THE BLOG
12/13/2015 10:10 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2015

Global Climate Change Summit Ends With Agreement to Agree, Actual National Plans Falling Far Short, and Some California Coups

There's a sort of group-think that develops among people cooped up together over time, working on a tight deadline to achieve desperately needed progress. Anything positive becomes something stupendous. Not having been in Paris myself, but having monitored events there closely, the self-congratulatory huzzahs emanating from the City of Light and many of those returning home seem more than a little over-wrought.

President Barack Obama sounded very bullish, declaring: "We came together around the strong agreement the world needed. We met the moment."

Well, sort of.

Yes, the national conferees at last agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions. They set an ambitious target of 2 degrees Celsius, the level needed to avert many disastrous climate changes, with 1.5 degrees Celsius cited as preferable, the better to save some otherwise drowning small island nations.

But those are targets, not requirements. And the national action plans brandished by all but a few of the 195 nations voting for the Paris accord add up, in the first round of estimates, to fall very short of the target. Indeed, temperatures would rise between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees Celsius under the actual national plans, between five and more than six degrees Fahrenheit. That result would be absolutely disastrous.

President Barack Obama hailed the Paris summit accord as grandly historic. But former NASA scientist James Hansen, a founding father of climate change awareness, declared the summit "a fraud," an event of "no action, just promises."

So the agreement, at the insistence of the Obama administration, includes a schedule of regular reviews, every five years, of national action plans, essentially pushing the nations to resubmit new and better plans based upon technological advances and increased political will.

And the Paris accord does not call for an actual phase-out of widespread fossil fuel use.

Instead of "greenhouse gas emissions neutrality" in the draft, which some interpreted to mean an end to emissions, the phrase "global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible" was substituted. This change was made, not surprisingly, at the urgent insistence of Saudi Arabia and some other members of OPEC. The Saudi line is to keep burning oil and make up for it with carbon sinks such as new forest growth and techno-fixes down the line. Meanwhile, they are going to keep on pumping and selling.

This means that the ultimate fight with the fossil fuel crowd has been deferred.

And while the shift to renewable energy is implicit in the agreement, little is spelled out. Worse, there isn't much in the way of new funding provided to assist newly developing nations and regions. There is a very under financed current fund established as part of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit debacle. And Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has just created a Californian-heavy new multi-billion renewables R&D fund. But the overall, again, is lacking if not absent.

So once the cheering, perhaps as much a matter of relief for at last having the beginnings of a real agreement as anything else, dies down, a process of years-long pressuring, prodding, chivvying, and inspiring will take place. Or, perhaps better put, it had damn well better take place if this planet is going to remain habitable for humanity.

Governor Jerry Brown left Paris and returned to California two days before the close of the summit. Now the key subnational climate leader in the world, the governor of California, who presides over the seventh or eighth (depending on estimates) largest economy in the world, did not have a seat at the table of national representatives once again seeking a long elusive agreement between national governments. It was left to Brown's longstanding casual friend Secretary of State John Kerry at the high end, and Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern at the nitty-gritty end, to negotiate on behalf of the entire United States.

In any event, it's not really like Jerry Brown to spend much time looking on from the sidelines, Besides, he'd already said his piece, and then some.

Arriving later than scheduled due to the jihadist terror attack on San Bernardino, which is now deep into investigation of transnational linkages, Brown engaged in a whirlwind round of speeches, forums and negotiations for some five days.

"We are building a global force of cities, states and regions - to reduce carbon pollution and protect the well-being of people everywhere," declared Brown. "After Paris, the real work begins: To follow through on our commitments."

In addition to his trademark edgy witticisms, Brown and the California delegation of public officials and key business leaders, which included state Senate President Kevin de Leon and new Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, he headed scored some major coups.

Brown and California will host next year's Clean Energy Ministerial in the governor's hometown of San Francisco on June 1st and 2nd. The two dozen governments participating in this efforthttp://www.cleanenergyministerial.org to develop renewable energy oversee economies generating 75 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and include most of the major world powers, including China, Russia, and the other leading nations of Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world.

Governor Jerry Brown appeared at a Paris climate summit forum with San Francisco hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, America's leading big money campaigner for aggressive climate policies. Brown, in trademark quipping mode about the forcing function of governmental regulation on innovation, said: "You need the coercive power of government to say: 'Do this!'"

The gathering will give Brown the opportunity to work with the energy ministers of these world powers to promote California's leading edge present-day solutions and lay out a vision of what may lie ahead in the future, drawing on the expertise of neighboring Silicon Valley and the state's leading universities and research laboratories.

Brown began spearheading the push for renewable energy back in the 1970s during his first go-round as governor, using innovative policies within the California Energy Commission and Public Utilities Commission and innovative agencies such as SolarCal, the Office of Appropriate Technology and the Governor's Office of Planning & Research. OPR is today headed by Ken Alex, a key Brown advisor who was assistant attorney general for the environment while Brown was California attorney general. OPR just served as the lead contact agency for the new global "Under 2 MOU" movement, about which more in a moment.

During Brown 1.0, California became the world leader in wind energy, a position it lost under 16 years of subsequent conservative Republican rule, and the national leader on energy conservation, solar and other forms of renewable energy. After the long hiatus of conservative Republican governorships, Brown's former chief of staff Governor Gray Davis put California back on track to the future with a major renewable energy requirement and the first major legislation in the U.S. cutting greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

Then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger followed Davis's aggressive moves with even bigger and more aggressive moves, further ramping up California's leading edge polices on renewables and energy efficiency and enacting the most advanced comprehensive climate program in North America. All of which Brown, in his return to the governorship, proceeded to accelerate even further.

The Under 2 MOU (Under 2 degrees Celsius warming Memorandum of Understanding) movement http://under2mou.org , conceived and spearheaded by Brown earlier this year in partnership with the German state of Baden-Württemberg , moves past the traditional logjam among nations by recruiting subnational governments to agree to take necessary steps to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists say is needed to avoid dangerous climate change. The shared goal is to limit greenhouse gas emissions in each jurisdiction to 2 tons per capita, or 80 to 95 percent below 1990 emission levels by 2050.

During his whirlwind five days in Paris -- in between speeches at international forums and leading French graduate schools and meetings with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, top Chinese officials (who praised Brown for his administration's leading role in hosting 40 Chinese delegations in visits to California, helping them develop new greener policies), and other international leaders -- Brown nearly doubled the number of jurisdictions participating in the Under 2 MOU movement.

The 58 new signatories bring the current total to 123 jurisdictions representing nearly three quarters of a billion people and more than a quarter of the world's economic output. Brown announced that the Climate Group, a well-known international non-profit promoting clean energy and climate change policy headquartered in London, will serve as the Under 2 MOU secretariat going forward.

Speaking of going forward, there is clearly an extraordinary amount to do. The big global agreement is basically a statement of a goal, with a schedule built in to revisit progress toward the goal every five years. It guarantees precisely nothing in terms of results.

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in an extensive Paris schedule, denounced climate change denialism.

So the role of California, as exemplar and as an actively prodding catalytic entity ongoing into the future, becomes even more important. There's plenty of work for Brown and company to do, in California in both implementing and further improving the state's pioneering plans, on the world stage as Brown has been doing, and on the national stage, where there is no shortage of entrenched politicians in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere whose efforts must be effectively countered at every turn to ensure that American national policy, now moving haltingly in the right direction, does not slide back into full-fledged fossil fuel capture.

Brown, as discussed before, has been in on this for a long time. He was at the first ever Earth Summit, in Rio back in 1992, where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, through which the global climate summit process continues, was first established.

At that 1992 Earth Summit, which he attended as California's former governor and that year's runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, Brown spent a week talking up follow-ups to his early pioneering policies on renewable energy and energy conservation, urging consideration of indigenous peoples in any climate agreements and criticizing the administration of President George Bush I for "a major proposal to undermine the protection of old-growth forests that are very essential for global warming purposes."

He pushed also for the establishment of a "Global Conservation Corps" -- along the lines of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and his own California Conservation Corps -- of youth from around the world to repair and protect the environment.

That sort of mobilization could be very useful today.

In the meantime, Brown likely has another big year ahead in California, where he may well roll out some new policies as the international Clean Energy Ministerial summit in San Francisco approaches. Whatever he does, he has one less opponent in the Golden State.

Assemblyman Henry Perea, the leader of "moderate" Assembly Democrats who, aided by a multi-million dollar oil industry scare campaign which falsely claimed that the right to drive would be curtailed, blocked, for now, Brown's bid to cut oil use in California in half by 2030, won't be around any more. Well, actually, the recipient of very big money from the oil industry will be around, just in an even more clarifying role. Perea is resigning from the state legislature a year before his term ends to become, wait for it ... a corporate lobbyist. The veils part.

Let there be light.

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