Climate Change: Filling the political and financial funding abyss

California Gov. Jerry Brown, right, watches as Prime Minister of Fiji Frank Bainimarama signs a climate change accord Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. The non-binding international agreement commits the signatories to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 80 percent to 95 percent, below 1990 levels. Looking on are from left, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The Trump Administration’s principle weapon of choice for attacking climate science is not melodramatic announcements such as the one concerning US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, nor is it the appointment of individuals such as Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA, but instead is firmly rooted in federal finance. The proposed budget for 2018 will, if approved by Congress and implemented, gut many rather important activities inside the EPA, NASA and NOAA.

It’s not a done deal … yet. White House Budget proposals are of course just the opening bid. There is still the usual haggling that needs to take place and so there will in all probability be a pushback against much that has been proposed. However, the fact that it has been proposed can’t be ignored, and so there needs to be some thought given at a state level regarding what should happen if such cuts become a reality.

We have been here before

In 2004 the Bush administration banned federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research. In response Californian voters approved a proposal to spend $3 billion funding such research. The result was the they attracted some of the world’s best scientists in the field and ended up producing the bulk of the research for the following decade.

MIT Technology Review

James Temple, writing within the MIT Technology Review, points out that a similar response to the looming the federal financial drought in 2018 is being talked about …

The Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget would cut some $3 billion from Department of Energy research programs, including nearly $1 billion from the Office of Science, which funds JCAP and other “innovation hubs.” Meanwhile, almost $1.5 billion in cuts to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the elimination of the moonshot ARPA-E program would ripple throughout solar, bioenergy, and vehicle technology programs at Lawrence Berkeley and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California.

Congress is likely to push back on many of the White House’s most drastic cutbacks, but the proposals have nevertheless prompted chatter in the state capitol about the possibility of a clean energy research initiative similar to the Stem Cell Agency.

The capital of innovation

California retains the crown of “capital of innovation” for a reason – they are prepared to invest in the cutting-edge, and so they reap the inevitable rewards for doing so. When, at a Federal level such support is withdrawn, political or financial, the state steps up to the mark to do what needs to be done and refuses to simply roll over …

California has established itself as a world leader on climate issues, creating its own cap-and-trade program in 2013 and passing a landmark law last year requiring the state to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. In the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords this month, Governor Jerry Brown traveled to China and struck a bilateral deal to cooperate on emissions reduction efforts (see “Exiting Paris, Trump Cedes Global Leadership on Climate Change”).

On the private industry side, companies in the San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles metro areas together received 46 percent of all U.S. clean-tech venture capital investments between 2011 and 2016, according to a recent Brookings report.

There are Challenges

California is already investing hundreds of millions of dollars into clean-energy development through an array of programs, including the Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge and the Energy Innovations Small Grant Program. But most of the efforts are focused on commercializing fairly narrow and mature technologies, not the early-stage research that federal funds help promote.

“If we get serious and really invest, we can backfill the national lab funding, but also start to build our own ARPA-E,” Stern says.

Filling the Political Vacuum

The four-term Brown administration within California has a well-established strong commitment. The Governor has made reducing greenhouse gas emissions and boosting green technology a key tenet of his administration, and so he will not be willing to permit the Trump Administration to undermine any of that.

In the context of the currently existing political vacuum, Brown is one of the founding members of the new US Climate Alliance, a pledge by various states who have aligned themselves with him to stick to the Paris Agreement and ignore the Trump withdrawal. Since the US has withdrawn, will anybody fill that vacuum and attend the next U.N. climate conference (“COP 23.”)? Californian Gov. Jerry Brown will. He has been appointed as a special envoy at the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place next November in Bonn, Germany. He is not going alone, Fellow West Coast Govs. Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington also plan to attend along with other governors.

“We’re going to play a very important role,” Jerry Brown said.

The state agreement is a non-binding commitment to uphold the Paris goals, which include reducing the country’s emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels. Many of the 13 states involved already have their own targets in place, and the goal of the coalition is to collaborate and share ideas on using green technology and other means to meet the goal.

“When the president decided to run up the white flag of surrender to the challenge of climate change, we jumped right into the barricades,” Inslee said.

Bottom Line

The immediate challenge of the political vacuum is starting to be met. Trump might indeed have walked off the international climate change stage, but many have decisively rejected that position and instead have rapidly stepped in to fill that gap.

Further down the road the big challenge will be a potential lack of federal funding. There is already a workable precedent for addressing that to some degree and if such a challenge does become a reality then it is distinctly possible that the members of the US Climate Alliance will do what is right and also attempt to fill the funding gap.

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