Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared at CAA on Wednesday to talk about the path forward for climate change activism in the wake of President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accords.
Garcetti and Schwarzenegger each said that despite the withdrawal, cities and states have long proven effective at taking their own actions, and that individuals should not be dissuaded from getting involved.
But they did say that a problem for environmental activists has been in the way that the issue has been framed. Garcetti called it the “narrative” around climate change, and the need to connect the issue “to the people.”
“Why are skies clearer in Los Angeles today? Because mothers went to City Hall in the ’50s with gas masks and said that the smog was killing them and their children,” Garcetti said.
He recalled growing up in the San Fernando Valley near the pollutants coming from the 405 and 101 freeways, and of the “cancer clusters” in that neighborhood. Three members of his own family have had cancer, he said.
“If you don’t humanize what the impact is, voters will think, ‘Oh, this is just something that scientists and Democrats and greenies are talking about.’ You actually have to make this a human issue,” he said.
Schwarzenegger said that environmentalists have been “communicating this terribly,” with so much of the focus on the threats 20 or 30 years down the line as opposed to the health impacts today.
“If you talk about climate change, it doesn’t really mean much to most people in the world, and when you talk about icebergs melting, they don’t care,” he said.
He said that what needs to be emphasized is “what is happening today. Today 19,000 people are dying because of pollution in the world. There is around seven million people from air pollution dying every year. Thirteen million people dying from pollution in general, every year. It is government’s responsibility to protect the people. It doesn’t make any sense to be all worried about, ‘When is ISIS going to come to America?’ Or all those kind of things, when in fact you are killing in America over 200,000 people every year, when you think about the health care. No one talks about that.”
He also said that more importance needs to be placed on the national security dangers of climate change, something that will resonate with Republican voters, as well as economic benefits of a shift to green energy.
“California has the strictest environmental laws, but at the same time we are number one in economic growth in America,” he said.
Garcetti and Schwarzenegger said that they had not talked to Trump about his decision to pull out of the Paris agreement, but said that it should not stall the movement toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“This idea that it only comes from the top down has never been the vision I had, so even when President Obama was president, the cities were where the action was at, the states were where the action was at,” Garcetti said. “So waking up and seeing the unfortunate withdrawal and the lack of leadership from the White House wasn’t a sea change. They can really add a lot to the effort. But it really depends on everybody in this room, and in the places where we live, the places where we work, the places where we worship, the places where we study to take action.”
Garcetti has been among the leaders of a group, called Climate Mayors, to mobilize cities to abide by the emissions targets of the Paris agreement. It started with three cities — Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia — and within 24 hours of Trump’s withdrawal, it grew to more than 100 cities. It now includes 338 cities.
Even if Trump had decided to stay in the agreement, Garcetti said he had doubts as to whether the administration would follow through on measures to reduce greenhouse emissions.
“So this president is so far out of whack with reality, with the science, with the economic needs and the health concerns,” Garcetti said. “We are just going to keep taking up the slack and run with it.”
Schwarzenegger recalled the resistance he got from the George W. Bush administration after California passed a landmark law in 2006 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“I didn’t expect that the administration from my own party would go in and try to derail us, and not give us the waivers so we can regulate our own air,” he said. “Washington claimed that they don’t have to give you a waiver to regulate your own air if they say that greenhouse gases, CO 2, is not a pollutant. That is what they said.”
He added, “Imagine it for a second. In movies, what you do when something like this happens, is you take those guys who say, ‘It’s not a pollutant’ and you hook their mouth up with an exhaust pipe.”
That drew laughs from the crowd.
Schwarzenegger continued, “In the real world you are operating in — and sometimes it is tough for me to adjust — in the real world we had to go the normal route, which is we sued the federal government.”
The state won after the litigation was taken all the way to the Supreme Court.
Schwarzenegger noted that it is not just states and cities that are pursuing climate goals, but private corporations and universities.
After attending conferences in Europe in the aftermath of Trump’s decision to withdraw, Schwarzenegger said that his message was that “America did not drop out. One man dropped out. But America stayed in.”
The event was moderated by Rachel Kropa, the co-director of the CAA Foundation.