Reporter’s Notebook: Gov.’s Climate Summit II

By Published On: October 2, 2009

Calling it “the sequel”--just like in the movie biz--Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger triumphantly convened his second Global Climate Summit in a Century City hotel September 30. Though older, the governor hasn’t lost his touch. Like a box office smash, he packed them in. When not watching furry rainforest animals on big screens, the delegates feasted on wine and hors d’oeurve in an exhibit hall festooned with the latest green technologies. Schwarzenegger has successfully used his power to popularize the climate change problem and the prospects for a green economic solution. But all was not well, despite the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the governor. In the hallways, disgruntled environmentalists and green energy advocates decried Schwarzenegger’s plan to veto bills to require 33 percent renewable energy on the state’s grid by 2020. Instead of legislation, the governor favors his own executive order. A future governor, complained the hallway lobbyists--namely, Republican candidate Meg Whitman who’s called for a moratorium on carrying out the state’s climate protection law AB 32--could not overturn a law. She could, they said, undo Schwarzenegger’s order with the stroke of a pen. Outside the hotel, a plain structure designed to be accessible only by auto during the 1960s, a phalanx of security guards and police warily watched a thousand teachers and school employees march in protest of state budget cuts for education. They carried signs that read “Arnold Total Failure,” a play on the title of the former actor’s 1990 film, Total Recall. Their chants drowned out all conversation on the street as they reverberated off the skyscrapers. Down the way, the sport fishing industry protested the state’s plan to carry out the Marine Life Protection Act, which would expand marine life sanctuaries. They claimed the expansion of the “no fishing zones” would put them out of business. Though the cookies and other desserts outside the conference rooms seemed endless, harbingers of growing economic concern also were evident. California Environmental Protection Agency secretary Linda Adams noted that the most popular session at the summit--sponsored by Shell Oil--was on the evolution of offsets. Businesses and policy makers see offsets as a less expensive way to curb greenhouse gases than shelling out for new emissions-free facilities. U.S. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson put it succinctly. She called offsets “a very cheap way” to begin controlling the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Regulators talked about the need to make sure that the offsets--generated at this point largely through planting trees that absorb carbon dioxide out of the air--are real, permanent, and verifiable. The financial industry--sniffing the sweet aroma of a new bonanza of contracts, hedges, insurance, and futures trading in carbon offsets--said, “we’re here to help.” Indeed, given the right public policy, the offset market might just be big enough to “pump up” the financial industry’s prospects. Imagine trading the future carbon content of a tree a hundred times and insuring each trade while protecting wildlife habit. The possibilities for Madison Avenue and Wall Street commissions are endless. In another sign of the times, traffic in the exhibit hall was brisk at the free bar, but a little slow at the LED light booths, where each Taiwanese-assembled bulb went for around $75 to $100. Indeed, the hubbub was more about the paper shuffle of consulting contracts, emissions reporting services, and offset deals. In a proof of the pudding, Schwarzenegger announced what his office called “the nation’s largest carbon sequestration project” at the conference, a deal between Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s largest private landowner, and Equator, LLC, a natural resources asset management firm. Under it, the forestry company, Sierra Pacific, promises to implement four projects to sequester 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide on 60,000 acres of forest land in the Sierra Nevada. (Perhaps the offset economy can change a timber company that is more used to cutting trees down than planting them.) Equator--which says it “specializes in the generation and management of high-quality carbon credits and environmental assets derived from reforestation, forest conservation and sustainable land management”--will get the credits. The companies said the project is aimed at conserving giant Sequoia trees in the mountains. They released no other details. Back in the hall, delegates watched high-production-value videos, with dramatic narrations over beautiful music. Stars--like Harrison Ford and wildlife biologist Jane Goodall--gave moving speeches. But out on the street there was little celebration, just the cacophony of protest in a state near bankruptcy and the heavy traffic of gasoline-powered vehicles on my one-hour- and-forty-five minute, 20 mile long drive home. The green imagery and exhortations faded. I was back in the real world.

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