By Kevin Hall
Paris, Bonn, San Francisco. Billionaires and corporate CEOs. Heads of state from around the world. It’s enough to turn a young politician’s head. Even an old one’s.
In recent years, California legislators from Senate and Assembly districts of a few hundred thousand constituents have found themselves thrust onto the world stage alongside people known to hundreds of millions. There they are lionized, some would say tokenized, as champions of the worldwide struggle against climate change and the state’s place on the frontline of domestic efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Assembly Member Joaquin Arambula (D–Fresno) eagerly stepped into the spotlight when he spoke on a panel at last month’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. From the lofty perch of an international law firm high atop One Market Plaza with a sweeping view of the bay, Arambula bathed in the unctuous praise of the moneyed interests’ representatives, gathered to hear “California Stories—Grounded Perspectives on Climate Policies and Actions.”
Far from the ground and lost in the heady excitement of it all, Arambula seemingly forgot his place of birth. That or he fell into the classic politician’s trap of embellishing the story by placing oneself into its center.
When asked by the moderator, a former Congresswoman, about the politics of climate change and his most difficult legislative decision, Arambula cited no example of a tough political choice. Instead, he veered into a hush-toned, beleaguered description of the environmental hazards of his Tower District neighborhood.
“The zip code that I was born and raised in, that I’m stilling living in today, now, is 93728,” Arambula sighed, shoulders slumping sadly. “It’s one of the top 25 most economically and environmentally challenged zip codes in our state.” Ten minutes later, when asked to discuss the connection between climate change and hunger, he described being born 85 miles and many zip codes away in Delano “in the middle of the farmworkers movement.”
He then went into FresYes mode, extolling Fresno as a city being “transformed” by the state cap-and-trade investments and as a model for the nation, including what he falsely described as an extensive community outreach effort around the $70 million in Transformative Climate Community dollars, none of which has been spent yet and isn’t affecting the economy.
In truth, Arambula was a strong proponent, along with former mayor Ashley Swearengin, of the entire amount being spent within a mile of the downtown high-speed rail station and actively opposed the community-driven effort that eventually brought half the money to West Fresno. He also conveniently skipped over the fact this same city is being sued for ignoring legal requirements to reduce greenhouse gases from new projects such as the Amazon, Ulta Beauty and the proposed Caglia warehouses.
He wasn’t alone in what can best be described as California politicians, regulators, Big Green environmental organizations, major foundations and their acolytes overselling California’s accomplishments on climate change.
State Senator Ricardo Lara (D–Bell Gardens) spoke on a different panel, this one in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s luxurious theater. Lara is the author of an important bill targeting greenhouse gases known as short-lived climate pollutants. These are the gases with heat-trapping capability many times greater than that of carbon dioxide and includes hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigeration, methane from oil and agriculture, and black carbon from combustion of every type.
In an apparent effort to impress his international audience and to bolster the state’s accomplishments, if not his own, Lara made rather fantastical claims about dairy digesters in the San Joaquin Valley:
“And we now have proven, through the massive amounts of money that we’ve invested in our methane reduction program…and we see tremendous incentive and use of this program by our dairymen, small dairy families in particular, who are now using this money to be able to really revolutionize how they are doing business…demonstrating that we are actually capturing and reducing our methane footprint by large amounts.”
None of that is accurate. True, great amounts of money are being directed toward the program, but the bulk of it has yet to be distributed. Nor is it being utilized by small dairy families because large dairies dominate the program. So, not a revolution, and, no, the state is not “actually capturing and reducing” methane to any significant degree as few of the devices have yet to be installed.
Worse still, the strategy is unproven and none of the more than 60 proposed projects have been subjected to proper environmental review. Early indications are that the program is leading to greater herd sizes and concentrations, resulting in increased emissions of greenhouse gases and ground-level air pollutants.
But the program is badly needed by other polluters and state regulators. The scheme is driven by income from carbon credit trading because there is a strong market from Big Oil and others seeking to continue their polluting ways by paying to theoretically reduce someone else’s, in this case the methane from more than a thousand dairies in the San Joaquin Valley.
Last but not least, there was Governor Jerry Brown’s performance. Beneath the distracting, headline-attracting attacks on Trump and an announcement of “our own damn satellite,” the underlying compromise that dooms cap-and-trade to failure was revealed in the first question at the first press conference on the first day of the event.
“Governor Brown, right now protestors are standing outside calling this a hypocrisy, saying California hasn’t done enough to curb drilling in this state. Can we expect any announcements to that effect?” asked a reporter.
Brown responded defensively with what amounted to a 90-second-long “no”; billionaire investor and summit co-host Michael Bloomberg quickly followed with an insult to the opponents of cap-and-trade protesting outside the building, likening them to supporters of a border wall with Mexico. Seriously.
It was the perfect opening question because it revealed the big lie and set the tone for the following two days: dissenters from the cap-and-trade gospel would scarcely be tolerated, much less given equal voice, and the corporate requirement that all climate change remediation efforts offer some form of profit or financial incentive dominated all main stage discussions.
But for all the glitz and glamour, learned speeches and heartfelt pledges, there was a simple three-letter word none dare utter—tax.
Kevin Hall is the host of Climate Politics airing on KFCF 88.1 FM on the fourth Friday of every month from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.