Gov. Brown prepares for a new climate battle, and it probably will cost you

Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry meet on an elevator in Beijing. They were in China earlier in June for events connected to the Clean Energy Ministerial.
Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry meet on an elevator in Beijing. They were in China earlier in June for events connected to the Clean Energy Ministerial. Brown’s office

It’s been miserable out there. Death Valley reached a deadly 127-degree record. Flights were canceled in Phoenix because it isn’t safe to take off when the temperature exceeds 117 degrees. Parts of our valley sizzled at 110.

And there was U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry blathering on CNBC about how he doubts carbon dioxide and humans cause climate change, prompting the nation’s main society of weather scientists to denounce his “fundamental misunderstanding” of science.

Not Gov. Jerry Brown. Our governor has become the nation’s leading elected official in the war on global warming, especially after President Donald Trump dumped the Paris climate accord. In China earlier this month, Brown got the star treatment, the publication E&E News reported. A photographer snapped a priceless photo of Brown and Perry passing one another on an escalator in China earlier this month. Perry’s entourage was small, compared to Brown’s, and he met with second-tier officials. President Xi Jinping received Brown to talk about climate change.

No sooner had the governor returned from China than Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of Fiji and host of a climate summit in Bonn later this year, made Brown the point person for enlisting states and provinces into the climate fight. Yet in his own Capitol, Brown is being portrayed as allied with industry, as he works to extend the cap-and-trade program in a way that would outlast his time in office.

I doubt cap and trade will be a topic of conversation over beers and barbecue this weekend. Certainly, newspaper columnists would get more clicks by writing about puppies, babies, Dancin’ Rick Perry’s fine head of hair, or just about anything other than cap and trade.

The name is as inscrutable as the Rube Goldberg-like regulation. Only a few insiders truly understand it. Oil refineries, cement factories, power plants, food processors and other stationary sources of pollution must pay to offset greenhouse gas emissions. And it adds about 11 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline, not that you’d know it. That probably will go up if cap and trade is extended.

Brown sees it as a way to reduce greenhouse gases, in time. More to the point, it generates money to fund construction of high-speed rail, which he champions as a way to link the San Joaquin and Silicon valleys. Without stable funding, Brown’s successor will be less than enthusiastic about a $20 billion train from Fresno to San Jose.

“The cap-and-trade program is something that needs to be extended,” Nancy McFadden, the governor’s chief aide, said the other day at a conference of energy entrepreneurs hosted by Advanced Energy Economy. “It’s one of the centerpieces of our climate program, and it’s working.”

Brown’s lawyers say extending cap and trade, which generates $2 billion a year, requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. Democrats hold two-thirds majorities in both houses. But after voting for a $5.2 billion-a-year increase in gasoline taxes and vehicle fees in April to pay for road repairs, Democrats aren’t anxious to approve another measure that would raise pump prices again.

On the governor’s behalf, McFadden has been meeting, negotiating and, yes, compromising with Republicans, and representatives of oil, utilities and other affected businesses, as well as environmentalists. A bill is expected to be in print next week; industry consultants are preparing an ad blitz intended to persuade lawmakers to support it.

“I think we’re helping drive the conversation,” Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley said, uttering words not often heard in a state where Republicans are little more than an afterthought in legislative matters.

But there’s a reason for Mayes and industry to engage. California has a law that imposes a cap. We must collectively emit 40 percent less greenhouse gas by 2030 than we did in 1990. State regulators could order a reduction. Or lawmakers could let the market drive those reductions.

“As a Republican, I believe a market-based system is always better than command and control,” said Mayes.

The left isn’t as enthusiastic. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from a gritty Los Angeles-area district in and near the freeway-encircled city of Bell Gardens, is one of 20 Assembly Democrats who signed a letter insisting that any cap-and-trade measure “not let major polluters off the hook.”

Garcia said the cost of housing is a far more pressing issue in her district. As it stands, the cap-and-trade deal bends too much in “the direction that oil wants.”

One provision would let corporations offset emissions by, for example, paying to preserve forests in New Hampshire, which is nice for New Hampshire, but doesn’t do much for kids with asthma in Bell Gardens.

There’s also the inconvenient truth that placing a price on carbon raises the cost of goods. That’s the point. People would have less incentive to burn fossil fuel if costs rise. But low income people aren’t buying Teslas and Volts. And they can least afford to pay more for gasoline. A senate cap-and-trade proposal would require the state to give rebates to lower income Californians. That’s worth a try.

What’s this have to do with killer heat waves? Everything, and not enough.

Every summer now is one of history’s hottest. Climate scientists predict that, if humans keep pumping out greenhouse gas, lethal spikes in heat and humidity will become the new normal for three-quarters of the planet, California included.

Maybe cap and trade will help. So far, unlike the heat, it’s not setting records. The legislative analyst recently wrote that cap and trade is neither a failure, nor a success. Rather, “the overall effects of the program so far are somewhat unclear.” Kind of like the air on a triple-digit day in L.A.

I don’t buy that Brown is beholden to industry. But the deal in the works ought to do something for people who must breathe bad air and who have a hard time filling their tanks. That’d give Brown something to crow about when he travels to in Bonn later this year.