Did the Pope Really Blast California?

"Pope blasts California's cap-and-trade" was the headline from the San Francisco Chronicle's initial coverage of a major statement by Pope Francis on environmental stewardship and climate change ("On the Care of Our Common Home"). But a closer look at the text of the encyclical reveals that's just not the case. In its emphasis on the urgency of action to prevent climate disruption, in ways that also address equity concerns, the Pope's encyclical affords further support for California's multi-dimensional approach to cutting its carbon pollution.

Here is the one sentence (out of thousands) that conceivably could be read otherwise: "The strategy of buying and selling 'carbon credits' can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide." [Paragraph 171] This is an entirely reasonable caution, and there are unfortunate illustrations around the world of failed schemes to pay people not to emit greenhouse gases (Professor Michael Wara of Stanford has chronicled the worst examples, some of which actually ended up encouraging people to pollute more, in hopes of being bribed to cut back).

But that's nothing like what California does. Instead, the state has established enforceable caps on statewide greenhouse gas emissions, while using market-based mechanisms to minimize the cost of achieving reductions. The state auctions off a limited number of emissions permits to oil refiners and utilities, rebates some of the proceeds to consumers, and reinvests the rest of the proceeds in clean energy technologies (with a particular focus on low income communities). This "cap and trade" mechanism is only one of many integrated approaches that California uses to cut its carbon pollution; others include energy efficiency incentives and standards, aggressive targets for renewable energy additions, land use changes, and forest protection. The Pope's eloquent emphasis on equity concerns has always resonated in California and figures prominently throughout the state's climate solutions portfolio.

U.S. climate policy is moving in a similar direction with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which opens the way for power plant owners to trade carbon emissions permits as part of the path to significant overall pollution reductions (totaling 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels). This program draws on decades of EPA success with market-based ways to minimize acid rain, phase down lead pollution, and reduce interstate smog and soot.

Pope Francis also is unambiguous in his support for the fastest and cheapest ways to reduce carbon pollution, which involve smarter ways to use energy [Paragraphs 180-181]. His emphasis appropriately "include[s] favoring forms of industrial production with maximum energy efficiency and diminished use of raw materials, removing from the market products which are less energy efficient or more polluting, improving transport systems, and encouraging the construction and repair of buildings aimed at reducing their energy consumption and levels of pollution." California does all of that, and Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown would join in agreeing strongly with the Pope that "Here, continuity is essential, because policies related to climate change and environmental protection cannot be altered with every change of government."

California didn't need a papal blessing to launch its climate policies, whose origins go back at least four decades. But it certainly can't hurt, as long as it isn't misconstrued.