Greening the Golden State
California's image as a climate leader is under threat
Last year I attended two forums on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco. Both addressed climate change and the energy transition, one under a fairly broad framing, the other ostensibly focused on green energy in the context of the US-China relationship.
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What struck me most about both events was how large California loomed in the proceedings. Rob Bonta, the state’s attorney general, bragged about the state’s status as a leader in the fight about climate change. David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission, rattled off a laundry list of California’s clean-energy achievements, from the world’s largest battery storage project to its astronomical aims for offshore wind.
The state’s reputation has taken a bashing in national media in recent years, so it’s not entirely surprising that people whose entire career hinges on its success or failure would engage in a bit of defensive bragging. But it’s hard to imagine another similarly global summit reserving its keynote slots for such local cheerleaders.
To be fair, when it comes to fighting climate change, there is plenty to cheer about in California. The state has stringent climate targets, impressive build-out of clean energy (especially solar), a relatively climate-conscious population, and loads of money and ingenuity being tossed at the problem. Our governor is a bonafide climate diplomat in his own right—he even recently signed the first state-level bill requiring large companies to measure and disclose their greenhouse emissions, including slippery scope-three emissions. In the media, the state regularly takes a starring role in step-back pieces about climate leadership, appearing alongside other policy vanguards like the EU.
But dig a bit deeper, and a narrative is emerging that paints a starkly different picture. A recent onslaught of stories has chronicled the decline of the state’s solar industry since regulators sharply reduced feed-in tariffs for rooftop solar last year. Canary Media’s detailed rundown of the consequences is worth a read (although it is jarring that the same outlet published another piece by the same author, one day earlier, which talks about artificial intelligence accelerating solar deployment in California and seems to exist in a separate universe from the doom-and-gloom story).
As a native Californian, I want to believe that my home state won’t drop the ball on one of its biggest points of pride. Greening the Golden State is not only important for the planet—and the state’s climate, which has grown increasingly extreme—it’s a glowing halo around the state’s image. Energy wonks debate whether the feed-in tariff tweak was a necessary swerve off an unsustainable track or a big giveaway to the state’s big utilities; I’m personally on the fence, but there’s no doubt it’s been covered as a devastating own-goal for California’s decarbonization ambitions.
Meanwhile, other states are capturing a bigger national spotlight as climate champions in their own right. Although no one would blink twice seeing leftie Vermont and Washington top a list of the country’s greenest states, conservative places like Texas, South Dakota, Idaho and Iowa are also leading the renewables pack. Credit those vast, wind-swept plains, I suppose. Some red states have also developed a reputation as friendlier to large energy installations—via quicker permitting and less opportunity for local opposition to throw a wrench in the gears—than blue ones. This presumably applies to clean and dirty power alike.
All these trends bode poorly for California. While I have little doubt that the state’s policymakers care about climate change, that its top dream-weavers will continue to tout its climate credentials—and its many innovators will keep pushing genuine solutions—the headwinds are fierce. It slightly boggles the mind that Chevron, one of the world’s largest oil companies, is headquartered in the Bay Area. Even the governor’s pathbreaking emissions-disclosure rule may get delayed amid a deep deficit. Amid this absolute muddle, I can’t help but recall the immortal words of Walt Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)