Gov. Jerry Brown traveled two not always parallel paths to win legislative approval for extending California’s cap-and-trade approach to shrinking its carbon emission footprint.

Publicly, he depicted it as a moral imperative because carbon-caused climate change, he says, poses an existential threat to humankind.

Last week, he described an apocalyptic future of massive social dislocation, disease and deadly heat – “Southern California burning up” – unless greenhouse gases are sharply reduced.

“I’m not here about some cockamamie legacy that people talk about,” Brown told a legislative hearing audience. “This isn’t for me. I’m going to be dead. It’s for you. And it’s damn real.” And he told senators, “This is the most important vote of your life.”

Meanwhile, however, he was engaged in old-fashioned, very private retail politics to build – or buy – support from major interest groups and enough legislators to pass the cap-and-trade bill. Essentially, he doled out chunks of money from auctions of carbon emission allowances – targeted tax cuts and direct grants, mostly – and played on the fears of business leaders that the alternative would be onerous direct regulation.

He used the Air Resources Board’s looming authority to issue regulations as a political bogeyman for business, telling legislators last week, “Don’t put us under the Air Resources Board for an intrusive command-and-control. Cap-and-trade is the way forward.”

By the time both legislative houses took up the issue on Monday, virtually every major interest group had expressed support, with farmers being the last to climb aboard.

It was a considerable political feat. And despite Brown’s denials of seeking legacy for himself, he clearly hopes to become a global figure in climate change after leaving the governorship, so rejection of cap-and-trade would have been highly embarrassing.

But is it as vitally important as Brown, et al, depict, or is it just a symbolic act proving anew that California is different?

California’s carbon emissions are only about 1 percent of the planet’s, so whatever it does will have scant direct impact, easily offset by a few more coal-burning power plants in China and/or India.

Also, cap-and-trade is just one of many strategies being employed, expected to achieve about 20 percent of the state’s emission reduction goals. Under current programs, the state is on track to reduce its carbon emissions to their 1990 level, pegged at 431 million metric tons per year, by 2020.

The next step is a 40 percent reduction by 2030 to 260 million metric tons. It would be achieved, according to the state “scoping plan,” not only by cap-and-trade to reduce industrial emissions, but by a greater shift to more non-carbon sources such as solar and wind for electric power, putting more zero-emission cars on the road, and forcing refiners to reduce the carbon content of fuel.

At 431 metric tons, California would be emitting about 10 tons per person, and at 261 tons, that would drop to six tons. That’s a big reduction, but the international standard is no more than two tons per capita, or one-third the 2030 goal.

Officials envision that happening by 2050. However, the low-hanging fruit is already being plucked from the tree. Reducing carbon emissions by another 80 percent over the next 33 years will require enormous, very expensive and inconvenient changes in Californians’ lifestyles.

Brown sees California leading the global war on carbon emissions, and reaping the economic benefits of pioneering new technology to do it. But if he’s wrong, and California becomes an outlier, we’ll be paying a heavy price for almost no real world impact.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...