Paris Agreement Marks Epic Movement Away From Fossil Fuels

12/29/2015 05:33 pm ET | Updated Dec 29, 2015
Connie J. Spinardi via Getty Images

As a son of southern California in the 1950s, I grew up surrounded by reminders of the oil industry that fueled generations of economic growth in our country. Dad was an accountant for an oil company. I rode my bike past the giant derricks that pumped day and night. I even did a stint myself as a roustabout on the rigs.

In recent decades, though, it's become increasingly clear that our reliance on oil, gas and coal has come at a grave and unsustainable cost to our health and the future of the planet. We just can't tolerate blowouts polluting our oceans, oil trains exploding in our communities, pipeline ruptures across our ranches and farms or the carbon pollution that's driving climate change.

We have to shift away from fossil fuels and all the damage and danger they bring, and move toward cleaner, smarter ways to power our future.

That's the heart and soul of the historic climate agreement reached this month in Paris, where the United States and 186 other countries put plans on the table for real action to fight climate change by moving toward a low-carbon global economy.

We won't get there overnight. The fossil fuels that have been shaped the wealth of nations since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution still account for about 80 percent of global energy use.

The Paris agreement, though, consolidated an epic movement away from those fuels. It advanced that shift. And it sent a clear message to the markets: we're not stuck with fossil fuels - and neither are our children.

I've been pushing for this kind of breakthrough for four decades. I went to Paris to add my voice to those calling for real progress and change. It starts by doing what's right for our people at home, cutting our own carbon footprint in our own backyards. And it depends on all of us doing our part.

That's why it was so heartening to sit in the grand Hotel de Ville - the city hall of Paris - alongside 400 mayors and other local leaders from around the world who are already taking action to make buildings more efficient, create sustainable transportation options and shift to wind and solar generation to power their cities.

There's a global contest already underway over which country, or countries, will be best positioned to reap the benefits from the historic transition away from the dirty fossil fuels of the past and toward the cleaner energy options of the future.

Now, much as California was near the center of the oil age, the state is leading the way to the clean energy era remaking the world. With four decades of progressive policies to promote clean air, energy efficiency, renewable power, carbon reduction targets and other sustainability goals, California has stolen a march on the competition in the greatest economic play of our lifetime.

At the Paris climate talks, delegates clamored for a chance to ask Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti about his plan to cut carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. International governments from China to Israel got in line to hold bilateral meetings with Gov. Jerry Brown and his state legislative delegation. When Brown and Silicon Valley clean-tech investor Tom Steyer hosted a dialogue at the opulent Petit Palais, several hundred climate delegates came to hear their advice on how to stoke a clean energy revolution.

"You need to get the right ideas, you need to be able to present them, and you have to build a coalition," said Brown. It's all about creating conditions where private industry, public policy-makers, visionaries and voters all play their respective roles. "This is an art," said Brown, "and a science."

How's it working out? Last year California's economy grew 2.8 percent; national growth was 2.2 percent. California is getting more clean-tech investment than the rest of the country combined. And California creates nearly twice as much economic value, per unit of energy used, than the country overall.

That's saving real money for our families and businesses. It's given California a leg up on its competition, across our country and around the world. And it's created a virtuous cycle as technological advances make clean-tech investments more attractive.

Fighting climate change is a moral imperative. And yet, just as protecting our children from the widening dangers of climate chaos is a challenge, it's also an opportunity. It's the economic play of our lifetime. By doing what's right for our people at home, California has positioned itself for leadership abroad. Our people, and those of the world, are the better for it.