Q&A: State Sen. John Laird on U.N. climate conference, Santa Cruz impact
State Sen. John Laird, whose district stretches along the coast from San Luis Obispo to Santa Cruz counties, attended the recently concluded United Nations conference on climate change in Scotland. He talked to Lookout about what he learned and what he feels needs to be done locally to deal with our warming planet.
Longtime community and environmental activist State Sen. John Laird attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which concluded last week.
Nearly 200 nations participated and helped forge a new climate change agreement known as the Glasgow Climate Pact. However, Laird is among many who felt it did not fully address the urgency of the problems the world will soon face — indeed, is already dealing with — due to the warming planet.
Laird was elected to the California State Senate in 2020 to represent Senate District 17 after serving as secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency from 2011 to 2019 — the entirety of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s two terms. The district stretches along the coast from San Luis Obispo to Santa Cruz counties.
He previously served as a member of the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board and represented portions of Monterey, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties in the State Assembly. Laird was also a member of Santa Cruz City Council and served two terms as mayor of Santa Cruz.
For Laird, a commitment to conservation is a natural outgrowth of fishing at Bodega Bay and hiking along the Russian River as a child as well as exploring the backcountry above the family cabin nestled between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. He talked to Lookout about his experiences at the conference, and what he hopes to see locally and globally.
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Why did you decide to attend the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow, Scotland?
Climate change is the biggest issue for those in an elected office. California has been a leader and it is good to tell other places some of the things we have done, but I really wanted to learn from other places where we may not be as far along in environmental sustainability. Those are the major reasons I went to Glasgow.
What did you learn from the conference that can be applied to Santa Cruz County?
I was a little disappointed in the overall agreement because I wished it had been much stronger and matched the situation we are in, but one of the big lessons for me was about offshore wind energy. And in California, we are behind other places in the world. We do not have electricity — renewable electricity generation — from offshore wind.
I took a train to Aberdeen, a leading producer of oil, and I took a boat out into the North Sea and saw the floating windmills. And in California, there are two places that offshore wind is proposed: One is off of Humboldt County and the other is off of San Luis Obispo County, which is the coastal area that includes my Senate district. So it is critical for me to go see and understand offshore wind energy because I want to help the state partner in developing offshore wind energy in California. This year we passed Assembly Bill 525 that jump-starts the offshore wind industry in California. I floor-managed the bill in the Senate and was a co-author of the bill.
Assembly Bill 525 inventories the sea space that is available for offshore wind. It identifies the environmental issues so they can be resolved and it starts the process to set and achieve the goals of wind energy off the shores of California.
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How is climate change affecting Santa Cruz County forests, agriculture, and the beaches and ocean?
It’s clearly impacting wildland fires and our water supply. We haven’t seen the worst yet, but sea-level rise in Santa Cruz County is already a problem. The county has heavy climate impacts. When I was resources secretary, we had one of the severest droughts in modern times and wildfires that set records. Lake Tahoe was heating up faster than just about any fresh water lake on the face of the planet. So across California, we are experiencing the impacts of climate change as well.
Are there mitigations we are already taking in Santa Cruz County to reduce the impact of climate change, such as the erosion of West Cliff Drive from storms?
West Cliff Drive is not unique. This will happen in any place that has similar geology along the California coast. It’s a question of how we respond. And an increase in severe storms and intense fires are going to impact houses and roads as well as sewage and water infrastructure. Many things will be changed because of the dynamics of climate change at the water’s edge along the California coast.
Is there a greater emphasis on communities joining together to combat the adverse impacts of climate change?
That is exactly right, and it is really regional issues that interconnect communities. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s not one city or one county, but it’s everybody along the Bay Area. If you are around the Monterey Bay area, it’s at least two counties that together need to manage climate change. And if you are in Southern California, there are many cities that need to band together to manage it because they have the same coastline and the same challenges.
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Are housing and transportation policies changing to adapt to climate change?
In transportation, some of the big issues are Highway 37 along the north San Francisco Bay that has been completely flooded out in recent times. There are highways in Marin County next to the bay that have been flooded out. We will face problems over by Twin Lakes Beach and coastal and mountain roads in Santa Cruz County. We have to make sure we take the appropriate steps to deal with the adverse impacts.
Do you think the Glasgow Climate Pact will endure?
The problem is that there is no international mechanism for enforceability. One sovereign country cannot force another sovereign country to do something short of war.
And therefore a climate agreement is a series of volunteer commitments that then are only enforced by the country that is making the voluntary commitment. There are some exceptions. There have been agreements that countries that emit excessive greenhouse gases will financially help the countries that are bearing the biggest brunt of greenhouse gases. And that is the one commitment that was pledged in the 2015 Paris agreements that hasn’t been fully implemented.
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What are the top priorities for Santa Cruz County in confronting climate change?
We need to prepare more to defend against wildland fires. We are going to have to be really careful about water because of the wild swings in precipitation and we are going to have to be ready for sea-level rise. It could well be worse than it is now on all those issues.
We don’t have much time. Even if in the next six to eight years we dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s too late to stop some of the adverse impacts. We can mitigate them from becoming catastrophic, but we can’t stop them. Even if we take the right steps to reduce climate change, we are going to have negative impacts that we have to mitigate.