Energy & Environment

Govs. Brown and Cuomo are false climate prophets

On the eve of this week's Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, political leaders from across the country are putting the finishing touches on proposals that will seek to elevate themselves to the status of "climate champion."

With the complete abdication of duty on climate and the environment at the White House and a failure to move any positive climate legislation in Congress, the position of national climate champion is seemingly up for grabs. Two Democratic governors from opposite sides of the country are staking claim to the title, but both are falling far short of what it takes to earn such a distinction.

This week's Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco is being billed as California Gov. Jerry Brown's culminating moment to celebrate climate action. At the summit, he will take the stage to spotlight a political lifetime of self-described climate leadership, and likely unveil a new law or global initiative intended to solidify his standing at the pinnacle of the American climate movement. Currently sitting on Brown's desk is a bill that would encourage California to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is telling anyone who will listen that he is America's climate leader. "Since taking office in 2011, Governor Cuomo has led the nation in combating climate change," his spokesperson told a newspaper last month. In fairness, he banned fracking in New York back in 2014, a move that was motivated by immense political pressure but nonetheless lifted Cuomo among the ranks of national environmental elite at the time.

Flash forward to the present, and both men have much at stake in this climate title fight. For Brown, it's about legacy - a place in the history books as the man who told us about wind and solar way back when, a man who capped off decades of advocacy with a legislative marker for the rest of the nation to strive for. For Cuomo, it's about a possible future presidential run - a strong progressive credential that might set him apart from others in a Democratic Party landscape that is increasingly swinging left, thanks to an agitated activist base. 

But Brown and Cuomo are false climate prophets, and if we choose to follow either of them, we're destined to fail. Neither man is moving with anything near the aggressiveness and fortitude our crisis requires. The latest science indicates that in order stave off the worst effects of deepening climate chaos, we must move the country to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2035, and most of that transition must occur in the next 10 years.

Brown will likely sign the 100 by '45 bill, championed by State Sen. Kevin De Leon, in the coming weeks. But signing the bill won't make up for his many shortcomings. Brown has done nothing to reign in the fossil fuel industry in California. He refuses to ban fracking - in fact, extreme oil extraction has expanded greatly in the state under his watch, even offshore.

He refuses to shut down leaking, calamitous infrastructure like the notorious Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in Los Angeles. And he espouses market-based pollution trading schemes like cap-and-trade, which allow carbon emitters to maintain the status-quo while shifting localized environmental burdens to the poorest, most vulnerable communities in the state.

This is not climate leadership.

As for Cuomo, he's currently calling for 50 percent renewable energy in New York by 2030 - a far cry from ambitious climate policy. And since banning fracking nearly four years ago, he has made virtually zero progress on ramping up New York's fledgling wind and solar energy-generating capacity. Furthermore, Cuomo, like Brown, is looking to expand his state's participation in a cap-and-trade system, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which actually incentivizes increased reliance on fracked natural gas.

So we must look elsewhere for true climate leadership in America. Thankfully, there are some promising Democratic leads. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's Off Fossil Fuels (OFF) Act would mandate a complete national transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2035, while ignoring the market-based emissions trading schemes that will get us nowhere. Presumptive New York Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's talk of a "Green New Deal" hews closely to the OFF Act, and is an important part of the progressive platform she wielded in taking down the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House in her recent primary upset. These women and others are the ones leading the way on climate policy - not Brown and not Cuomo. 

Ultimately, what matters more than who emerges as our national climate leader is when such a leader will emerge. We are running out of time. We need real climate leadership now.

Wenonah Hauter is executive director of the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch, and author of "Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment." 

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