What Jerry Brown's Big Cap & Trade Win Means On Climate and the GOP

07/20/2017 02:31 pm ET
Associated Press, Rich Pedroncelli
Governor Jerry Brown testified last Friday before the California Senate on his climate change legislation. “I'm not here about some cockamamie legacy that people talk about,” declared the four-term governor. “This isn't for me. I'm going to be dead. It's for you. It's for you and it's damn real.”

Governor Jerry Brown, now a world leader on climate change as discussed a month ago, scored a needed big win Monday night. Actually drawing votes from eight Republican legislators, he secured the extension of California's greenhouse gas cap and trade market. 

A breakthrough in the Republican logjam on climate change? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that the votes emerged. No, in that the Republican legislative leader who helped produce them was immediately smeared with a sex scandal by a far right blogger aligned with white supremacists! Talk about disincentives (and the goofball lineup of today’s Republican Party). More on that in a few moments.

One of the lynchpins of California's pioneering climate program, cap & trade adds an element of market flexibility to the strict regulatory scheme. Even as the cap on greenhouse gas emissions lowers every year, factories, refineries, and power plants are allowed to purchase some carbon offsets (not unlike my TerraPass), to exceed their emission allocations.

This has created a large source of funding for undertakings to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the program has endured some turbulence of late, caused by right-wing and corporate efforts to invalidate the fee system by calling it a tax. The underlying legislation, the landmark AB 32 signed in September 2006 by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, passed on a majority vote rather than the two-thirds required for a tax increase.

There was also much talk, from opponents of the program and certain elements of the media, that the program would sunset in 2020.

So Brown decided to remove any uncertainty by puhing through an early extension of the cap & trade market, till 2030, on a two-thirds vote. His task was complicated by the absence of two members from the Democratic supermajority in the state Assembly, and a recurring problem with "moderate," frequently corporado, Democrats which caused a momentary setback to his climate and energy plans - Brown merely aims to "repower the economy" - back in 2015.

So in winning over some of the so-called mods, Brown had problems with some left-liberals, some of whom might well prefer a strict regime of across-the-board command-and-control regulation. Which meant Brown would also need some Republican votes.

Which, after some wheeling-and-dealing, Brown proceeded to get. A rather remarkable development, given the phalanx of Republican climate change denialism in Washington.

Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes even joined Brown and Democratic legislative leaders Kevin de Leon and Anthony Rendon for a bipartisan victory press conference, even though his minority caucus put up only seven votes. (Just one Republican state senator voted for the climate program.)

Just as Mayes made it clear he intended to participate in the fight against climate change, he was hit with charges that he had had an extramarital affair with his female predecessor as Assembly Republican leader, who is now a county supervisor and vice chair of the California Republican Party. What a coincidence in timing. Funny how that works.

New York Times, Stephen Crowley
Once there were some future-oriented Republicans in power. Senator John McCain ran for president as a champion on climate change and renewable energy. Arnold Schwarzenegger ramped up California’s already leading programs on climate and renewables and worked closely with the United Nations, hosting three Governors’ Global Climate Summits.

With Brown having emerged even before Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the global climate accords as the leading American elected official on climate change, as well as a world leader with his new role as United Nations special advisor for states and regions, leadership of the global Under2 Coalition, and convener of a global summit 14 months from now in San Francisco, winning the vote to keep all elements of the California program moving forward was very important.

Most environmentalists, especially at the national and world level, were very supportive, especially given the need to maintain Brown-spurred momentum against Trump and other reactionary forces. But some on the left, closer to home, opposed Brown's legislation, in part out of a desire for command-and-control regulation, in part opposing any compromise with business interests.

However, what was gained certainly outweighs what was given up: The elimination of a fire prevention fee on rural land owners, extension of a manufacturers sales tax break to 2030, elimination of sales tax on renewable energy gear for power companies, preemption of further greenhouse gas regulation by local air boards, a two-thirds vote on cap & trade revenue allocation in 2024.

Measured against those relative sops, in addition to the new level of surety for the state climate program, are new environmental justice programs for affected local communities.

Even if you don't accept that compromise keeps the economy working more smoothly, Brown had to cut deals to keep the climate program on the road. Just as, earlier this year, he had to cut deals to gain passage of his gas tax increase, badly needed to renovate the state's aging roads and highways.

That's governing.

It may not be as emotionally satisfying as articulating one's most heartfelt sentiments, as, say, Bernie Sanders, who I was pleased to support in the presidential primary, is so good at doing. But it is how idealism takes physical form in the world, translating noble emotion into lasting action.

Now, did Brown have to act before the program sunsets in 2020, and did he need a two-thirds vote to do it? That is a bit more complicated, at least at first blush.

As I told Brown early on, my read of the underlying AB 32 is that it actually has no sunset and that programs authorized by it can continue in perpetuity. And that cap & trade is not a tax, so it does not require a two-thirds vote.

I'm not a lawyer, but I am an old triple nine national merit scholar with a lot of experience reading and evaluating complex documents and situations here and elsewhere in the world. Back in 2006, when Schwarzenegger was besieged by many of his most prominent backers to not sign the omnibus AB 32 measure because there was no mention of cap & trade in it, I told him and others of his associates that the bill actually had tremendous flexibility allowing for the creation of a cap & trade market. And that no two-thirds vote was required since there was no tax involved, only a fee for avoiding command-and-control regulation. Both proved to be correct, with subsequent court cases upholding the non-tax position.

As for anything ending in 2020, all AB 32 says is that there should be consultation with the Air Resources Board, Governor, and Legislature on the program going forward. That's it. In fact, AB 32 specifically states that there is no sunset.

So, in my view, chances are that everything could continue as it has been.

But there is, of course, a significant difference between "chances are" and "locked down."

Brown opted as I knew he would to lock it down, which is the most responsible position.

Now there can be no question, no challenges affecting the performance of the cap & trade market, which has become a significant source of funding for greenhouse offset programs, including the high-speed rail project I have always supported.

Which means that Brown's perspective on this was superior to mine. As usual.

By now it must be obvious that Jerry Brown has a very good idea what he's doing.

I didn't write about the vote in advance. I expected Brown to pull it off, so it probably wouldn’t matter. And, unfortunately in the Trump era, there is more than enough to write about. But had the legislation gone down, I wouldn't have had to change my actual opinion on the issue and could argue strongly in favor of continuing the current course.

Happily, it didn't come to that. Because Jerry Brown, ably aided by his capable legislative partners, ever resourceful spouse/special counsel, and a crack staff, really does know what he is doing.

So, Brown, who surmounted his two biggest gubernatorial crises this time round by outfighting massively-spending billionaire Meg Whitman to win election in 2010 and by passing the Prop 30 revenue initiative in 2012, has clear sailing as he takes the climate change issue, perhaps the ultimate crosscut issue involving the various challenges of the future, forward in world politics.

Just as Trump fails spectacularly on health care and flails dramatically on Russia, Brown is in even stronger position to play a key leadership role in both the anti-Trump resistance on climate and the emerging world vanguard on positive issues for the future. 

But does his victory here herald a breakthrough in gaining new Republican support? Maybe, but only that.

Once, not all that long ago, there was a future-oriented tendency in the GOP.

Senator John McCain, whose at times maddening but always inspiring presence we will greatly miss on many fronts as he fights brain cancer, actually ran for president in 2008 as a champion on climate change and renewable energy.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, who encouraged Chad Mayes and has been fulsomely praised in return, signed California's overall program into effect less than 11 years ago, and ramped up the renewable energy standard previously enacted by then Governor Gray Davis, Brown’s former chief of staff.

Los Angeles Times, Gary Coronado
Jerry Brown with a rather tall California Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes and other Republican legislators who voted for Brown’s climate change legislation.

Brown, who originally pioneered all this stuff in the 1970s, built on Schwarzenegger's already large program during this go-round as governor.

But the Republicans veered hard right in the wake of McCain's two presidential campaigns, the first of which I'm proud to have been part of.

And rather than listen to Schwarzenegger's prescient 2007 warning about moving too far right to the right, the California GOP dove off the cliff into know-nothing extremism. In 2007, Republicans had 34 percent of California voter registration to a growing 18 percent for decline to state. Today Republicans are at 26 percent, with decline to state nearly 25 percent.

I was there when Arnold told the fall 2007 state Republican convention outside Palm Springs it was high time to avoid the iceberg. The delegates basically ignored him, though he had won a landslide reflection just 10 months before. Instead, they thrilled to the red meat right-wing rhetoric from the man who spoke next, dim bulb Texas Governor and future clueless Trump Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

I phoned Jerry Brown, then California's new attorney general, describing the dynamics, and told him that the Republicans would cannibalize themselves and moderate-proof their gubernatorial primary - which they did, with some prodding on illegal immigration - clearing his path to return to the governorship in 2010.

Now, with Assemblyman Mayes showing some rationality on the existential issue of climate change, he has been slimed on his private life by a far right blogger who condones "white separatism."

Thou shalt not deviate from anti-Enlightenment thinking.

Will Mayes and his heterodox, in the current troglodyte Republican thinking of the Trump era, legislative leadership survive? Not if party commissars, who I know all too well, have their way.

This will be perversely fascinating to observe.

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