California’s Drought: Governor Brown Issues Second Emergency Proclamation

Issue: 

Governor Jerry Brown: It’s great to be in a forum where business people, environmentalists, and citizens focus on the basics. The basics, of course, are the natural systems on which we all depend. 

Governance requires dealing with lots of stuff: public employees, roads, schools, prisons, the motor vehicle department—all sorts of things. But, aside from those institutional issues, the water we drink, the food that farmers grow, the other species, like the salmon, the wildlife, the habitat that supports it all—these are what I would call “the basics.” Any talk of sustainability has to get down to those basic elements of nature, which most of the time we are not all that aware of but are integrally connected to and a part of. 

We’ve really got to understand that our technology is so valuable and fundamental, and it’s at the heart of our affluence. On the other hand, the rules of nature aren’t being changed—the laws of physics and the laws of biology. There are some pretty fancy tricks being developed, but at the end of the day, it is more important that humankind learn to live with nature and get along with nature rather than just thinking we can manipulate the rules forever. 

There are limits. Limits go against our spirit of the pioneering America, the new frontier, science, and the power of what is created in modern times. But still, there are some basics that we don’t alter. For most of our modern history, we’ve thought of how we can adjust nature to fit us, but you can only do that to a certain degree. Today, we have to adjust ourselves to get along with nature.

Today, I’ve issued a second emergency proclamation regarding the continuing drought. The snowpack is only 60 percent of normal. Our fire seasons are longer and the dry season is upon us. We have to exercise renewed vigilance. In this proclamation, I’m calling upon all Californians, municipal water agencies, and anyone that uses water to do everything humanly possible to conserve. 

I’m also cutting certain red tape and modifying certain rules so that transfers of water can be made on a voluntary basis. Additional funds are being made available for habitat restoration, protecting species, and doing all that we humanely can to mitigate the effects of droughts. Hopefully it’ll be over, but you never know. We’ve had long, long droughts in the past and one never knows what we’re up against in the future. We do have to take appropriate precautions. 

In some ways, it’s like budgets. You think you’ve got a good year, you spend, and you find out the next year that it was very different. Then you’re in the hole. The government has to lay people off and schools have to fire teachers. That’s not good. I came into Sacramento just three and a half years ago, and the deficit was $26 billion. In fact, it actually had to go up to $27 billion, because one of the ways the budget had been dealt with was to offer for sale about 14 buildings and then put $1 billon from the sale into the budget. I canceled that sale because I didn’t think it was a good deal—and it wasn’t. That made the deficit go up to $27 billion. Since that time, it’s now in surplus, and I want to keep it that way. 

There’s more money coming in than going out. But, having said all that, you have to understand that the revenues are uncertain. The property tax and the vehicle license tax are solid. With the exception of the mortgage meltdown a few years ago, property taxes and property values never went down, so that was pretty stable. The vehicle license fee, which you had to pay every year, was pretty stable. But the property tax was dramatically cut in the ’70s, the vehicle license tax was cut a couple of years ago, and in substitute were not only cuts, but revenues by way of the income tax. 

The income tax includes a very volatile capital gains tax, which can vary by tens of billions of dollars. That’s why I’m also proposing a rainy day fund, which is an interesting idea in the middle of a drought. It reflects a similar idea. You’ve got to take precaution. You need to have some reservoirs of money—we call it reserve funds. 

It’s hard, because when we have a lot of money, we also have a lot of need. The big driver is growing inequality—millions of people whose lives and life chances are distinctly less than those of many other people in society. That pushes all sorts of programs. They’re very plausible, they’re very appropriate, but there’s only so much money that we have. Ultimately, there’s only so much money that tax payers are going to make available. We do have to live within those limits. When it looks like there’s a lot of money there, it’s hard because we think it is always going to come in. But, we’ve seen capital gains drop $10 billion—markets closing down. That’s why, as long as more than 50 percent of our general fund comes from the income tax, and that income tax significantly derives from capital gains, we need to be cautious in how we spend. We need to create a reserve and be aware that we have to look at the long term. 

Just as in sustainability, we look at the resources and the environment, the water, and the energy, but we also have to look at the money. We have longer-term liabilities. I say the budget is balanced, and that’s a big deal because it hasn’t been balanced in a stable way for probably 14 years. But if you look out for liabilities, we have $60 billion in retiree healthcare that we are legally obligated to pay. We have another $100 to $150 billion in various pension liabilities at the university, the teachers’ retirement, and the public employees. Then, we have about $60 billion in deferred maintenance on our roads and in our public buildings. You add that up, and that’s a lot of money. 

Then you have all the things that we want to do with the existing revenue. That’s quite a balancing act, and it means that we’ve got to think down the road. For example, the public employees pension system just calculated that men will live 2.3 years longer than they thought just a few years ago, and women will live something like 1.3 years longer. The result is that the public retiree system needs $13 billion more than it has. We have a bill this year for almost $300 million on our general fund. It’s going to go up in stages, so in just a few years it will be $1.2 billion. This is without us doing anything, except people being a little healthier than we thought. We’ve got to pay another $1.2 billion out of the general fund. That is more than half of what we pay for the entire University of California system. And that was just a blip. God help us if we get healthier! Now, I want you to be healthy. I want to be healthy. But there’s an implication. It means these pension systems are going to have to keep paying. My own personal response to that is to never stop working—just to keep running for office!

We’ve got financial issues in the short term and long term. In the natural environment, we’ve got issues as well. 

Climate change is something real. I know they don’t believe it on Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal isn’t all that excited about it. The fact is, around 97 percent of all climate scientists are in agreement that human beings are contributing to the build up of heat-trapping gases. If you just stand back and think of the big picture, up until 1850, there were never more than a billion people and there certainly weren’t cars. Well, there’s over a billion cars today. We may have another 2 billion cars. We have 7.2 billion people, and we’re going to have 9 billion, maybe. That’s a lot of people! They all drive, they all get houses, they all want to eat well-fed cows. They want beef, whereas most people weren’t eating it in the past. They want fish. The oceans only generate a certain amount, and if you try to have aquaculture, that has its own problems. Something’s got to give here.

There are limits, and technology is going to be part of the solution, but we have to learn how to adjust the way we live and what our values are. These are big challenges. We’re being told that, if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gases significantly, the climate will exceed 2˚C. If we only heat up 2˚from the Industrial Revolution until now, the scientists don’t even know whether we will have already passed the tipping point. Or, maybe we have a little more. It’s uncertain. We’re playing Russian roulette with our environment. 

I live up on the hills of Oakland. I can see the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. I can see the clouds coming in and the sun setting in the west. The weather changes all the time. I think of how those changes are not something that state government has any impact on. We’re changing that. We being humankind—all 7 billion, but mostly people in the United States, China, India, Brazil, and Europe. We’re having the major impact. Unless we change that, the weather will not be so benign. You’ll get mass famines that will cause mass migrations; you’ll have extreme weather events; you’ll have worse droughts than we have; Los Angeles International Airport will be underwater because the sea will be rising. There’s all manner of bad outcomes if we don’t stop the production of these heat-trapping gases. 

Unfortunately, heat-trapping gases are produced by the way we live. The way you got here—in your car. It’s the oil, it’s the gas, and in many parts of the country, it’s the coal. We’re inextricably linked to the use and production of fossil fuels. The only way out over the long term—and it isn’t so long, because we could pass the tipping point in five or 10 years—is to substitute fossil fuels with solar, wind, and efficiency. That also applies to our land use. 

There are many, many things we have to do, and California’s pioneering them. There’s no place in the United States, and there are very few places in the world, that is doing as much to come to terms with the laws of nature as California—as far as climate is concerned. We have 30 percent of the electric car market.

We’re looking at ways to move people by transit, by high-speed rail, and with different fuels that will not pollute in any way. Of course, we’re looking to have people live close to where they work, to telecommute, to increase the quality of life, to increase the elegance of the way we live, and to do that in harmony with nature. The trouble with the tipping point I mentioned is that we probably won’t know we’ve reached it until after it’s too late. “Too late” means that these gases, which go up in the atmosphere, will stay there for hundreds of years. Even what we have already put into the atmosphere may be more than what we really should have done.

California is doing the most, and we’re going to continue doing that. We’re already generating 23 percent of our electricity from renewable energy. We’re going to get to 33.33 well before 2020 and we’ll go beyond that. After having done that, we still have this problem of transportation, which makes up 40 percent of the greenhouse gases in California. Last year, people drove vehicles 332 billion miles. That’s the vehicle miles traveled in a year. The prediction is that by 2020, we’re going to go up another 25 billion miles. Just to give you some perspective, the sun is 93 million miles away. If you want to get your kale from Whole Foods, it’s got to come on a truck. That’s going to generate greenhouse gases. Even though you’re getting healthier, the planet is getting sicker—unless you grow it in your backyard, which you could do in Los Angeles. 

We’ve got real challenges, and it’s going to take leadership. When you look around, most of the other states aren’t doing that much, and most of these other countries aren’t doing that much. We have a lot to do. In California, we’ve already reached out—we have MOUs on climate change with China, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. I’m going to Mexico in July to work on agreements. This is such a unique issue because we all have to work together. California is 1 percent of the problem. If we were 100 percent pure, it wouldn’t make much difference. We have to do what we’re doing—keep advancing, adapting techniques and policies—to reduce greenhouse gases. At the same time we have to get other people to do the same thing. It’s not just the other states. It’s all the major countries in the world. 

Even though China is the biggest generator of these gases now, they weren’t historically. If you look at these trapped gases in the atmosphere, most of them came from the United States or Europe over the last hundred years. It’s quite a task at diplomacy to determine who should do what, when, and how. 

That’s the big global picture, but in order for California to lead, we’ve got to keep doing stuff. How are buildings developed? What’s your housing situation? How is land use situated? One of the great consequences of a high-speed rail system is that in the various places that it stops, you can build up a high-density housing situation. Not only does the train itself create a lesser impact than cars or airplanes, but the land use that it helps foster is also more efficient—more elegant, I would say. The same thing is true of local transit systems, and maybe even some of these new apps that get somebody to drive you around. We may not need as many cars. That’s good, too—particularly because there are too many cars on the road right now. I’ve always wondered, when I’m driving down the freeway, why 90 percent are single occupancy cars. We have a ways to go.

Just like we can make our roads more efficient, we can also make our fuels cleaner. There’s so much more we can do that enhances our quality of life and that is more resource efficient. That is really the test of sustainability—are we able to create the kind of lives we want without negatively impacting the very basis of our lives? There are some other big issues, like growing inequality, education, and lots of other things. The natural base is something that you have to stretch to think about and respond to. It does take skill; it takes money; it takes political courage; and it takes allies all over the country and all over the world. That idea that you have to act locally in order to have some impact globally—with climate change, that’s exactly what we’re doing. 

There are also some immediate benefits, because we’re developing an industry. California is the biggest solar consumer in America, and that’s generating a business all of its own. Through technology, through research, and through good policies, we make progress. That’s why it’s exciting. 

I think there’s a lot to gain in every way, but we’re not even close to where we have to go. Just to give you a number, because everybody likes metrics these days: California generates about 450 million tons of CO2—greenhouse gas equivalent. By 2020, we’d like to be down to 425 million tons. By 2050, we have to be down to maybe 75 million tons. That’s huge. There’s no technology available to get us there, so we need the best minds, the best investors, and the best political leaders to all collaborate to make that happen. By being here and taking the steps that develop from this type of gathering, we get the job done. Have no doubt that this is really big. It’s big in the short term, as witnessed by the water shortage and the longer fire season. 

This is immediate. It’s long term. It’s local. It’s global. It’s really important. We’re in the lead, and we’re going to stay there.

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