Meet California’s Climate Heroes

Dec 17, 2012 by

  Environment    Alternet
Here are scientists and policy makers in the Sacramento region who play vital roles in the global effort to fix a warming planet.
December 16, 2012  |

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Floods, droughts, wildfires. Rising sea levels and disappearing coastlines.

The world’s scientists have warned for decades that our planet is warming and—thanks to extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy—we finally seem prepared to believe it. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that 68 percent of Americans now agree that global warming is a “serious problem.”

To arrest the crisis, scientists say we need to cut back drastically on greenhouse-gas emissions that are causing our atmosphere to deteriorate and the planet to warm.

But who will lead this colossal endeavor?

As it turns out, a surprising number of scientists, politicians and policy makers based right here in the Sacramento region are taking bold action to forge the path ahead on a statewide, national and global level.

California has been on the cutting edge on climate change from the beginning, passing laws since 2002 that have pioneered limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases and one, even, that actually beckons a future low-carbon economy by putting a price on carbon. Each decree, in turn, became a rallying point for innovation, strategic policy and action to curb the emissions that are warming the planet. And as policy makers embarked on their course, nearby UC Davis began to sharpen the state’s cutting edge on the climate issue with a scientist’s blade. In the last decade, UC Davis has convened teams of scientists, industry leaders and policy makers in partnership-driven institutes—like the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and California Lighting Technology Center—in search of real-world solutions to climate change.

Five years ago, SN&R led an effort in the alternative press that had millions of readers nationwide reading stories about the dangers global warming presented to the future. The journalism from our 2007 Kyoto Project was published on the 10th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol, the first occasion where the Earth’s governments came together in agreement that humankind faced the giant challenge of a warming planet. Sadly, the United States never signed the Kyoto treaty, and global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, has risen 50 percent since 1990. And the pace is quickening.

But this is not where it ends. This week, on the 15th anniversary of the now-moribund Kyoto Protocol, we bring you promise of hope.

In this issue, we’ve compiled a roster of 15 locals who are involved in essential work on mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions. (For our purposes here, we’ve chosen to focus on those involved in mitigation and not the many concerned with what is called “adaptation”—i.e., figuring out how to tolerate the effects of the warming.)

SN&R hereby presents the most impactful of those who are creating replicable models to reduce global-warming pollution. There is no doubt that these individuals stand on the frontlines of the fix to what former Vice President Al Gore calls “the crisis of our time.”

Michael Siminovitch, director, UC Davis California Lighting Technology Center

Exasperated by all the talk—whether about sustainability, greenhouse-gas pollution, energy efficiency or climate awareness—Michael Siminovitch has had enough. “There’s an enormous amount of talking on this issue,” he said. “Far too much talking!”

“Our energy intensity is so high in this country! … What we need is to start doing simple things quickly.”

Indeed, in Siminovitch’s realm of concern, small changes—like installing “smart” lighting systems and using LED, or light-emitting diode, lights—can net big results in reducing emissions. That’s because artificially illuminating our homes, workplaces and urban spaces (like streets and parking lots) accounts for nearly 30 percent of California’s electricity use. And electricity generation, in turn, makes up about 25 percent of the state’s total greenhouse-gas pollution.

With striking looks and angular features, the director of the UC Davis California Lighting Technology Center wears all black and presents more like a British rock star than an industrial-design geek. In fact, Siminovitch has become one of the state’s most influential leaders when it comes to lighting design and energy efficiency.

As he tours a reporter through the corridors of the CLTC, the place’s smart lights fire up overhead one by one, illuminating the way as the sightseeing proceeds. Formed in 2000 in partnership with the California Energy Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy, the CLTC is another of UC Davis’ applied-research institutions, formed with the idea of moving university research and innovations into the real world. “We take a round-table approach,” said Siminovitch, founder of the center. “Our goal is to create critical mass.”

When the California Public Utilities Commission called in 2010 for a 60 to 80 percent statewide reduction in electrical-lighting consumption by 2020, UC Davis was the first major institution to step up to the plate with its CLTC-inspired Smart Lighting Initiative. In fact, Siminovitch said the UC Davis campus in its totality has become the largest lighting demonstration laboratory in the country. Its plan is to reduce energy use for campus lighting 60 percent by the end of 2015, and meeting that number is already well in hand.

On campus, thousands of outside smart lights with predictive motion sensors that use the LED lights have already been installed. Just like at his center, the LED lighting on campus “sense” when pedestrians or bicycles are approaching, “talk” to one another (via a wireless connection on an antennae) and help efficiently and safely guide people to where they are going—all while saving vast amounts of energy.

Siminovitch, on the development team for what is called California’s Strategic Lighting Plan (another integrative partnership effort), also helped lead the push to update the new Title 20 and Title 24 recalculations for exterior light. Among other things, the new standards mean that buildings and parking garages won’t have lights blazing 24-seven and will be required to have occupancy controls and sensors.

Taken together, California is on a path to literally transform how buildings and urban spaces are designed, built and operated with a goal of reducing energy usage “and making our lives better,” said Siminovitch. The state’s leadership “has been phenomenal,” he said.

But he doesn’t feel the same about what’s happening at the national level. With his 2012 appointment as the first Arthur H. Rosenfeld Chair in Energy Efficiency at UC Davis, the lighting guru sees it as part of his new challenge to figure out “how to make things happen faster.”

“Lots of this technology existed years ago,” he said. With a flourish, he holds up a small electric device with a sensor attached. “Every light switch should have this!”

Does Siminovitch ever despair about the enormity of the climate challenge?

“I know climate change is a real deal,” he said. “On an intellectual level, I know we have a daunting task ahead. But I just want to get really focused. Let’s fix the pipes. Let’s get after this.”

Daniel Sperling, director, UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies

From his smallish office in the drabbest engineering building on the UC Davis campus, the unassuming professor Daniel Sperling seems like an unlikely point man in the global challenge to create a low-carbon future transportation system—and fast—so as to allay the worst impacts of global warming.

But make no mistake: Sperling is the man.

An international leader in the field of alternative transportation fuels, Sperling co-wrote the 2006 low-carbon fuel standard for the Global Warming Solutions Act and shared a portion of Vice President Al Gore’s 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for writing the transportation sections of reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He has authored or edited a total of 11 books, including his most recent, Two Billion Cars, which even scored him points with students, since it landed him a guest appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

Founding director of the UC Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies in 1991, Sperling knows well that transportation is the source of a massive 40 percent of California’s contribution to climate change. He is not interested in convening civil engineers and urban planners in some ivory tower to make academic proclamations about it. He’s about partnerships in the real world that will lead to change.

“It’s all about policy when it comes to carbon,” said Sperling. “We’re taking what we’ve learned in California and asking, ’How can we go national?’”

Though environmentalists have known it for a long time, “the automotive industry now understands the future is in electric drive vehicles,” said Sperling. “We are starting to see battery electric cars and plug-in hybrid vehicles unveiled by the major car companies. … On the vehicle side, it’s a very upbeat time.”

However, replacing petroleum with low-carbon fuel alternatives remains a difficulty. Biofuels are faltering from lack of oil-company investments, said Sperling, and hydrogen remains “just over the horizon.”

“The fuels challenge is the most difficult,” he admitted.

Sperling’s work on Assembly Bill 32 created the country’s toughest low-carbon fuel standard for California. Specifically, his work was the basis for the first major regulation built on the concept of measuring greenhouse gases over a fuel’s life cycle and requiring oil refiners to either reduce the fuel’s carbon intensity or buy credits (cap and trade) from those that do. Similar policies are under consideration in 11 other states, as well as in Canada and Europe.

Sperling now advocates a similar standard at the federal level. He co-heads the National Low Carbon Fuel Standard Project, which seeks to create a similar template for a fuel policy that would save American consumers billions and usher in “cheaper, cleaner, more ’made-in-America’” fuels.

Not surprisingly, all but a few oil companies are so far opposing this. Sperling’s response is to propose a national target that lets energy companies know exactly how clean the fuel they sell needs to be. “The idea is to take decisions out of the political realm and base it on science,” he said.

The third leg of the stool when it comes to emissions has to do with land use and the vehicle user, said Sperling. If people drive less because of things like reduced urban sprawl and better public transit, carbon emissions go down and less greenhouse gas is emitted. Here again, California is on the cutting edge, thanks to passage of S.B. 375, which provided a framework for moving cities and communities to a less car-intensive future. Sperling, as a member of CARB’s board, is charged with helping figure out how to set suitable standards in various cities.

Criticized occasionally because his transportation institute accepts funding from the auto and oil industries, Sperling is nonplussed. He responds that his organization requires “soft money” (not just university funding) in order to exist. He makes every effort, he said, to show transparency, to keep his distance from special-interest groups and to minimize potential conflicts of interest.

As for the scientist’s overall sense of where things are headed for the Earth’s atmosphere? “There’s a very high probability that very bad things are going to happen to the climate,” he said. “But we are going to be here. So anything we can do, we should do.

“Humans are very creative and resourceful. If humans get focused on a task, I have confidence that we’ll dramatically reduce carbon emissions. You can get depressed … but I like to be an optimist.”

Mary Nichols, chairwoman, California Air Resources Board

The nations of the world gathered last week under the United Nations banner in Doha, Qatar, to discuss the ever more obvious warming of the planet. First, they faced a simple truth: Scant progress has been made in the last decades to protect the world’s populations from the dangers of climate change.

With the United States and other key countries represented in Qatar unwilling to cross the threshold and commit to sweeping cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, who can we look to for direction?

So far, it’s to the states … especially California.

And Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board and the most influential climate regulator in the world today, is foremost among the leaders now confronting the problem full force.

Under Nichols’ direction, CARB has taken up a three-part mission that resembles one out of science fiction: lead the fight against a global danger, implement the early-stage rollout of a low-carbon economy, provide a model that others might follow. Just a few weeks ago, Nichols’ agency made history when it held the first-ever U.S. auction of greenhouse-gas pollution.

“We have set a price on carbon,” Nichols told SN&R. “It’s a big milestone, a real victory. … Investors had faith in this market.”

Governments and energy-industry leaders around the world have a keen eye focused on the work of Nichols and her team. Educated at Cornell University and Yale Law School, Nichols worked for the National Resources Defense Council, then rose to become an assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton. In 2006, the lifelong Democrat let Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talk her into accepting her current position as the director of CARB. Known for her capacity to turn bold vision into achievable goals, Nichols hasn’t looked back since.

The mid-November cap-and-trade auction, a result of Assembly Bill 32, also called the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, is the most ambitious piece on the chessboard at the moment. Basically, the program holds greenhouse-gas emitters responsible for the pollution they put into the atmosphere. The auction sells and trades pollution allowances; it will cover 85 percent of California’s emissions by 2015. At its moment of opening, the auction was instantly the largest emissions trading system in the country and the second largest in the world behind that of the European Union.

The price-per-pollution credit came in a bit lower than anticipated—$10.09 per metric ton of carbon—but still generated $290 million on its first day and will eventually raise billions for the state and, particularly, efforts to further reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Nichols found irony in the fact that shortly before its launch, many were worried that the price for allowances would actually be too high. “Fears run both ways,” she said.

In 2015, fuels and natural gas will also come under the cap—an eventuality Nichols said will make the market even more interesting to investors.

Cap and trade, of course, is just part of CARB’s A.B. 32-related work. Last January, Nichols oversaw the enactment of sweeping “clean car” rules—the latest in decades’ worth of clean-air initiatives that ultimately seek to revolutionize the automobile industry. Indeed, 15 percent of all new cars sold in California by 2025 will emit little or no pollution. And, once again, other states (this time 13) have signed up to replicate.

Though auto manufacturers were at first opposed to changes, they now embrace the inevitable—a future full of clean-car vehicles. Nichols wishes she could say the same for how the oil industry will adapt to change. While there has been some progress, she is not naive about the road ahead.

Still, she remains optimistic.“The petrochemical industry is not interested in making big changes unless they absolutely have to,” she said. After all, “We’re dependent on them for a product that most of us use every day.”

“One observation I’ve made over all these years [is that] the way we’ve always been successful is start with the vehicle. Push the automobile industry to find technical fixes. [Eventually], the fuel had to follow what the car needed.”

On yet another front, Nichols’ team is at work figuring out how to enforce Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s Senate Bill 375, a 2008 law that requires CARB to set targets for emissions from vehicles in cities.

“Lots of thinking goes into what the next steps should be,” said Nichols. We’re very eager to share and encourage others to join us in these efforts.”

Does Nichols believe we humans can avert the most severe predictions about climate change, even as 2012 proceeds on track to becoming the ninth-hottest year on record?

A self-described “realistic optimist,” Nichols’ answer is yes, we can.

“The climate deniers are in remission after the election and in the aftermath of Sandy,” she said. “It’s really important to face the science. … Then, it’s time to take action and look at new ideas to solve problems.”

We welcome your comments!