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Robert Frost and the California Climate Act of 2006 September 7, 2006

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Efficiency/Conservation, Green Activism, Renewable Energy, Sustainable Thinking.
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The poet Robert Frost (1872-1963) had little to do with the recent passage of California Assembly Bill 32, a landmark piece of state legislation that is the most stringent anti-global warming law in the United States to date. While the “American Bard” most often associated with New England actually spent the first 11 years of his life in California (!!), the California Climate Act has a lot more to do with Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Assembly Member Fran Pavley who co-sponsored, as well as a legion of environmental activists and lobbyists who pressed for the passage of this bill. Governor Schwarzenegger is generally in agreement with the bill but may have some disagreements with Democrats as to implementation.

AB 32 will mandate that carbon emissions for California in 2020 will be brought back to 1990 levels.

The main opposition to this bill has come from the California Chamber of Commerce that is supposed to represent the interests of California’s business community. The main argument offered is that California, in moving separately from surrounding states and the national government, will lose business to other states. There are however some outstanding businesses within California that have been supportive and even encouraged the passage of the bill. Pacific Gas and Electric Company the big Northern and Central California Fortune 200 utility and many high tech and venture capital firms see opportunity or at least corporate responsibility in California claiming leadership on climate change.

So this is where Robert Frost comes into my account of this turning point in how America deals with the climate crisis. Every schoolchild in the US reads Robert Frost’s most famous poem “The road not taken” in which we find the poet at a crossroads in a wood discussing the merits of each path. Finally he chooses “the road less traveled” and metaphorically assigns to that road an influence beyond simply that of finding one’s way through the woods.

Businesses everywhere are at a crossroads: they can continue to think in terms of short-term profitability or they can take the road that involves investment for middle and long-term profitability in a new carbon-neutral economy. This is of course easier said than done and the task is going to be harder for some than for others. In California, the legislature and the spirit of reform that still animates political life here, has pushed up the choice point for businesses here sooner than it has in some other locations in the US.

PG&E, the electric utility, has an unusually high mixture of cleaner and renewable power generation alternatives partly by design and partly by circumstance (the natural resources of California). Furthermore, most technologies needed to create a completely renewable electricity generation portfolio have been developed and it is now simply a matter of investment and implementation.

High-tech companies and venture capitalists are generally enthusiastic about clean-tech because it promises another wave of technical innovation and potential profits for industries with high margins and very large future growth. These industries have products that often run on electricity which we have discovered can be generated in ways that have a relatively low impact. These industries do not usually manage products whose value depends on massive use of petrochemicals, toxic minerals (though some of these may be used in producing some of the high tech gadgets but they are secondary to their primary functions) or with long lifecycles and end-of-life issues. Yes, old computers and electronic waste are big issues but not nearly as decisive in contributing to global warming as transportation, construction, energy generation and heating/cooling.

Other industries have a path that is less clear: for instance American vehicle manufacturers and sellers have made money by putting more metal on the road in whatever form. Cement makers are not sure how they should change their business to comply with global warming mandates.

Therefore, the choice of paths in the wood is easier for some industries than others. Still it will seem more and more politically and eventually economically expedient for ALL industries to try to take the path of lower carbon emissions. A few adjustments and acknowledgements are necessary though for these industries to take the steps with which others may have a somewhat easier time:

  • On a political level, scientific commissions should be set up to study ways to moderate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from “old” industries
  • On the level of specific industries, the “heavy” industries need to start their own studies on how to lighten their footprint. If California based industries lead the way in this area, they will soon have a competitive advantage over industries in other states, yielding more business opportunities.

The choice of paths then is a matter of extending business’s time horizon for profitability and political acknowledgement of the difficulties of some industries will have in joining the sustainable economy. It is still possible to create an inclusive atmosphere that brings along industries that resist the inevitable need to account for and reduce GHGs.

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