Jerry Brown’s Last Challenge

If Donald Trump could take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as efficiently as he sucks oxygen out of the news cycle, the climate crisis would be solved faster than you can say “Mexico will pay for that wall.” Unfortunately, even as we deal with the Trump administration’s daily cascade of corruption, crudeness, and cruelty, the clock keeps ticking and climate pollution keeps rising. But the math is merciless: If we don’t accelerate a phaseout of fossil fuels today, then the wildfires, droughts, and extreme weather events currently plaguing the planet will seem mild compared with what’s coming.

We can’t count on the federal government to tackle this problem while Trump is in office, but neither can we afford to wait until Trump is out of office. The solution? Take the challenge to a state in which Donald Trump’s leadership is so unpopular that he’s spent less than 24 hours there since he became president. A state with a booming economy that is not only the largest in the U.S. but also the fifth largest in the world. A high-tech state that has embraced clean energy and energy efficiency. And, paradoxically, a state that happens to be the nation’s fourth-largest producer of crude oil.

I mean California, of course. Nowhere else in the U.S. do we have a better opportunity to show how it’s possible to transition from fossil fuels in a way that’s smart, pragmatic, and equitable. What’s been missing, surprisingly, is the leadership to get started.

That’s ironic, because California is still led by one of the most vocal and visible resisters to Trump’s retreat from climate action: Governor Jerry Brown. And when it comes to the demand side of climate action (energy efficiency, renewable energy, cutting pollution at the tailpipe) Governor Brown has been a true champion. But when it comes to fighting climate change at the source -- curbing the production of fossil fuels -- it’s been a different story.

Normally a pragmatic visionary, Governor Brown has failed to reconcile two key climate facts: California is a major oil and gas producer, and the basic physics of climate science demand that we phase out oil and gas. Although no one expects oil and gas drilling to end overnight, California doesn't even have a plan for how to begin phasing it out. In fact, under Governor Brown’s leadership, California has approved more than 20,000 new oil and gas wells. That’s leadership -- in precisely the wrong direction.

Here’s what Governor Brown said to German policymakers about climate change less than a year ago: “Let’s lead the whole world to realize this is not your normal political challenge. This is much bigger. This is life itself. It requires courage and imagination.”

Exactly. The governor has an opportunity before leaving office to not just talk about how courage is needed in others but to show some himself by initiating a thoughtful and reasonable drawdown of fossil fuel production in the Golden State.

Here are three important steps Jerry Brown can take. First, stop approving new wells! You can’t begin to solve a problem until you stop making it worse. Second, lay the groundwork for a just transition for oil-producing regions. Commission an analysis of how the state could help communities in Kern County, the San Joaquin Valley, and elsewhere to not just survive but thrive during a transition to clean energy. Finally, start shutting down the existing oil and gas drill sites that are causing the most harm -- those within 2,500 feet of schools, homes, parks, and businesses.

Los Angeles County alone, which is home to 10 million people, has 68 active oil fields, and thousands of drill sites are within that 2,500-foot boundary. Across California, millions of people are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and other compounds that are known to cause respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, leukemia, lymphoma, lung cancer, nervous system damage, reproductive and endocrine disruption, and premature death. Even if climate change weren’t an issue, this should be stopped.

In September, Governor Brown will co-chair a Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. The stated goal is to “Take Ambition to the Next Level.” Simply supporting renewable energy and defending fuel-efficiency standards is not the next level in 2018 -- it’s where we already are. That’s why 26 climate scientists recently sent Governor Brown a letter telling him he needs to commit to phasing out oil and gas production in the state. In June, 109 elected officials from 24 counties in California told him the same thing, as did five Nobel Laureates last week. At this point, anything less can only be considered a failure of leadership when the governor should instead be securing his true legacy as a climate visionary.