Now Playing

Summit of the Damned

If Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit proves anything, it’s that we’ve got a lot of tough decisions in front of us.


Governor Jerry Brown is throwing a climate change party, and everybody who’s anybody in the world of aspirational decarbonization is invited. Among the 4,500 expected delegates and VIPs dropping in on San Francisco’s Moscone Center from September 12 to 14 will be Al Gore (of course), hedge fund billionaire turned anti-Trump activist Tom Steyer, the mayors of Paris, New York, Copenhagen, and dozens of other cities, the ’70s punk rocker Patti Smith, and even the distinguished German scientist Hans Schellnhuber—the man who first warned that humans were hurtling toward the cata­strophic tipping point of a two-degree rise in global temperatures.

When Brown announced his Global Climate Action Summit in the summer of 2017, he cited as inspiration our denialist president’s decision to pull out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate.

The summit is intended to demonstrate that, with or without the Trump administration’s support, a coalition of non-state actors—cities, states, corporations, pension funds—is already making real progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and is ready to make even bigger commitments. The summit, spokesman Nick Nuttall says, is something of a pep rally for those looking to slow down climate change. The organizers are hoping to issue a rousing progress report announcing that “a significant proportion of the global population covered by renewable energy has been achieved,” Nuttall says, that “the proportion of global investments shifting into low-carbon investments” has grown, and that “many more countries are powering past coal.” In other words, San Francisco won’t be the place to argue about the science or complain about the politics of global warming. “This is a show-us-what-you-are-actually-doing” type of gathering, says UC Berkeley energy scientist Dan Kammen, who will be giving multiple talks about the projects that his Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory is setting up around the world.

And what, exactly, will our local officials have to show the visiting luminaries? There is little question that Governor Brown, who has aggressively positioned himself as the leader of the climate resistance in the United States, has a great story to tell. In July, the state announced that it had already hit its 2020 goal of lowering emissions to 1990 levels. And San Francisco has done even better: By 2016, the city got its emissions down to 29 percent below the 1990 mark. In both cases, the reductions were achieved through aggressive legislation mandating renewable energy generation, a cap-and-trade program, progressively greener building codes, energy efficiency regulations, and an obsessive focus on reducing landfill waste. And contrary to right-wing rhetoric, such measures haven’t killed California’s economy, which keeps growing and is now the fifth largest in the world.

For Brown, there are surely worse ways to close out a political career. And the state’s climate achievements are worth celebrating. But once the three days of self-­congratulation are over, San Franciscans should also find some time for a healthy dose of self-criticism. Because, as mandated by state legislation passed in 2016, the next step is a big one: to lower emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. And that, say Kammen and others who have studied California’s emissions-cutting strategies, is going to require more than just tweaking energy efficiency regulations or banning plastic straws. Among city dwellers, some real sacrifices must be made.

“In a world where cities are taking half steps, San Francisco has at least taken three-quarter steps,” says Kammen, who coauthored a report published in April that investigates what California cities can do to lower their carbon emissions. “But given that San Francisco is so blessed with clean energy resources and incredible human leadership, we should be much further.”

The irony, or maybe the tragedy, of San Francisco’s climate change mitigation effort is that two of the city’s specialties—its generally progressive politics and its willingness to adopt innovative new technologies—are, in at least one huge area, working at cross-purposes. Though overall emissions are down, there’s a gaping hole in both California’s and San Francisco’s climate success stories: Carbon emissions from the transportation sector, which accounts for 39 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, have risen every year since 2013. There are several reasons for this: the undimmed Californian ardor for driving, slower electric car adoption than planners would like, and, most recently, our passionate embrace of app-based ridesharing services, a phenomenon that San Francisco, the corporate home to both Lyft and Uber, can be fairly said to have unleashed on the world.

A study conducted in New York City in 2017 revealed that such ridesharing had resulted in a net increase of 600 million miles traveled by cars between 2013 and 2016. Comparable figures aren’t yet available for San Francisco, but a 2017 study of ridesharing by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority found that Lyft and Uber accounted for 15 percent of all intracity vehicle trips. At peak periods that number jumped to as high as 26 percent in downtown and South of Market. And some 20 percent of all ridesharing miles in San Francisco are considered “deadheading”—time drivers spend alone, cruising for fares—an exceedingly carbon-intensive way to manage transportation.

There’s no avoiding it: Our preference for ridesharing is a highway-clogging climate disaster. “The city has got to make some tough choices,” says Matthew Lewis, a communications consultant who has worked on climate issues for decades. “Does it want to be a climate leader, or is it going to continue to coddle car culture? You can’t have both.”

The primary reason that cities have lower carbon footprints per capita than suburbs is that they have the scale to make mass transit work—if commuters use it. In the greater Bay Area, the two neighborhoods with the smallest carbon footprints per capita are the BART-connected downtowns of San Francisco and Oakland. One of the largest footprints belongs to the suburban sprawl east of the Berkeley-Oakland hills. Myriad studies have pointed out that one of the most effective ways to combat climate change is to increase housing density along mass transit corridors.

But here is where our collective choices get even tougher. All over the Bay Area, well-founded fears of displacement, gentrification, and changing neighborhood character have made significantly in­c­reasing the region’s density a fraught course of action. San Francisco wouldn’t be San Francisco without ultra-complicated politics around housing. But at some point, condo-hating community activists will have to square their suspicion of (sometimes less-than-perfect) development with their fear of climate change, an existential threat that affects everyone.

The brutal truth is that, despite the reality of the rising bay lurking in the not-too-distant future, we’ve clung to our carbon-spewing cars and our single-family homes. “We haven’t yet hit enough climate pain for people—even people who know intellectually what we have to do—to make the necessary steps,” Kammen says.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. New San Francisco mayor London Breed made support for vastly expanded housing a central plank of her campaign. East Bay state senate Democrat Nancy Skinner has introduced a bill that would require ridesharing companies to increase their use of zero-emissions vehicles. Solar power use is surging in California, far faster than analysts originally predicted. And Governor Brown continues to sign climate-related laws that are among the most ambitious in the world. Maybe, as the pressure to take action rises alongside global temperatures, our politics and our individual behaviors will change to match.

That’s the dream, anyway. It’s a different kind of California dream than once lured migrants to the edge of the continent. But if Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit is really about sharing best practices and making new hard commitments, then it’s the kind of dream that hopefully becomes a waking reality.


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

Have feedback? Email us at
Follow us on Twitter
Follow Andrew Leonard at