California: The Climate Leadership We Need

California just set some pretty big emissions targets for itself. If progress towards these targets is made, California will quickly become the example the climate world so desperately needs.

Towards the end of his address to the University of Illinois last week, former president Barack Obama stated that in order to steer the country away from the course that the current administration has charted, “You don’t need a messiah. All we need are decent, honest, hardworking people.” This statement—sounding slightly ironic coming from one of the most iconic and idolized politicians of the last half-century—is, fundamentally, quite true. Throughout recent history, progressive policy change has occurred, not by the work of a few motivated individuals, but by major societal outflows of discontent against the status quo. However, contrary to the former President’s sentiment, it is undeniable that every instance of progressive policy change has been accompanied by charismatic, brave, and forward-thinking individuals who have led the charge and inspired thousands to follow. You don’t need a messiah, but a messiah can sure can help. 

Looking at the lackluster global development of progressive and ambitious climate action plans, it is perhaps this charismatic leadership that is missing. The transition to a carbon neutral economy must occur, and quickly, if we are going to avoid the global loss of incalculable wealth and wellbeing brought about by unbridled climate change. The Paris climate agreement was a critically important first step in getting everyone (well…almost everyone) to the table, but the movement still needs a shining example to point to and say “see, this actually makes sense.” Progress is certainly being made, especially in the electricity sector where renewable solar and wind are finally stepping up to the plate as cost-competitive generation options. However, there are few (if any) examples of truly revolutionary, game-changing, and enacted policy agendas that put us safely on the path to sustainable energy use…until now?  

On Monday, Governor Jerry Brown signed two new carbon mitigation policies: a state law that commits the state to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045, and an executive order pledging that California will achieve state-wide net carbon neutrality by 2045. Taken alone, the carbon free electricity law is arguably one of the most significant carbon mitigation laws ever passed, and when wrapped up in the scope of Governor Brown’s Executive Order, it positions California to become the most climate-progressive government of its size and influence, and an example that the rest of us can follow. 

In addition to California’s demonstrated commitment to state emissions policies, it is also taking a leadership role in supporting the climate mitigation agendas proposed by hundreds of governments around the world. As I write this, California is hosting the Global Climate Action Summit and Under2 Coalition General Assembly meeting; the world’s largest ever gathering of over 220 national and subnational governments. What better opportunity could there be for California to tout these new emissions pledges and inspire other countries, cities, and individuals to follow suit in the race against time for carbon neutrality. When the federal administration of the United States made the decision to leave the Paris climate agreement, the chances of the U.S. becoming a leader in climate policy appeared bleak. Now the country’s most economically significant state has made it abundantly clear that they will not give up this effort.  

For California, this is going to be an uphill battle, at least for the next few critical years. The U.S. administration has already attempted to limit the state’s power to go above and beyond federal climate law by threatening the state’s vehicle emissions standards. Attempts to squash California’s vision for energy sustainability are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, but if the state can continue its progress towards zero emissions in spite of federal resistance, its success will be all the more impressive and inspiring to the rest of America and the world. We desperately need a real-life example of ambitious climate leadership, and Governor Brown and California may be it. 

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.