California’s climate responsibility

California must do more to safeguard the environment, and become its “brother’s keeper”, writes Terry Tamminen. The aide to governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recommends a rapid transfer from fossil fuels to clean, renewable, locally produced energy.

Let me frame my thoughts in the form of a question: does California have a responsibility to the world to reduce greenhouse gases? Or, to put it another way, am I my brother’s keeper?

We would all agree that if we saw a child about to be struck by a bus, we would quickly remove the child from harm. But we allow diesel exhaust from that same bus – which raises infant mortality rates in California 40% and threatens the health of a child while it is still in its mother’s womb.

We would all agree that eating mercury in fish is not healthy for children or adults, yet our regulatory system in the United States permits coal fired power plants — and chlorine manufacturing plants, as the latest reports show — to pump tons of mercury into the air each day.

We would all agree that climate change will cause sea levels to rise and that we must replace fossil fuels with clean renewable energy. So why are the residents of Cape Cod [Massachusetts] opposing windmills offshore, claiming that it will harm their views? Don’t they understand that sea-level rise will wash away the homes with the multi-million-dollar views that these people are trying to protect?

These are but a few of the inconsistencies that state and national policy makers face in the United States when addressing complex environmental issues like global warming. But in California, many say, “We’ve done our part — must we also be our brother’s keeper?”

It’s true, that in the early 1970s, California faced a one-two punch of doubled oil prices and soaring electricity demand, with new coal and nuclear power plants projected every eight miles along the coast from San Diego to San Francisco. The plants never got built because of energy-efficiency breakthroughs in buildings and appliances. The state’s economy kept growing even though Californians on average consume 40% less energy than other U.S. citizens. In fact, in the past three decades, per capita national energy consumption rose 50% and in California it has remained level. Being so energy efficient means we also generate less volume of greenhouse gases than other states and nations.
So do we need to do more? We’ve made progress on things like energy efficiency and reducing air pollution, so how much more is there to do? Consider that 99% of our airis oxygen and nitrogen, which can be metabolized in the body, 1% is inert argon gas, which is not modified, but simply inhaled and exhaled. Because of the finite supply of argon, we share it with every other living thing on earth. Harvard researchers calculate that by age 20, we have inhaled argon atoms that were exhaled by dinosaurs, Confucius, Gandhi, Shakespeare and a Jewish carpenter from Bethlehem.

So what do we do with this arguably sacred resource? One-hundred percent of the airwe breathe is contaminated by man-made pollutants. We foul it with toxic stews bearing ominous acronyms like PAHs, PM2.5, BTEX compounds, and GHGs — which kill up to 100,000 people in the United States each year and cause more than six million asthma attacks, many in our most vulnerable populations: our elders and our children. And all of us suffer the impacts of climate change — directly related to air pollution: disease, lost snowpack, coastal and levee erosion.

These metrics suggest that for our own survival in California  — both economically and environmentally — there is much more to do; that indeed we must be our brother’s keeper, for our fellow Californians — of this generation and the next — and for our fellow citizens of the world. But how?

I propose to you that we can protect our public and environmental health — and stem the tide of global warming — by making a rapid transfer from fossil fuels to clean, renewable, locally produced energy sources. Like the Apollo moon program, we need a sense of urgency and purpose, but we can do it.

But is it possible to run a 21st century economy, to compete in the global marketplace, on these sources of energy alone?

Consider that more sunlight falls on the earth every hour than is needed to power all of humanity’s needs for a year.

Consider that there’s enough H2 [hydrogen gas] in the water discharged by sewage treatment plants in Los Angeles to power the entire US transportation fleet.

Add to these the potential of biomass, geothermal, tidal power, wind and other renewables and it’s clear that there are enough clean renewable resources available, if only we deploy the technology to use them. And energy efficiency improvements make it likely that equation will remain true well into the future, even though population and energy demand increases every year.

Just 10 years ago, for example, a 2kw solar panel fueled about 50% of a typical family home. Today it fuels 80%. Water use in Los Angeles County has not grown in fifteen years, although the population has grown 15% in that period, thanks to low-flow fixtures and conservation technology.

So efficiency works and we can get much more out of the existing technology we have already fully developed and deployed. For example, Solar Integrated could use one-third of its roofs for H2 production to fuel fleets. Sun and wind can be stored by using it to create H2 and using the H2 later to power fleets or fuel cells for electricity.

Indeed the barriers to energy sustainability and, in turn, solving global warming, do not lie in our technology or supply of raw materials, like water and sunlight. The barriers to a more sustainable present — and future — are the barriers in our minds. The first 100 years of the industrial revolution were fueled by fossil fuels and nuclear power; to power the next 100 years, we must change our “one size fits all” thinking and evolve to a variety of sources and technologies.

Those abundant, numerous renewables I mentioned will supply us with electrical power. And for transportation, there is a mixture of battery and electrical power, hydrogen, natural gas, bio-fuels with integrated intermodal mass transit. But we need a more enlightened public policy that incentivises and supports investments in these technologies.

In California, the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is showing the way:

•   The governor’s SGP (air as infrastructure; water self-sufficiency)

•  The acceleration of the RPS

•  The governor’s Million Solar Roofs Plan

•  The governor’s H2 HWY

All of these policies add up to the public will to deploythese solutions. But this only happens when we change not just our technology or fuel sources, but our attitudes and outdated ways of approaching these challenges — and when we accept responsibility for each other, when we become our brother’s keeper.

In Jewish tradition, the scribe who writes the Torah, the “instructions” for life, uses erasable ink, so the parchment could be washed clean and a new generation of scribes could write the Torah, assuring the passage of the learning through the ages, but also writing in terms of contemporary values. Learning in old age is said to be writing on washed paper. We can learn from this. We should be prepared to wash the old words from our minds to prepare to learn, to have an open mind.

Those of us who are alive today will invent the future, but who will be first to say, “I will embrace change in my own life and be my brother’s keeper?” Who will be the first to say, “I can do with a little less that our children might have a little more”? Who will be first to say, “My success will not only be measured by the number on the bottom of the balance sheet, but by the balance of clean air, water and land that we bequeath to our children”? Who will be the first to teach their children to embrace the call to action that rang out across this land four decades ago:  “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

If this is the day we allaccept that challenge; if this is the day we act upon that challenge; if this is the day we teach our children to live by that same selfless perspective and accept that challenge, then this will be the day we become our brother’s keeper; and will be the day we bequeath to our children not just a healthy planet upon which to build their own lives, but a value system to make it last, and that is indeed the most precious legacy of them all.


Terry Tamminen is special assistant to the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the environment. He delivered this address to the US-China Climate Forum at the University of California, Berkeley, on May 24, 2006.