05/21/2014 12:03 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

California is the Epicenter of Climate Change -- And at the Forefront of the Response


Gov. Jerry Brown's comments are adapted from a speech on Monday May 19, 2014 at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics.

California is right at the epicenter of climate change. Maps shaded in red to show some of the greatest relative change in climate from past patterns are most pronounced in the entire American Southwest.

Especially in California, the average temperature is rising. The soil is drier. It is easier for forest fires to erupt and spread, as we have been seeing in our state in recent days. As a matter of fact, we have had twice the forest fires in California this year than we have normally.

Our fire season is 70 days longer than it has been historically, and that means we need fire crews on all the time. That also means there are greater costs, greater danger and greater impact not only in urban areas, but across our grasslands and agricultural areas. But we adapt. We have to adapt because the climate is changing.

There is no doubt now about the evidence that climate change is taking place. It has been strong for quite a while and it is getting even stronger.

We have now learned that the West Antarctic glacier and ice shelf is melting -- something that is irreversible. That will mean an inevitable increase in the sea level that will impact everything from coastal habitation to water quality to agricultural production.

So, we've got to get to work both to reduce climate change and adapt to it through changing our infrastructure, changing our water use patterns, crop practices and much else. This is going to be a long-term challenge.


In California, of course, we have AB 32, which puts the goal of green house gas emissions reduction to 1990 levels by 2020 into law. It is the most far-reaching measure to deal with climate change anywhere in the United States.

And not only do we have that, but we're implementing it in a very imaginative way. I was able to sign the law that requires that a third of electricity generation come from renewable sources in California. We are well on our way to that goal, already at 23 percent.

We have over 70,000 electric vehicles now in the state. We have the toughest building standards. And we're tying all this together with an integrated plan to reduce carbon emissions.

The carbon emissions in California are close to 450 million tons a year and we're going to reduce that to 425 million by 2020. We're already planning to go beyond that because by the time we get to 2050, we will have to reduce to something in the neighborhood of 75 million tons, and there's no known technology on how to get there today.

There are many factors involved in climate change, whether it's deforestation in Brazil or Mexico or whether it's the transportation sector in America. In California, 40 percent of emissions come from transportation.

Last year, 32 million vehicles in California went 332.2 billion miles and were on track to add another 25 billion miles by the year 2020. That's a huge challenge -- a huge demand for gasoline and oil products -- unless we can reduce the vehicle miles travelled and substitute renewable energy in the place of fossil fuels.

Nonetheless, California is committed to moving down that path of aligning our economy and our way of life in California with the demands of nature as we now understand them scientifically.

As a civilization, we are facing a great transition. We can't do this overnight. When we are presently propelling that many vehicles traveling that many billions of miles it is going to take a great deal of political will [and] public support to effect change. We can't do it alone in California, and we can't do it alone in the United States.

That is why California is not acting alone. We've already signed agreements with Washington and Oregon, British Columbia, [and] with China. I'm leading a delegation to Mexico in July to seek the same kinds of agreements to work on collaborative efforts to reduce the generation of heat-trapping gases.

It's a many-sided challenge. There is no one thing you can do. And, it's the kind of diffuse challenge that often doesn't capture the same imagination as momentary events.

If something is discrete and it happens -- like a forest fire or fierce tornado -- it's easy to grasp and we can react to it, but when we have the build-up of these heat-trapping gases globally and then people say, "what do we do?"

And this is the kind of challenge where it's not just California -- we're one percent of the problem. We have to get other states and other nations on a similar path forward, and that is enormously difficult because it requires different jurisdictions and different political values to unite around this one challenge of making a sustainable future out of our currently unsustainable path.

We are making progress. I was just briefed by the scientists involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Several scientists pointed out how much progress has in fact been made in the Amazon rainforest in reducing greenhouse gases -- the equivalent of ten times what AB 32 would yield in California. That is certainly a positive factor that another place in the world is taking very bold steps.

Unfortunately, those bold steps can be eroded by practices that are building up, by pressures, whether it be in the consumption of meat or the consumption of soy beans. All this leads to reducing the rainforest, generating more greenhouse gases and, before you know it, all the bold efforts can be cancelled out.

Further, the climate challenge must compete with attention and resources with other challenges. In Sacramento, we have plenty of challenges -- whether it be on the amount of spending, the kind of spending or the different regulations that people are concerned about.

This is really a complex set of pressures that are not easy to talk about in a sound bite, a bumper sticker, or a one-liner. But nevertheless, the people as a whole -- and I say the people, the people all over the world, but California [is] in many ways leading the way -- have to be able to support a series of moves over a long period of time.

So, this is a path that must be pursued today, the next decade, the next hundred years. And it's something that is yet to fully capture the public imagination. There's still great denial.

Recently, I made a comment that virtually all the Republicans in Congress are deniers of climate change, and then I also said that climate change is clearly manifest in the fact that we've just had the three driest years we've had historically in California, and that that contributes to forest fires.

Then somebody said, "Well Brown says the Republicans caused the forest fires." That is just the kind of defective logic that gets in the way of serious effort to combat what is a real existential threat to all of our individual and collective well-being.

Climate change is a new kind of challenge. It's not "us" against "them." It's us in the environment taking account of the complex demands that being a part of something called the ecosystem is.

We've got a lot of work to do, but California is in the forefront. It's going to stay in the forefront.

We have lots to do in many different areas of policy so that we can live with nature -- not collide with it but to get on nature's side. Because these are the rules that we have to live by.