The Political Opportunity of a Drought

California Governor Jerry Brown's push for massive cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions turns a crisis into an opportunity to legislate.

“I can tell you, from California, climate change is not a hoax," California Governor Jerry Brown told Martha Raddatz earlier this month. "We’re dealing with it, and it’s damn serious.”

The key word missing from Brown's widely disseminated Sunday morning show soundbite was "drought." While his appearance on This Week was ostensibly meant to be about California's worst-ever drought on record, he parlayed the segment into a broader conversation about climate change.

With alarming reports about water shortages and the state's warmest-ever winter, Brown has successfully folded the issue of the drought into a broader slate of ambitious environmental reforms. But even as he puts together billion-dollar relief packages and labels climate-change opposition "immoral," he does so without explicitly linking the drought to global warming.

Even though reports from agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have refrained from laying the historic drought at the foot of global warming, Brown has used the general sense of crisis to move ahead on climate-change issues. Brown's efforts are not only affecting California, but the rest of the country as well.

In an executive order on Wednesday, Brown called for the most aggressive cuts to carbon emissions in North America. The order establishes that California "must cut the pollutants to 40% below 1990 levels by the year 2030, more than a decade after he leaves office," the Los Angeles Times reported.

“California is taking the most aggressive steps to deal with pollution and the effects of climate change,” he told a roaring crowd at a climate-change conference in California.

As Bloomberg notes, in order to achieve this new target, the state will have to "require utilities to get more electricity from low-pollution sources, compel industries to cut smokestack emissions further and encourage greater numbers of cleaner cars on roads." One likely upshot is that California's efforts are going to impact businesses and utilities in other states, making the Golden State's policy a meaningful factor elsewhere in the country.

Writing in The Atlantic last month, Heather Gerken and James Dawson outlined the impact of "spillover laws," wherein one state passes legislation that impacts other states, sometimes in ways that are anathema to them. As they point out, California, which is the world's seventh-largest economy, "has irked its sister states on a regular basis" with initiatives ranging from the importing of out-of-state eggs and foie gras to forcing fuel producers from neighboring states to maintain in-state emissions standards in order to sell in California.

Brown seems to relish the role. On Wednesday, following the executive order, he proclaimed that, "In North America, California is now setting the pace, and we're very serious about it."

But what's truly enabling political action here is the drought. And having a credible messenger. During Brown's first eight-year tenure as governor from 1975-1983, he faced a water crisis and sounded the alarm about the environment, which contributed in part to the securing of his infamous sobriquet "Governor Moonbeam."

Now a seasoned veteran at 77, Brown's pragmatism is showing through as he works to enforce new water-saving regulations. "Brown’s current mandatory cutbacks don’t apply to agriculture, though farmers consume 80 percent of the water in California," Reuters reported. "Critics contend that Brown is bowing to special interests. But farmers have already experienced big cuts in their access to federal and State Water Project deliveries."

There's some populism too. Earlier this week, as he worked to unveil broader enforcements of state water restrictions, Brown threatened to fine the biggest offending wasters of water upwards of $10,000. The proposal didn't contain any specifics about what violations would actually merit that maximum fine, but it made its point.