The Day the Sierra Club Opposed Funding Long-Term Carbon Emission Reductions

Originally posted at the California High Speed Rail Blog

You would think that California’s leading environmental organizations, who claim to be committed to fighting the climate crisis and reducing carbon emissions, would enthusiastically support Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to use 19% of annual cap-and-trade revenues to fund a major infrastructure project that reduces millions of tons of CO2 while also reducing other forms of air pollution. You would also think these organizations would be sure to do so when the climate denying right has targeted that project for destruction.

You would be wrong.

Sierra Club California, in an amazing and shocking move, has come out against the funding of long-term reductions in CO2 emissions. They plan to advocate against Governor Brown’s plan to fund HSR with cap-and-trade revenues, even though high speed rail is one of the best ways to reduce oil consumption and CO2 emissions – reasons why the California Air Resources Board has included HSR as part of its AB 32 scoping plans for over five years.

More in the extended…

Here’s the shocking quote:

“We still have an opportunity to make a difference on how bad climate change will be. And the way you do that will be to take all of the available resources, you spend them now on things that get you reductions now,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “If this had been a choice between the Golden Gate Bridge and you had the opportunity to stop typhoid at that very moment, I think the people of San Francisco would’ve stopped typhoid.”

Phillips is completely wrong here, displaying a line of thinking that will be fatal to the effort to address climate change if continued. The way we make a difference is to take all of the resources (subtract the word “available,” more on that in a moment) and spend them now on everything that can give you lasting, permanent reductions – especially those things that provide a permanently lower level of CO2 emissions.

Her analogy is absurd and displays the logic of austerity, a logic that makes it impossible to fight climate change. Austerity policies force people to choose between important priorities rather than funding everything by insisting you can only use the “available” resources rather than the total resources that exist in a society. Addressing climate change requires large sums of money to be spent, in the trillions, in order to avert a far more costly and deadly catastrophe. Anyone who plays into the logic of austerity, which says you can’t spend that money and have to pick and choose a few small things to do at the expense of other priorities, is espousing a logic that ensures we will not be able to do what is necessary to reduce CO2 emissions.

In the 1930s, if SF were facing a typhoid epidemic at the same time as construction were about to begin on the Golden Gate Bridge, the reaction would not have been to stop the bridge. Politicians would have said “well obviously we need to do both.”

But even that analogy is flawed. It suggests that Phillips does not see HSR as a tool in the fight against climate change. And that is very bad news. A more accurate analogy would be that SF is facing a typhoid epidemic and one of the leading public health advocates says “we only have so much available money, let’s spend it on addressing people’s symptoms now and not on finding a lasting cure.”

Despite Sierra Club California’s incredible argument, most others engaged in the fight to reduce CO2 emissions understands that we will lose unless we make major lifestyle changes that include the way we travel around the state of California. The California Air Resources Board, charged with implementing AB 32 and the cap-and-trade system, understands this quite well. In their investment plan for the cap-and-trade revenues, they make this very important statement when introducing the section that calls for spending part of those revenues on HSR:

Full implementation of existing State strategies will achieve the 2020 reduction target. However, extensive additional strategies are needed both to ensure ongoing maintenance of the 2020 limit – as population and related growth increase after 2020 – and to meet post-2020 goals.

Reaching the 2050 goal (80 percent below 1990 levels) will require far-reaching new approaches to how we plan our communities, how we move people and freight, how we power our State, how industries produce their products, how successful we are in treating waste as a source of energy, and how well we preserve California’s lands and natural resources that sequester carbon.

Sierra Club California is saying this is wrong, that you don’t have to do anything to ensure ongoing maintenance of the 2020 limit, and that we don’t need to worry about reaching the 2050 goal. They are displaying a stunning lack of foresight and a contempt of long-term planning that will undo all of the gains California is making when it comes to climate change.

To make matters worse, Phillips is playing into the hands of people who are determined to stop the fight against climate change. Republicans and Tea Party members in California and in Congress are looking for ways to stop the high speed rail project. You can bet they will pounce on her statements and use them to attack HSR across the country. “Even the Sierra Club doesn’t want this funded!” they’ll say.

Assemblymember Jeff Gorell, a Ventura Republican, is running against Congresswoman Julia Brownley this year. Brownley is a Democrat who voted for high speed rail in the summer of 2012. Republicans attacked her for that vote, but failed to keep her out of Congress. Gorell yesterday filed an initiative to overturn Prop 1A and stop the HSR project. It won’t go anywhere since it lacks funding to get onto the ballot. But it does suggest that Gorell plans to make an issue of HSR this year. Sierra Club California, by opposing Brown’s cap-and-trade funding plan, has just undermined Brownley and handed a big win to Gorell.

Another environmental group that should know better is the Greenlining Institute:

Likewise, the Greenlining Institute does not oppose the rail project but will push lawmakers to devote cap-and-trade money to transit operations, spokesman Bruce Mirken said. The organization sponsored successful legislation two years ago requiring that a quarter of the greenhouse gas revenue be targeted to low-income and minority communities most affected by pollution.

“High-speed rail would not have been on our priority list,” Mirken said.

Then Greenlining Institute has some seriously flawed priorities. One of the worst forms of greenlining in the state is the location of freeways near low-income communities and communities of color. This problem is especially bad in the Central Valley, where emissions from vehicles is one of the leading causes of asthma and air pollution. The Valley has some of the worst air pollution in the country. HSR will help reduce those emissions. How Greenlining Institute can say that’s not a priority is shocking.

I am all for transit operating funding. But that’s why Governor Brown is planning to use only 19% of the cap-and-trade funds for HSR. That leaves over $1 billion for other priorities, including transit funding. It is austerity logic to say we have to pick and choose between these priorities. Greenlining Institute should be leading the call for a hike in the statewide gas tax to fund transit operations. Instead they are calling for a de facto alliance with the Tea Party to kill HSR.

I don’t know if these groups even care about HSR. Their statements suggests they are happy to watch it die. Because that’s what may well happen if Brown’s proposal for using cap-and-trade funds for HSR is stopped. The state needs to show a Sacramento judge in the next few months that they have revenues sufficient to make a new financing plan work. There’s no time to come up with some other source of money in order to survive the lawsuit, and notably, neither Sierra Club California nor Greenlining Institute are proposing one.

These groups must keep in mind CARB’s point about the long term. We will never achieve the kind of reductions we need to avoid catastrophe just by small measures. I am a huge transit supporter and love electric cars. But those alone will not solve the climate crisis. We need to re-engineer how California operates. We need to eliminate all burning of fossil fuels as soon as possible, and should start with those alternatives that carry a lot of people. HSR is a godsend when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, using renewable electric power to move people quickly between cities, getting them out of airplanes and cars. We should have built HSR thirty years ago. We’re building it now, and if climate change is as pressing as Phillips says it is, we have no time to lose in getting it funded and under construction.

The main reason I care about HSR, the reason I started this blog, was because I saw it as a crucial tool in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions. I am amazed and appalled that some California environmentalists are willing to oppose the funding of long-term CO2 emission reducers like HSR because they cannot understand the politics and cannot envision anything other than austerity.

Members of Sierra Club chapters in California need to rise up against this flawed, damaging, short-term thinking. Let the Sacramento office know how you feel. Tell them that it’s not acceptable to help the right destroy HSR and that funding long-term reduction of CO2 emissions must be a priority.

One thought on “The Day the Sierra Club Opposed Funding Long-Term Carbon Emission Reductions”

  1. it doesn’t really make a hill of beans what California does.  While I’m totally in favor of HSR, as soon as possible, and don’t really understand what their objection is, the fact is we need massive legislation at the Federal level within the next five to ten years, or the ballgame is over.  And the Sierra Club has been completely right about the effort it’s going to take all along.

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