Jerry Brown, Archimedes, and the Search for an Energy Tipping Point

governor jerry brown

Gov. Jerry Brown walks through the Assembly to deliver his State of the State address before a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento, CA. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli)

California Governor Jerry Brown, an early pioneer of solar energy and conservation, once again might become a global leader in the battle against extreme climate change. Fresh from an impressive election triumph last November, and freed at last from a Republican legislative veto, Brown ventured forth to a national governor’s meeting this month and will travel to China in April.

It is possible that Brown might become a modern Archimedes, searching to create the leverage necessary to reach the tipping point in global energy policy – but more on that below.

There are increasing signs that the governor may take up the challenge. A few months ago he circulated an email to experts and friends, asking what California should do if indeed the climate crisis is as threatening as many believe. Attached to the email were five charts from a recent Atlantic Monthly article citing a CIA-sponsored study on the dire consequences of climate change: rising seas and flooding, droughts and fires, and insect infestations that “pose threats greater than those from terrorism, ranging from massive food shortages to a rise in armed conflicts.”

Armed conflicts spiked in 2011.

global climate change

Global Climate Change Effects: (a) most of Greenland’s ice cap melting in four days, (b) America’s worst droughts in 50 years, (c) wildfires multiplying, (d) evidence that coral reefs are doomed, and (e) a proliferation of civil wars.

The charts showed (a) most of Greenland’s ice cap melting in four days, (b) America’s worst droughts in 50 years, (c) wildfires multiplying, (d) evidence that coral reefs are doomed, and (e) a proliferation of civil wars. The article appeared one month after Hurricane Sandy ripped through the east coast, causing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to raise his voice against deniers of global warming. Under pressure from environmentalists, the New York state assembly is supporting a two-year moratorium on fracking, which potentially raises the pressure for cleaner energy alternatives.

If the CIA’s analysis is anywhere near correct, the period marked by 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, and wars-for-energy is being overtaken by catastrophic security threats arising from the insatiable quest for fossil fuels.

On the federal level, President Obama has executive powers to promote a cleaner energy future, and start stemming record-high carbon emissions. Obama can encourage the Environmental Protection Agency to develop tougher limits on emissions from power plants, control methane leaks, and set a national clean energy standard. He can make it virtually impossible to site new coal-burning plants. But since Obama is blocked by House Republicans and many in the US Senate from funding new clean energy policies, he must rely on states like California and New York for significant initiatives. In turn, those big states with strong environmental majorities need stronger federal regulations to spark green initiatives from their private sectors.

Global energy politics, from Europe to Latin America, will have a major influence on US policies, too, but none so much as China. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry need to “cut a deal” with China, says former US senator Tim Wirth, for example by reducing methane leaks and phasing out HFCs, which trap more heat than carbon dioxide. (Rolling Stone, January 31, 2013) According to Wirth, “Kerry understands that the best way to unlock the stalemate in Washington is through Beijing,” because “that kills the whole argument that cutting carbon in the US would give China an economic advantage.”

Brown could be an ideal partner with China on energy efficiency and anti-pollution strategies. Brown is not burdened with the Cold War-like tensions rising between the US and China, but can focus instead on mutually beneficial energy and environmental initiatives, which later might evolve to become US national policy.

Whatever Obama’s final decision on the XL pipeline from Alberta, the transition to green energy will remain a security necessity. NASA scientist James Hansen’s argues that it is “game over” if the pipeline is approved, but a more careful reading of his prediction is that climate change will be irreversible if the Tar Sands are fully developed, a pollution nightmare that could take years to materialize. Whatever one thinks of the apocalyptic predictions, future life will be an unprecedented series of adjustments in which conservation and renewables will be embraced as necessities rather than options.

California as Vanguard

California has launched a green energy revolution once before, also under Brown. I was Brown’s solar energy representative in the Seventies, a time when renewables were considered the quaint interest of organic communards living in the redwoods, which they were. But back to the land became forward to the future. Brown in those days opposed the utility plans for some 65 nuclear plants along the California coast, and he personally killed a liquefied-natural-gas terminal on native lands at Point Conception. He was slandered as “Governor Moonbeam” in the national media, and threatened by business and labor with a future of unemployment, lights-out energy shortages, and political defeat.

It was a bum rap. By promoting strict energy standards in transportation fuels, land use planning, architecture and many other fields, the first Brown administration fostered 1.5 million clean energy jobs, saved California consumers $65 billion, and secured California as the center for two-thirds of clean energy venture capital in the US. Jimmy Carter then adopted Brown’s policies and vision, even installing solar collectors on the White House roof. In April 1978, Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality concluded it was “now possible to speak realistically of the United States becoming a solar society.”

Then came the Reagan counter-offensive and the Bush energy wars, but those disasters could only frustrate and delay the inevitable. At first Clinton – and especially Obama – resumed Brown’s historic path. Obama imposed new fuel efficiency standards for cars and buildings in his first term; the 54.5 mpg standard was twice that of the efficiency standards mandated in the 1970s. Obama’s clean energy program, funded through the 2009 stimulus package and implemented by a brain trust at the Energy Department, amounted to a $200 billion investment of public and private dollars. Just ten years before, President Clinton was considered “unrealistic” in proposing $6.3 billion over five years for clean energy. California activists and officials like Brown planted virtually everything that blossomed in the Obama green stimulus decades before:

Renewable electricity doubled during Obama’s first three years, solar installations jumped from 290 megawatts in 2008 to 1,855 megawatts in 2011; states adopting green building codes rose from one to 23; and, by 2011, the wind and solar industries were employing 200,000 Americans, more than the coal industry.

Were those impressive numbers enough? Of course not, but the definition of “not enough” is being raised, often invisibly, to levels that begin to matter, and those levels will be pushed higher and faster as the climate crisis comes home. The energy race will be more important than the arms race in the ultimate race against time. California and states like New York will be the big green building blocks of the nation’s future economy.

Brown laid out a visionary agenda in his Jan. 24 State of the State address this year, though it was little noted in a state that no longer even has television crews based in Sacramento. Therefore Brown’s speech is worth quoting at length:

“…no long term liability presents as great a danger to our wellbeing as the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to the latest report from the World Bank, carbon dioxide emissions are the highest in 15 million years. At today’s emissions rate, the planet could warm by more than 7 degrees Farenheit by the end of the century, an event unknown in human experience. Some of you will be around for that, I won’t. California is extremely vulnerable because of our Mediterranean climate, long coastline and reliance on snowpack…

“Tipping points can be reached before we even know we have passed them…

“Again California is leading the way…we will meet our goal of getting carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020… Key to our efforts is reducing electricity consumption through energy efficiency standards… We are also meeting our renewable energy goals: more than 20 percent renewable energy this year… And we are not through yet.”

The Key Importance of Environmental Justice

Because of California’s emerging communities of color – just 39 percent of Californians are white – the battle against climate disaster will increasingly engage blacks, Latinos, Asians and poor people as well as traditional (white) environmentalists, or be lost in the political lust over privilege and power. The question of “environmental justice” will become central to the future, not simply a box to be checked off on organizational charts or a special earmark for environmental funding.

The issues of justice, pollution, health, and community empowerment are being welded together as California evolves. The process may involve a somewhat wrenching transition in priorities for environmental advocates who have enjoyed great success in recent California politics. For example, a 2010 ballot initiative for state parks funding (Prop. 21) fell short because the traditional environmental sponsors chose to hike automobile license fees by $18. The margin of voter support for Prop. 21 in communities of color fell short of the level needed. The physical separation of state park facilities from communities of color is a stark one.

Mapping provided by OEHHA, a state environmental health agency, could become a new weapon for public education and organizing about environmental justice, raising the specter of “separate and unequal” impacts of environmental pollution. Developed to implement 2012 legislation by Sen. Kevin De Leon, the OEHHA mapping tool reveals startling socio-economic disparities in pollution burdens (ozone, particulate matter, pesticides, toxic releases, traffic congestion, cleanup site leaks, groundwater contamination, hazardous waste, etc.) and public health (asthma, low birth weight, and children’s and elderly illness rates, etc.)

The Archimedes Connection

Environmentalists, human rights advocates and progressives in search of strategic direction might consider California (or New York, or any communities of concentrated environmental strength) as battlefields vast enough in combination to generate leverage towards a tipping point. Justice Louis Brandeis aptly described states as the “laboratories of reform.” Deeper in history is the story of Archimedes, the Greek scientist-philosopher, who lived two centuries BC.

tom haydenArchimedes might have been labeled the “Dr. Moonbeam” of his era. He invented levers and solar heat rays, among other breakthroughs, before being killed by the Roman Empire in one of its Punic Wars. Archimedes is quoted as saying, “Give me a place to stand, and I will rule the world,” which remains good advice in politics and strategy two thousand years later. One might say that the Brown Green Plan for California is an Archimedean leverage point in the energy wars ahead.

Tom Hayden
The Peace Exchange Bulletin

Friday, 8 March 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on March 8, 2013
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About Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.

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