DR: Over the past few years, the environmental movement has been in a period of self-flagellation about its ineffectiveness on the biggest issue of our time: climate change. You’ve been on both sides of the NGO/government divide. Do you have any words of wisdom on what environmental groups are doing wrong, or could do better?
TT: The chamber of commerce, the oil companies, the big interests, are very well organized. They speak with one voice. When they come in there’s rarely any dissension. (Interestingly, climate change is the one place where that wasn’t true. That’s a separate discussion.) On most issues, they just come in lockstep and that’s it.
Environmental groups are too honest. They’re nuanced. They each come in and say, here’s the best way to do it — NRDC, for example, saying it’s all about hybrids. Forget about hydrogen, battery electric, biofuels. That’s all bogus. Let’s just focus on getting 50 miles to the gallon out of the gasoline we have today. And then you have other organizations, Blue Water Network, Sierra Club, saying, "No, no, that’s bullshit because that will keeps us dependent on oil."
So environmental groups are often not on the same page about things, and that allows their opponents to fracture and marginalize them. It makes it harder for policy leaders to say, OK, the enviros want this. Therefore let’s try to move in that direction, or at least balance in the middle. They don’t know where the middle is.
But on the climate change issue in particular, the mistake most environmental groups are making is going to Washington and looking for the national solution first. In the United States, we’re so big — the energy mix, the way we use energy and emit greenhouse gases, is so different from one part of the country to another — to come up with a national solution right out of the box is going to be very hard and very complex.
If you let some of these state and regional solutions percolate up and get some success, you can build on them and allow for some flexibility and adaptation. California’s the sixth or seventh largest economy on the planet. We’re a pretty good living laboratory. The RGGI states combined are the fifth or sixth largest economy on the planet. It gives you a real chance to study these things at scale before you try to take them nationwide.
The work I’m doing right now is to try to Johnny Appleseed California’s climate experience, planning process, and technical knowledge to other states, and within the next year or two build a de facto national climate plan by getting enough states and cities to do what we did.
DR: At least in wonky circles, there’s a rough consensus behind something that’s market neutral, like a carbon tax. California hasn’t done that. Are you trying to export California’s model because you think it’s the best way to go about it, or just because it’s there, available to copy?
TT: A carbon tax is a good idea, but what do you do with the money? How do you use the money to actually solve the problem? A tax doesn’t solve the problem. It may moderate consumption to some degree, depending on how big the tax is, but we still get to the question of, OK, we’ve got a little money, so what’s the plan?
It’s not one size fits all. Things can be very different in other states and other regions. But it’s the process: starting out understanding what your state has got to do to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. We didn’t just pick our targets out of the air. We went to academics and said: based on our size and our emissions profile, if we are to be a fair partner with the rest of the world, what would we have to do to be part of a collective that would essentially stop global warming at not more than 500 parts per million [atmospheric] CO2 — the climate stabilization goal of two degrees centigrade warming? Scientists and most policy experts say if we can top out there, work backwards from there, maybe we can avoid some of the worst problems.
The scientists came back and said, in order for California to contribute to that, given its fair share and its profile, you need an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050, and you need interim benchmarks. Those became our targets. It was a needs assessment, and not just, "what can we do politically?" So we’re recommending that other states do that.
The second thing we did is say, let’s understand what our inventory is. We had pretty good knowledge of emissions from the utilities sector, but it was poor in terms of the agriculture sector, the cement sector, etc. We had to sharpen our inventory to actually start imposing things and knowing if they work. We’re encouraging other states to use some of the technical assets out there in the non-profit and academic world to help them do robust inventories.
The next thing to do is plans. If you’ve got targets and you know who the emitters are, you can create a plan for how to get those emitters to reduce over a period of time. Again, some of the tools are going to be the same from one state to another. For example, 11 states have adopted the Pavley law for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars. That’s a huge sector in any state. What about a national Pavley law? It would be a simple thing, and it would have multiple benefits. Another thing is renewable portfolio standards. California’s got a progressive one; a lot of other states have them. We could do it at a national level.
You take the menu of ways of getting your reductions and put it on the table with the best science, and the best experience from other places, and say OK, let’s make a plan.
It’s those various steps we’re trying to help other states work through: Let us demystify this for you. Let us bring in the technical expertise. We can show you how it worked or didn’t for us. We can give you sample executive orders, sample legislation. It’s a Chinese menu.