mass transit passes and encourage bicycling. The Assembly proposal for spending the money includes $4 million for mosquito control.

I can understand the desire to control mosquitoes, but do the little buggers truly produce $4 million worth of greenhouse gas? By terms of the paper Brown signed last week, would measurable progress be made if they were controlled?

Not to detract from the governor’s environmentalist cred, or the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The issue is transcendent. But the climate change fight won’t be won by swatting mosquitoes or empty symbolism.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.