Coming to terms with uncertainty
I’m back in California this week, but that doesn’t mean I’m sitting still! At this moment I’m heading down to Ontario for a summit on Proposition 39 co-hosted by two of the best groups working on the issue at the local level: the Coalition for Adequate School Housing (C.A.S.H.) and School Energy Coalition. As you all know, I’ve long been a Prop 39 proponent and advocate, and now I get to play that role for real: Last week State Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Controller John Chiang announced their appointments to the Proposition 39 Citizen’s Oversight Board and included me in the list. I’m extremely honored to be joining this stellar group, though I’m a little daunted by the number of actual experts involved. I’ll have to catch up on my Public Utilities Fortnightly reading ASAP.
But seriously, I’m excited to be in an oversight role as Prop 39 goes from political theory into policy reality. The program has huge potential to become a model for other states, especially if we can figure out a way to leverage public funds to bring in more private dollars to retrofit our schools, and if we can ensure that the smallest and most needy schools have good access to technical assistance and credible contractors.
Prop 39 is more than just a fund for efficiency projects, though: it’s also an opportunity to provide energy and climate education to students across the state. It’s clear that Americans lag behind their peers in energy and environmental literacy, as evidenced by the fact that last year’s cold winter resulted in a drop in the number of people who believe climate change is happening. Prop 39 projects offer an amazing opportunity to actually engage students and school communities in the process of making energy improvements. Building energy literacy is key to our overall state economy. As the one state in the nation with a strong climate policy covering both electricity and fuel, we need a future workforce that’s well-grounded in the technical and academic skills necessary to build a low-carbon future. I recently found out that California actually already has an environmental literacy curriculum in place: the Education and Environment Initiative integrates environmental concepts into a variety of classes, including science, history, and social studies. Maybe Prop 39 offers the chance for schools to take another look at this curriculum and incorporate it into their everyday teaching.
Speaking of the state’s overall economy, it’s doing pretty well, according to the Governor’s State of the State address this week. Governor Brown, who has delivered more of these addresses than any other governor in California history, used his time at the podium to remind Californians of this fundamental truth: “Life is uncertainty.” That’s a truth that underlies pretty much all the work my team does every day, whether we’re thinking about climate change or about volatile energy prices. But as the governor noted, while we can’t control uncertainty, we can—and do—live our lives to account for it. We adapt to it where we need to, and work hard to mitigate it where we can. Our Risky Business project (featured on the front page of the NY Times today!) is based on this reality: that we need to understand the probabilities and risks of climate change in order to rationally react to those risks.
In California, the biggest uncertainty facing us in the near term is, of course, the drought, which is the worst in our recorded history. Scientists still can’t tie any one specific weather event to long-term climate change, though that may change with new research coming from the American Meteorological Society later this year. But as Governor Brown noted, “We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gasses, but we can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come.” It’s time for California to tackle uncertainty head-on, by both adapting to the drought – through reduced water use (time to put in those desert plantings you’ve always wanted!) and smarter water planning – and by doubling down on mitigation efforts to reduce the long-term consequences of climate change.
One specific action we can take today is to make sure we’re not putting our precious state aquifers at risk. That’s why Tom Steyer called this week for an independent analysis of the experimental drilling techniques being used to tap the oil trapped in the Monterey Shale, which extends beneath a vast swath of central and Southern California, including at least one major aquifer. Oil companies have admitted they will likely only be able to get to the oil using techniques such as “acidizing,” where highly toxic hydrofluoric acid is injected into the ground to melt the shale and release the crude oil.
Given the proximity of the acid to our critical state water supplies, this is one area where I’m not so comfortable with uncertainty.