October 5th, 2016


President pro Tempore Emeritus, California State Senate

Reporter, Los Angeles Times

Former Mayor of Los Angeles


Partisan gridlock has kept climate change issues moving at a glacial pace in Congress, and the Republican candidate for president has threatened to back out of the Paris agreement if elected.  Meanwhile, California has been proudly out front in the war on climate change for over a decade. It‘s landmark climate change law, AB 32, was signed by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 and recently extended by Jerry Brown with the help of a Republican vote.  Yet despite obvious gains, many still question whether California can support a growing population, grow its economy and tackle climate change. Can all of those things be done at the same time?

“I think we’re doing it right now as we speak,” says senate president pro-tem Kevin de León.  “California in fact is the fifth largest economy in the world,” beaten only by the U.S. itself, followed by China, Japan and Germany.  This has been done, the speaker points out, in tandem with the state’s ambitious carbon targets.

“We’ve created more than 500,000 jobs.  Now these are jobs that are real, that are tangible, that you can verify.” Jobs, adds de León, that are in the clean energy space and cannot be outsourced.  “We actually have done it by the policies that we have moved forward in the state capital.”

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa agrees. “I think for a long time now there are many of us here in California who have understood that we can grow the economy and clean up our environment.  So I think jobs are critical.”

Another thing both speakers agree on is that California’s poor and underserved communities have long been most impacted by the effects of climate change. “We saw that at the Port of Los Angeles, where we reduced truck emissions by more than 90%,” Villaraigosa says.  

“The people that were dying of respiratory diseases in that area were, you know, poor people, people of color who lived around these areas.  So if you don't connect this to jobs and to environmental justice, you're missing the real point of why we have to address climate change.”

To that end, de León authored SB 535, signed by Jerry Brown in 2012, which requires that 25 percent of the cap and trade revenue from AB 32 be spent on projects that benefit disadvantaged communities.  

“When you focus on those communities, when you democratize your climate change policies with intentionality and a sense of purpose, what you're doing is you’re making sure that those who are most vulnerable to criteria pollutants and to the catastrophic impacts of climate change, that they become much more resilient.”

This head-on approach is, unfortunately, not shared by politicians throughout the country. “Oh it’s whiplash, entirely,” says Melanie Mason, who has been covering the campaign trail for the Los Angeles Times. “I mean, the difference is, is that in California politicians can't stop talking about climate change.  And elsewhere no one wants to talk about climate change. It’s pretty stunning.”

But, she adds, even in California the topic is not entirely split along party lines.  Recent energy legislation that called for a reduction in oil use, says Mason, was gutted by what is known as “the moderate Democrats.”

“These are Democrats that are tend to be seen as close to the business interest, closer to maybe oil or agriculture,” says Mason. “We’re going to be seeing these races play out because of the top two system much more.  That’s the new dynamic.  It's not D versus R; it’s what type of Democrat are you.”

An audience member wondered:  how can California scale its successes up to the national level?  Cities can lead the way, says Villaraigosa – and are doing so now.

“Mayor of New York, mayor of L.A., mayor of San Francisco, mayor of Portland, mayor of Chicago…here are cities all around the country and the world frankly, that are kind of leading this issue of climate change in a real concrete way.

“When the big cities are laying this out, you create the political climate to show that it can work.  And actually, the reason why Paris was such a success in comparison to Copenhagen was because Paris, London, Copenhagen, Toronto, Berlin, L.A., Mexico City…big cities around the country were not waiting on their national government.”

This event was be held at the Hotel Nikko, Carmel Room.