California Seeks to Leave Footprint at Climate Change Summit in Paris

California will have a massive footprint at the United Nations summit on climate change in Paris, a symbol of the state's political commitment to fighting global warming and the business interest of companies that can benefit from clean energy policies.
by | December 3, 2015 AT 11:50 AM

By Chris Megerian

California will have a massive footprint at the United Nations summit on climate change in Paris, a symbol of the state's political commitment to fighting global warming and the business interest of companies that can benefit from clean energy policies.

The decision by many of California's most powerful to decamp across the Atlantic Ocean shows how stemming greenhouse gas emissions is viewed as an environmental imperative and a potential economic boost for the state.

"You've got to get on the side of nature if you want to prosper," California Gov. Jerry Brown said in an interview this week. He's scheduled to arrive Friday and speak at an event with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the first stop in a schedule packed with ceremonies and speeches.

Besides Brown, if you're looking for leading state politicians, environmental activists, government regulators or energy executives, chances are they're in Paris for the next week.

"We want to export what we've been able to accomplish so far," said state Senate leader Kevin de Leon, a Democrat who has pushed climate-change legislation in the Capitol. "What we want to bring back to California is more investment capital."

Besides eight lawmakers and the governor, a number of top Brown administration officials are going to Paris, including Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols and Environmental Protection Secretary Matt Rodriquez.

There's also former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican whose administration launched some of the state's most sweeping climate change policies, and Tom Steyer, a major Democratic donor and environmental activist. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is spending two days in Paris, and a posse of companies working on clean technologies will be there as well.

K.R. Sridhar, chief executive of the fuel cell company Bloom Energy, said he wanted to show how climate policies and economic development can work together.

"We want not only our company but companies like ours to succeed," he said.

Since California isn't a country, it won't be a part of the official negotiations intended to broker a new international accord for fighting climate change. But activists, analysts and government officials said the state's been able to play an important role by demonstrating policies such as the cap-and-trade program, which limits emissions and charges fees to polluters.

"They've had a significant effect on the dynamics surrounding the negotiations by taking a leadership role," said Karen Florini, the U.S. State Department's deputy special envoy for climate change. Out of all the states, "California is the most visible and most active."

Attending the U.N. summit is likely to be an intense experience, with 50,000 people descending on Paris and the Le Bourget convention center outside the city. Everywhere California's representatives turn in Paris, there will be someone looking to swap business cards or discuss an investment or review energy policies.

"Our hope is to soak up as much as possible, to be part of the conversation," said Democratic Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.

Louis Blumberg, the California climate change director at the Nature Conservancy, described it as a "five-ring circus." Steyer said he expected it to be "a bit of a zoo."

Brown's schedule is bursting with events, including a ceremony hosted by the U.S. ambassador to France on Sunday. It's a chance to highlight an international agreement among states, provinces and cities, an effort the governor has championed.

"We can't go it alone," he said. "California as the exception has to become California as the norm."

Some events are geared toward certain technologies, like zero-emission vehicles. Others are focused on particular relationships with foreign leaders, such as Chinese environmental officials.

"We are in a global world, and California is like a country," said Orville Schell, a director at the Asia Society in New York and author of a 1978 book about Brown.

The governor, Schell said, is "acting like he's head of a sovereign state."

Brown is also working with Steyer to gather business leaders in Paris as a show of support for climate policies. Among the companies that will be represented are SunEdison, Solar City, Kaiser Permanente, Bank of America and ChargePoint.

"Actually doing the right thing in terms of progressive energy policies leads to a more prosperous, better employed society," Steyer said.

Some participants in the event, such as Pacific Gas & Electric and Calpine, are also helping cover the travel costs for government officials. Also chipping in are advocacy and philanthropy groups, including the Nature Conservancy and the Energy Foundation.

The nonprofit Climate Action Reserve, a carbon offset registry, also raised money to pay for the trip.

The state's presence in Paris has also included the University of California, which is the only institutional investor in a new clean energy fund announced by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The university system plans to invest $1 billion over the next five years.

University of California President Janet Napolitano, who joined Gates at his announcement, said, "As a public research institution we take the imperative to solve global climate change very seriously."

California has been pushing tougher environmental policies for decades, sometimes over the objections of businesses who view them as bad for the economy.

But with countries committing to new clean energy goals in Paris, the state's bets could pay off, said Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "It really highlights the fact there's benefit to being the early adopter. There's risk, but there's also benefit, and California has been reaping."

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