The Land of Unkept Climate Commitments

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon says that California "leads the world" on climate change. He’s right, but not the way he thinks. In fact, the Golden State leads the world in unfulfilled promises to fight global warming.

Consider the Los Angeles solar initiative. In 2000, L.A. announced it would become the "Solar Capital of the World," with solar panels on 100,000 rooftops by 2010. To reach this ambitious target, the L.A. Department of Water and Power offered generous subsidies for solar energy systems. Three years and $80 million later – to outfit 600 rooftops at a cost of $13,000 each – the city cancelled the project as cost-ineffective, 99,400 buildings short of its goal.

That’s not the only time California politicians made climate commitments they couldn’t keep. In late 2006, lawmakers in Sacramento passed Senate Bill 107, which would require investor-owned utilities to generate 20 percent of California’s electricity from renewable sources by 2010. According to its author, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, SB107 "provides an immediate response to global warming."

Since 2004, however, renewable energy’s share of the California electricity market has increased by about 2 percent, which is far below the growth rate necessary if the Golden State is to get 20 percent of its power from renewable sources in about a couple more years. The prognosis for SB107 is equally bleak. Last January, the California Energy Commission concluded that the state is unlikely to reach its renewable-energy target for a number of reasons, including the program’s complexity and California’s woefully inadequate transmission infrastructure.

The implausibility of SB107 suggests it was passed primarily to score political points. Instead of grandstanding on climate change, California’s representatives would better serve their constituents by making electricity more reliable. Just this past Labor Day, 16 Californians died when sustained power outages deprived them of air conditioning during a heat wavet.

If California’s climate policy is political theatre, then it’s no wonder why Gov. Schwarzenegger, a former actor, plays the part so well. With much fanfare, the Governator travels the country, telling Americans that they can terminate global warming without going commando on the economy.

But that’s not what his administration is saying. California’s top climate official, Air Resources Board chairperson Mary Nichols, told reporters that "you have to price the carbon" to mitigate climate change. She is talking about a carbon tax. Yet 90 percent of all energy use in California results in the release of carbon into the atmosphere. It remains to be seen how an energy-tax is reconcilable with robust economic growth.

Curiously, Gov. Schwarzenegger is unwilling to test his peculiar economic theories. He assented to greenhouse gas emission cuts beginning after his term expires.

It’s a pity the governor lacks the political courage to heed Mary Nichols and push for a carbon tax on his watch. Then the rest of the nation could see for itself whether or not shrinking one’s carbon footprint is the great economic opportunity that Schwarzenegger says it is.

Of course, that’s wishful thinking. In reality, politicians reflect their constituents, and California voters have yet to do much about global warming. Until people start taking the bus to work, or choose to buy a smaller house, or downsize their plasma TVs – that is, until they are willing to sacrifice mightily for the climate, politicians will continue to address global warming with bluster and buck-passing.