California was once the epicenter of pollution — time to learn from its green transition

California was once the epicenter of pollution — time to learn from its green transition
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It’s been a big week for California Gov. Jerry Brown. He not only signed SB100, legislation that commits California to completely decarbonizing its electricity sector by 2045, he also issued an executive order committing the state agencies to producing rules of the road that will bring California’s entire economy to carbon neutrality by 2045.

It’s a powerful symbol and a bold goal for a state that represents the world’s fifth largest economy. By sheer size alone, California will bring a lot of the world along as they try to supply its markets with goods and services that fit this new reality. But setting this bold course is also, importantly, deeply pragmatic. It ensures California is positioned to lead a global transition that not only is necessary to avoid catastrophic damage to our social fabric from global warming, but opens up the possibility of a great step forward for humanity as we develop a cleaner, cheaper energy system that will massively increase prosperity across the globe.


If that sounds like a rosy vision, know that it’s one that is grounded in what Californians have seen so far in their transition.

California started as a case study in what ignoring the environmental consequences of your actions can bring. Rapid industrialization in the early part of the 20th century left Los Angeles with among the world’s worst pollution by end of WWII, and had some of the unhealthiest air in the world. Then, in 1969, the then-largest oil spill in American history (sadly, not the last) coated the prized beaches of southern California, and its sea life, with thick oil, that threatened not only a lucrative tourism industry but an identity and way of life. 

Revulsion at this possible future forged a bipartisan consensus that the scales had tipped too far in the direction of unfettered industrialization and a common understanding that there must be a better way largely gave birth to the modern environmental movement both in the state and nationally.

California voters were so fed up with pollution that they demanded their politicians fix it, even if it cost more (as all the incumbent players were saying), and despite all the warnings that it would be the end of their economy. But, a funny thing happened on the way to the economic apocalypse opponents predicted — American inventiveness and ingenuity came through again. 

It turns out that when the government gave a clear signal to the market that public benefits like clean air and water would be valued, clean technology companies sprang up to deliver. Not only were reports of California’s economic demise greatly exaggerated, but the state’s economy thrived, even as it kept energy demand growth low, and became a global leader in clean technology. Far from constraining economic growth, California found that generating environmental goods like clean air and water could be a lucrative industry to drive an economy as well as any extractive industry like mining for oil or coal.

It’s a fundamental lesson that a shocking substantial part of our political culture steadfastly refuses to learn. From rolling back the technology standards for car emissions to loosening power plant pollution standards, pulling back on renewable fuel requirements, or trying to force uneconomic coal plants to run in a misguided attempt to “bring back coal,” all this looking backward has blinded federal lawmakers to the incredible technological progress we’ve made. 

When did so many of our leaders lose faith in American industry’s ability to innovate? More importantly, why did they lose faith when the evidence from states like California, Massachusetts, and New York is so strong that if you set clear standards and goals, innovators will step up?

Race to the bottom economies in labor and environmental standards, whether in other countries or in southern states, tend not to be innovation leaders. The fact is, coal production has no place in the future of West Virginia’s or Kentucky’s economy. We already have far better (cleaner and cheaper) ways to produce electricity than burning coal to boil water and we’re well on our way to superseding its use in industrial heat. Pretending to believe in crackpot conspiracy theories and vilifying those who tell the truth won’t do anything to help people adjust to the new reality — it just makes the fall that much harder.

Nevada, with it’s long history of mining, is rapidly seeing its fortunes shift to the new economy, hosting one of the world’s largest battery plants supplying fast-growing EV manufacturer Tesla. So much so that continuing support for that growth has become a key promise, against the grain of his party, for embattled Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (R-Nev.) in this year’s election. Voters are increasingly ahead of politicians on seeing where we are headed.

While progressive states are finding the exits off this road to nowhere, Trump’s the guy in the passenger seat telling you to close your eyes and floor it as you speed towards the cliff — while he’s getting ready to jump out.

The facts are clear to see, for those who are willing to look. Pragmatic governors of both parties, who have to deal with economic realities at home and voters who can see where we are headed, are taking the lead. How much longer can politicians at the federal level maintain their willful blindness?

Mike Carr is the executive director of New Energy America, an organization that promotes clean energy jobs in rural America. Previously, he served as principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy.