In summary

The conference featured promises to reduce greenhouse gases, vows to banish carbon, multilateral pacts and sincere handshakes.

Sitting in a quiet hall on Friday, away from the cacophony of the Global Climate Action Summit, state senator Ricardo Lara recalled an experience that brought into high relief something he hadn’t known: California’s policies to decelerate climate change are watched and admired by a global audience.

The realization came at a meeting during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris, when he was asked to speak first, as an acknowledgement of California’s leadership on the issue.

“I came out of that understanding our role, and the importance of being at the table,” said Lara, a Democrat from Bell Gardens.

The state’s environmental cred is such that it now sets the table, as it did at the three-day conference in San Francisco this week. The event brought together thousands of international officials and, uniquely, scores of business leaders, too.

It’s been something like a days-long pledge drive, with non-stop commitments to reduce greenhouse gases and vows to banish carbon. The summit produced a blizzard of multilateral agreements, calls to action, crossing-of-hearts and sincere handshakes.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, left, with Gov. Jerry Brown and an official at a 2017 climate conference in Bonn. Photo by Julie Cart for CALmatters
State Sen. Ricardo Lara, left, with Gov. Jerry Brown and an official at a 2017 United Nations climate conference in Bonn. Photo by Julie Cart for CALmatters

What all that ultimately amounts to is an open question, but there’s no denying the urgency of the mission. Much of the dialogue has been driven by Gov. Jerry Brown, the climate world’s Cassandra-in-chief and the event’s co-host. His dire assessments contrasted with the can-do tone of much of the conference.

“We are in a race against increasing destruction,” Brown told CALmatters.

But he allowed that, despite the pontificating typical of these events, “I believe we are getting people to commit that would not have committed at the same level. And we are bringing people together who will form partnerships. We are raising the awareness, and that is definitely a step forward.”

Brown was seldom seen publicly in the convention center but was busy with behind-the-scenes meetings and dinners.

He surfaced to close the summit on Friday, making an announcement that literally extended California’s climate vigilance into space: The state will launch a satellite to scan Earth’s atmosphere for planet-warming greenhouse gases.

“We will launch our own damn satellite to figure out where the pollution is,” Brown said in a 90-second farewell that included praise for the zeal of the attendees.

That enthusiasm was evangelical at times. Even before the summit officially opened, more than 500 companies pledged to cut carbon emissions, and 100 countries, states and cities committed to achieve carbon neutrality–a zero-carbon footprint–by midcentury or sooner. West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Los Angeles and San Francisco were signatories to that agreement.

But it was the prominence of business and financial institutions that set this event apart. The vast convention center took on the look of a trade show at times, with companies eager to show off carbon-busting technology and gadgets.

The business world has not been excluded from the U.N. summits but “what’s new is the place in line that businesses are taking; they are up near the front,” said Derek Walker, vice president for U.S. climate for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The more surprised you are by someone being on stage announcing a commitment, the more impact it will have,” Walker said. “It also means that there’s probably a healthy amount of skepticism…Pledges don’t cut emissions. But it’s an important signal.”

He called the pledge-fest “a collection of concrete and meaningful steps.”

Some companies have made past promises, with great fanfare, to “green” their operations but then failed to follow through. The new wrinkle is that there are now third-party verification entities and a science-based framework for measuring achievement.

For example, McDonald’s promised to lower greenhouse-gas emissions related to its restaurants and other facilities so that they are 36 percent below their 2015 levels. Those emissions will be reported and charted, and any shortcomings will be noted.

The commitment was born of the Paris meeting, said Francesca DeBiase, the company’s chief supply-chain and sustainability officer. “These conversations turn into action. We’re really excited about it.

“Everyone in our leadership believes that climate change is the biggest issue of our time,” she said. “We can mainstream sustainability.”

That’s the sort of talk Brown was hoping for and will likely hear at the end of the month, when he travels to New York City for Climate Week, returning the favor for his co-host in San Francisco, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“There are lot of positives,” Brown said. “But there are barriers, a lot of big boulders in our way. We are making progress. If could just get more global leaders, we’ll get it done. That will only occur when the climate impacts become more obvious and, unfortunately, more destructive.”

Gina McCarthy, former head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and a participant in San Francisco, praised Brown, in particular for maintaining a robust economy without “losing one step in terms of the state’s drive toward a better, healthier environment and actions on climate.”

As for the value of summits: “Stuff gets done,” she said in an interview.

Lara is a believer.

“Dialogues are very important,” he said. “These conversations turn into action.”

Some of his colleagues in the Legislature see climate summits as “another convening of elites. I understand that perspective,” he said. “I was one of those critics. I was that skeptic.”

But after Paris, “seeing how important California’s role is in the United States and the world is something that I am really proud of.”

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Julie Cart joined CalMatters as a projects and environment reporter in 2016 after a long career at the Los Angeles Times, where she held many positions: sportswriter, national correspondent and environment...