Jerry Brown likes to do the unexpected. So it should not have been surprising that Brown turned up unannounced at the Planning and Conservation League's annual symposium on Saturday, January 12, in Sacramento and vowed to sue cities and counties that do not account for climate change in their next general plan.
Brown insisted that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires local governments to consider how land-use plans and development projects could contribute to climate change. And he warned that attorneys in his office are reviewing and commenting on environmental impact reports for the plans and projects.
"My office is looking, and we're going to send you a comment. And you should look at it or we're going to sue you," Brown said to any local government official who may have been in the audience of about 250 people.
The former governor conceded that he could not litigate all of the 120 general plans that currently are in some stage of update or "they'll run me out of town." Rather, he said, "We're looking at people who are flagrant, egregious and vulnerable."
Brown was not even listed on the symposium's program. Lunch was billed as a talk about water by PCL Executive Director Gary Patton.
Instead, Brown walked into the room just as servers were distributing plates of vegetarian lasagna, and he proceeded to steal the show with his usual mix of bold statements, self-righteousness and self-depreciating humor.
Brown made headlines last year when he sued San Bernardino County over that county's failure to adequately address climate change in a comprehensive general plan update. Brown settled the lawsuit months later when the county agreed to adopt a policy that outlines ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributable to discretionary land use decisions, and to prepare a greenhouse gas reduction plan with targets through 2020 and mitigation measures.
On Saturday, Brown said his office also is focusing on regional growth blueprints adopted by councils of government. Brown said he has learned that global warming is not at the top of COGs' agendas, but said he believes it should be. These blueprints need to be far more aggressive, and then cities need to implement the plans, he said.
The friendly crowd gave Brown a standing ovation for his blunt, rambling and often humorous lunchtime speech. "Every time you applaud, that's one more lawsuit I will file," Brown joked as he left the stage.
Of course, there are alternative viewpoints. Unfortunately, not everyone who cheered Brown's speech heard attorney Stephen Kostka, co-author of Practice Under the California Environmental Quality Act, provide a counter-argument. During a breakout panel discussion after lunch, Kostka said people expect land use planning to provide more greenhouse gas emission reductions than is likely. For decades, planning and zoning emphasized exclusion, which caused the type of development that people now decry. "I'm not sure how far you can roll the film backwards," Kostka said.
It is only an assumption that new development will increase greenhouse gas emissions, said Kostka, who frequently represents the building industry and developers. Most new buildings are far more energy-efficient than old ones, he noted. And, he asked, how do you prove that residents of a new development will drive more than they would have had the development not been built?
Kostka conceded that planners must consider the consequences of plans, but he argued that CEQA is the wrong tool for addressing the issue. Land development does not cause greenhouse gas emissions; it's economic growth, population growth and human activity that cause the emissions, he contended.
Kostka drew a rebuttal from fellow panel member Terry Roberts, who heads the CEQA clearinghouse in the Governor's Office of Planning and Research. She said the greenhouse gas reduction law passed in 2006 (AB 32) and last year's AB 97 make clear that climate change is a CEQA issue, even if CEQA is not the ideal tool.
What's most important is not who's right and who's wrong, but the speed at which climate change has taken over the agenda. Yes, the PCL event was packed with greenies. But not even many of them were talking about this stuff as recently as two or three years ago. Now, it's all that anyone talks about. Concern about climate change is the reason that green building is becoming commonplace. And it's one of the big reasons the post-war suburban growth model is falling out of favor.
The conversation has changed. As Jerry Brown noted, Arnold Schwarzenegger has made it permissible even for Republicans to talk about climate change. Planners have a new issue, and this one appears to have all the political traction in the world.
- Paul Shigley