California’s Clean-Energy Future: A ‘Medieval Society’?

REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Kerry Jackson Contributor
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The California legislature passed in July an extension of the state’s carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law.

Brown has called for an international climate summit next September in San Francisco, and Senate President Kevin de Leon has pushed for a law that would virtually outlaw fossil fuel use in power plants after 2045.

The cap-and-trade legislation, Assembly Bill 398, demands that greenhouse gas emissions be cut to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. It is an extension of the cap-and-trade program that initially required greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020.

This is only a part to California’s ambitions. De Leon’s proposal didn’t come up for a floor vote in the session, but his Senate Bill 100 — which mandates that “renewable energy resources and zero-carbon resources” make up 100 percent of retail electricity sales and also provide all electricity for state agencies no later than Dec. 31, 2045 — is sure to be back in some form.

Meanwhile, Brown has reportedly said that he is interested in banning the sales of automobiles powered by internal-combustion engines. Shortly after Brown’s intentions made the news, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said he will introduce a bill in the next legislative session that would prohibit sales of new automobiles with internal-combustion engines after 2040.

Brown and others believe that California can inspire other states and nations to follow its model.

“California is leading the world in dealing with a principal existential threat that humanity faces,” Brown said at the AB 398 signing ceremony. “We are a nation-state in a globalizing world and we’re having an impact and you’re here witnessing one of the key milestones in turning around this carbonized world into a decarbonized, sustainable future.”

Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, who wrote AB 398, sees a future of improved air quality through policy that is “inclusive, equitable, and brings everyone along in California.” The Environmental Defense Fund believes the cap-and-trade extension will encourage “investments in alternative forms of fuel” and “further develop a green workforce for the 21st century economy” while driving an economic and employment windfall.

“Environmentally, we would have cleaner air to breath throughout the state,” Lauren Navarro, the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior policy manager for California Clean Energy, told The Daily Caller.

“Economically, our clean energy economy would continue to thrive, employing more and more Californians in good, local jobs and companies would be drawn here to set up shop because they see the economic opportunities created by our climate and clean energy goals. The best thing is, this California is right around the corner,” Navarro added.

De Leon’s idea will have to wait to become law, but once on the books, the Natural Resources Defense Council expects it to accelerate “progress toward a clean energy future that will support well-paying jobs and a prosperous economy” while also protecting public health from “the brunt of pollution from fossil fuels.”

The wide-lens view of a green-energy future seen by the environmental groups is maybe best summed up by Allen Hernandez of the Sierra Club, who said “our vision is of a California in which all people can breathe healthy air, all energy is clean and renewable, and everyone benefits from a successful economy and a sustainable environment.”

While clean-energy advocates envision a rosy California under a low-carbon regime, not everyone sees shares that outlook.

Hoover Institution senior fellow and classics professor Victor Davis Hanson told TheDC that “in California all such environmental questions are framed from the viewpoint of utopianism” while ignoring clean-energy policies’ “economic impact on those with less means who do not live along the coastal corridor.”

“These mandates would only further spike costs for basics such as transportation and power and continue to fall most heavily on the middle and lower-middle classes and accelerate the ongoing bifurcation of the state into a medieval society of masters and serfs,” said Hanson, who is also a California native and farmer.

Bruce Everett, a Tufts University professor who specializes in energy and environmental policy, told TheDC that a “little common sense . . . suggests that California’s climate policies will have some negative effects on the state’s economy.”

While “the impacts of climate policy are difficult to isolate from the effects of other anti-business policies, such as high taxes and extensive regulations,” Everett says that “California’s climate policies have the effect of raising energy costs in a state that is already losing part of its economic base, particularly manufacturing.”

He further argues there is no tradeoff, no environmental return for the economic losses.

“The science behind catastrophic climate change is weak, and small carbon dioxide reductions in California are likely to have zero impact on overall atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. In other words, some cost for no gain,” Everett argues. “Doesn’t sound like a good policy to me.”

Cost and economic burdens are not the only difficulties that can plague a clean-energy program, skeptics say. The skeptics believe that California’s energy structure of the future might not be as dependable as one powered by conventional fuels.

The California Policy Center noted a year ago that renewable energy is “still unreliable” and warned of “government-created energy blackouts” coming even though the state is “awash in ultra cheap natural gas” to fire power plants.

Two years ago, economist Travis Fischer called renewables “the single greatest threat to reliable electricity” in an Energy Research Institute paper.

“The host of bad policies now coming from the federal government,” Fischer wrote, “and unfortunately from many state governments – is creating far greater and more predictable problems with grid reliability.”