Global Climate Action Summit: Did Jerry Brown Seize the Opportunity?

by Mary Sweeters

September 26, 2018

All eyes were on California Governor Jerry Brown week before last as he convened the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. It was the perfect opportunity for Brown and other elected officials to demonstrate real, bold, climate leadership. Unfortunately, he missed his golden moment.

Activists participate in the Rise for Climate, Jobs & Justice march as part of a global day of action to demand our elected leaders commit to no new fossil fuels and a just and fair transition to 100% renewable energy.

© Michael Short / Greenpeace

Just a few days before the summit, some thirty thousand people marched in the streets of San Francisco, demanding an end to fossil fuels and a just transition to a clean energy economy. Early on the morning of the first day of the summit, several hundred showed up to demonstrate outside, including some who took direct action to obstruct the entrance and force delegates to pay attention to the demands of those most affected by climate change and by the fossil fuel industry.

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks at a National Press Club media event.

This was a moment we thought Governor Brown might see as we did: an opportunity for him to set a global precedent and signal the beginning of the end for fossil fuel extraction in California. Many consider Governor Brown a climate leader. In his speeches, he urges his peers to take courageous and bold action on climate change.  But his administration has issued permits for more than 20,000 new oil and gas wells, and he has mostly ignored calls from his constituents to protect them from the toxic effects of the fossil fuel industry.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace joined over 800 organizations in a campaign called Brown’s Last Chance, calling on Governor Brown to:

  1. Halt the development of all new dirty fuel infrastructure in California, and
  2. Create a plan to phase out all fossil fuels as quickly as possible and provide support and opportunities for those who will be impacted by this transition.

Many organizations and communities have been calling on Governor Brown to do this for years, including those in the Bay Area; the Central Valley; and Los Angeles, where hundreds of thousands of people live close to active oil and gas infrastructure. Greenpeace was proud to join their efforts this year and in the months leading up to the summit, we worked alongside and in solidarity with these groups.

The campaign launched in April with a petition to Governor Brown; Greenpeace flew our airship over the San Francisco Bay to put Governor Brown on notice.

The Greenpeace Thermal Airship A.E. Bates takes to the skies over San Francisco with a message for Governor Jerry Brown. The flight message was urging him to use the California Climate Summit to make a meaningful commitment to phase out fossil fuel development.

In July, activists held a mock award ceremony outside a solar conference where Governor Brown received an award for his work to advance solar energy in California. Activists pointed out that while he’s done good work to promote renewable energy, his administration continues to allow oil and gas drilling— you don’t get to do that and then receive an environmental award unchallenged.

©Mary Sweeters/Greenpeace

In August, days after a group of youth climate activists were arrested for peacefully demonstrating at the governor’s office, a team of dedicated Greenpeace activists installed a temporary oilfield on the Capitol lawn in Sacramento to highlight the dangers of drilling and fracking and to call Governor Brown’s climate legacy into question. At the same time, over 600 supporters called the governor’s office to make sure our message was heard loud and clear. A week later members from frontline communities also demonstrated and risked arrest as part of the effort to keep up the pressure on the governor.

Policymakers in Sacramento, including Governor Jerry Brown, gained first-hand experience of the consequences of oil and gas development and extraction when Greenpeace activists erected a mock oil field in front of the Capitol building.

Weeks later, just days before the Global Climate Action Summit convened, 30,000 people marched in the streets of San Francisco, joined by thousands more in other cities, calling for real climate leadership from our elected officials – which must include stopping fossil fuel extraction. As the summit started, the movement sent a loud, clear message: Governor Jerry Brown, your reputation as a climate leader will not hold up, not even at the global summit you’re hosting, against your record of allowing the oil and gas industry to continue poisoning communities and contributing to climate change.

Did anything good happen?

As thousands of people marched in the streets on September 8, Governor Brown did take two important steps:

First, after some political bluffing, he signed into the law a renewable portfolio standard of 100% by 2045, meaning that California is now mandated to source all of its electricity from clean renewable energy by then. This is a hugely important milestone; California is the second state to do this after Hawai’i but as the world’s fifth largest economy, this is significant, both for reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and for the symbolism of moving to a clean energy grid.

Second, on the same day, he issued an Executive Order for California to go carbon-neutral by 2045. Vox’s Dave Roberts explains what this means:

“SB 100… commits the state to clean electricity by 2045, but electricity only accounts for about 16 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions. Brown’s executive order would commit the state to doing something about the other 84 percent — transportation, building heating and cooling, industry, all the many and varied energy services that rely on direct fossil fuel combustion rather than electricity.”

It’s very important to note that an Executive Order is not a new law; it’s not binding, but rather is symbolically important. As with any efforts to address climate change, it will be critical for state leaders to consult with and include affected communities in implementing solutions to see this carbon neutrality goal into fruition.

©Mary Sweeters/Greenpeace

So, while he did move toward some milestones on the path to addressing climate change, Governor Brown completely missed the opportunity he was presented at the Global Climate Action Summit to protect the public health of millions of Californians while tackling a critical part of the climate equation: stopping new fossil fuel extraction and committing to phase California out of existing oil and gas production.

But he’s not out of office until January 7, 2019.

We’re still waiting, Governor Brown. This is your last chance.

Mary Sweeters

By Mary Sweeters

Mary Sweeters is a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace USA. She works to fight the undue influence of the oil industry in solidarity with communities affected by oil extraction, pollution, and climate change, and to advocate for a just transition to a clean energy economy. She is from Sonoma, California.

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