This past Wednesday evening (January 15), a number of environmental organizations (1) hosted a climate debate featuring five of the seven candidates for our State Senate seat. For those who don’t know, the California legislature consists of both an 80-person Assembly (2-year terms) and a 40-person Senate (4-year terms). Jerry Hill, who represents the Senate District stretching from Sunnyvale to South San Francisco (Senate District 13) is terming out, so his seat is opening up.
The debate participants were:
- Josh Becker (Democrat from Menlo Park), entrepreneur and non-profit director
- Michael Brownrigg (Democrat from Burlingame), city councilman and former two-time mayor
- Alexander Glew (Republican from Los Altos), engineering consultant
- Sally Lieber (Democrat from Mountain View), former three-term state assemblymember, mayor, and city councilwoman
- Shelly Masur (Democrat from Redwood City), city councilwoman and director of an educational non-profit
Annie Oliva (Democrat from Millbrae) was unable to make it, and John Webster (Libertarian from Mountain View) did not attend.
From left: Moderator Dave Pine, Sally Lieber, Shelly Masur, Alexander Glew, Josh Becker, and Michael Brownrigg
This blog contains only a summary of the debate, and an imperfect one at that, so those who want more fidelity and/or depth can watch the Mid-Peninsula Media Center recording when it is available after January 25 on community cable and on their YouTube channel.
The candidates each gave two minutes of introductory remarks, reviewing their background (2) and interest in climate and environment. In this case, Lieber went first, though the order rotated with each question. She expressed concern about what she referred to as a “climate collapse”, and she hopes that climate work on the Peninsula will serve as a model for other places. Masur mentioned the broad impact of climate change and said that growing up in Alaska strengthened her ties with nature. Glew said he would like to eliminate coal, reduce petroleum use, and increase nuclear power. He expressed support for sponsor Citizen Climate Lobby’s carbon tax (HR 763), and ended with a joke about his name: “Glew, I hope that sticks with you.” Becker says he is doing this for his kids, and believes that California, with its large economy and innovative organizations, can be a beacon not only for the country but also for the world. He seemed to be the crowd favorite. Brownrigg expressed concern that we are not moving fast enough to address climate change, and suggested more aggressive state-wide goals for zero-carbon energy, plastic reduction, clean water, and transit.
Q: What are your top three priorities?
All candidates were able to list their top three priorities without hesitation.
Masur: 1. Education, 2. Health care, 3. Housing and Transportation. She sees all three as related to climate change, and particularly emphasized her desire for dense housing coupled with better public transit.
Glew: 1. Health care, 2. Environment, 3. Transportation. He wants health care to be cheaper, and pointed to some alternatives (e.g., as in Singapore). He would like to see more of an industry focus applied to our environmental problems, and he would like to see more people care about the issue. And he would like to see much improved mass transportation, citing our 66-minute average commute.
Becker: 1. Climate, 2. Transportation and housing, 3. Education. He cited several endorsements he has from environmental organizations, and noted his interest in moving rapidly and in a way that makes economic sense.
Brownrigg: 1. Affordability, 2. Climate, 3. Families. He said “our communities are eroding” due to a lack of affordable housing and transit. He wants to accelerate our climate initiatives, noting that if the “richest, greenest” government cannot have clean power until 2045, then where does that put the rest of the US, and the rest of the world? He also emphasized the need to adapt to sea-level rise.
Lieber: 1. Climate, 2. Social justice, 3. Education. She wants to “reverse” climate change and fight for equity and social justice, while providing more funding for education.
Q: How should we address the high up-front costs of emissions-lowering technologies like solar panels, EVs, and heat pumps to make them more available to more people?
This was a great question, but the answers were largely disappointing. The most interesting comments I heard were as follows. Becker seemed the most familiar with financing options, and cited a variety including solar leases and “clean energy mortgages”. Glew said he is not a fan of rooftop solar since it is less efficient than larger solar farms. He would prefer to see a residential focus on energy efficiency (e.g., insulation). Others talked more generically about their desire to address inequality.
Q: How would you speed our transition to lower emissions in the next ten years?
All candidates had given some thought to this.
Becker listed a number of ideas for financing, including Governor Newsom’s $1B Green Loan Fund, a climate resiliency bond, and strengthening cap-and-trade. He also suggested aiming for 67% renewable energy and 80% of light-duty cars as zero-emission vehicles.
Brownrigg emphasized the need to think about the “three-legged stool” of demand, supply, and sequestration. On supply, he would set up a multi-disciplinary task force to come up with a plan (in one year) to create 10GW of clean energy in the next five years. He suggested off-shore wind might be a part of that.
Lieber said we must “leave fossil fuels in the ground”. Specifically, she would ban fracking and break up the influence of oil in our state capitol, noting that lobbyists spent $200M to fight the previous attempt to ban fracking. She also mentioned the importance of efficiently moving water and power across the state.
Masur expressed her support for declaring a climate emergency ala AB 1445 to accelerate the state’s transition to a zero-carbon economy. She advocates dense housing and jobs near transit, along with improved transit. She also mentioned the need for better recycling infrastructure.
Glew expressed interest in cleaner vehicles (EV, hybrid, or lightweight aluminum) and would consider fees to spur research into better battery technologies. He would also promote home efficiency upgrades such as insulation and heat pumps.
Q: Are you willing to work with youth groups, and how, to apply pressure?
The answers here were largely “Yes” and “Kids are effective spokespeople for this”, though Glew added that kids should set their own examples, and chastised those who might be wearing sneakers from Asia (citing the shipping emissions) or driving to school.
Q: The impacts of climate change are accelerating -- fire, drought, sea-level rise. How would you approach this?
Most of the candidates mentioned protecting our bay, and thanked the moderator Dave Pine for his work in that area. Lieber, for example, said we need to stop building into the bay. Masur also mentioned forest management (as did several others) and the need to stop building at the interface. Glew chose to point out that if the polar caps melt, then the sea rise of 200+ feet is almost unmanageable, before suggesting that we be more careful with our water and move people inland. Becker added on the importance of carbon removal using forests, soil, and buildings. (He mentioned carbon negative building materials a few times throughout the debate.) Brownrigg emphasized the degree to which his city (Burlingame) is economically threatened by sea level rise, with many businesses at low water levels, citing “tough choices”.
Q: The lack of housing here means long commutes. Do you support (the updated) SB 50?
Only Masur supports SB-50, and she lauded the recent changes. All others cited the need for more focus on affordability and a desire for local control of zoning. Brownrigg mentioned a recent update to Burlingame’s general plan that allows for up to a 20% increase in housing near BART. Becker suggested that big employers should be required to match new jobs with housing. Glew pointed out that our “transit stations” don’t in fact get people to where they need to go, and suggested we focus first on transit that works, given our status as the fourth largest metro area in the country.
Q: How should we be using power shutoffs?
All candidates took turns bashing PG&E, with several suggesting we convert it to community or state ownership. Masur made the point that if we do that, then we own the debt. Brownrigg suggested looking at SCE, which has had far fewer fires, though Lieber mentioned that they have different vegetation. Many also advocated the development of microgrids, though Becker said that PG&E has been blocking that.
Q: Water is scarce. How should we prioritize its use?
Most of the candidates mentioned a need for more use of recycled water, more efficient distribution of water, and improved use by agriculture. Lieber stressed the importance of removing “toxic chemicals” from the water supply. Becker emphasized the need for more metering. Masur talked about the deployment of technology to make recycled water drinkable. Glew expressed support for more storage in the form of (carefully placed) dams, and lauded the hydropower that goes with them. Brownrigg expressed dismay that the Central Valley has been sinking due to the depleted water table, but said he is “incredibly hopeful” that we can reduce agricultural use.
Q: Ocean ecosystems sequester carbon. How should we protect them?
Most of the responses here acknowledged the importance of the oceans and then went on to talk about the need to reduce plastics in our waterways. Lieber added that we need to stop drilling off of our coasts. Brownrigg highlighted the acidification of our oceans and the impact that is having locally, for example on kelp beds. (3)
Q: Environmentalists are not a particularly diverse group. How can we get a broader set of people involved?
Both Lieber and Becker emphasized the importance of green jobs. Brownrigg recalled how French workers lamented that “Macron cares about the end of the world, while we care about the end of the month”, and observed that making the economics work is critical, and ensuring we build a future that is better for all. Glew emphasized the importance of education, and Masur the importance of promoting leaders of color.
Q: What personal attributes and skills do you bring to bear?
Becker emphasized his ability to bring people together from different disciplines (e.g., researchers and entrepreneurs). Brownrigg touted his diplomacy skills and emphasis on service before self. Lieber said she has found success helping others because then they help you. Masur described herself as a fighter who likes to build coalitions. And Glew said he is a logical problem solver who learns and then sticks to his guns.
The moderator asked four yes/no questions.
- “Would you ban fracking?”
All answered yes except Glew.
- “Should the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) divest from fossil fuels?”
All answered yes, though Masur noted it would need to be done over time.
- “HSR has grown increasingly expensive. Should we stick with it?”
All but Masur would abandon HSR; Masur said we should “Maybe” stick with it.
- “Do you advocate the use of nuclear power to help us reduce emissions?”
Both Lieber and Masur said “No”, while Becker, Brownrigg, and Glew answered “Yes”.
This is a tough format, sitting under bright lights in front of hundreds of people answering questions on the fly with your competition. These candidates also have many issues to think about besides the environment. So while I was somewhat disappointed with the responses, it was good to see the interest in mitigating and adapting to climate change. It was clear that some candidates (e.g., Becker) have climate as a higher priority than others (e.g., Masur). It was clear that some candidates (e.g., Brownrigg) have more policy-making experience than others (e.g., Glew). I was disappointed that Lieber, who places climate atop her priority list and has a strong resume, did not have more specific policy points. I wish that Becker had been less comfortable with his “audience favorite” position, and had spent more time explaining his positions and less time touting his endorsements. I wish that Glew had been more confident in his role as the sole Republican on stage, and had shown us how a committed Republican party can aggressively address climate change.
All demonstrated some strong points. Becker has a good grasp of financing mechanisms and a strong network. Brownrigg has a passion for increased climate ambition coupled with affordability. Glew has a keen interest in technology and environmental metrics. Lieber has considerable experience working at the state level and a drive to fight back against oil and gas. And Masur is an eager learner with many related interests. From this debate, just on its own, I would favor Brownrigg as a candidate, since he seemed to have a good combination of commitment and hands-on political experience coupled with strong local ties, humility, and an easy communication style. But there is much more to these candidates. Becker, for example, has published a climate plan, and of course there are many more issues in the election. Kudos to all five for participating in this debate, and thank you to the sponsors for organizing.
I’m curious what thoughts readers have on the candidates’ positions and/or what questions you would have asked them. If anyone else went to the debate, I’d also love to hear your impressions.
Notes and References
1. There were five co-sponsors -- 350 Silicon Valley, Acterra, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Midpen Media Center and Sustainable San Mateo County -- as well as twenty-one “participating organizations”.
2. You can find the websites for the candidates for Jerry Hill’s State Senate District 13 seat here:
- Josh Becker (Democrat)
- Michael Brownrigg (Democrat)
- Alexander Glew (Republican)
- Sally Lieber (Democrat)
- Shelly Masur (Democrat)
- Annie Oliva (Democrat)
- John Webster (Libertarian)
3. AFAIK, there is no great answer to this question. While the candidates could have mentioned some of the controversial ideas being researched, such as iron fertilization or increasing marine cloud cover, the primary way I know of to reduce the temperature and acidification of our oceans is to stop emitting greenhouse gases and to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. Even if we remove all the plastic, our continued emission of greenhouses gases will warm and acidify our oceans, threatening much of our marine life.
Current Climate Data (December 2019)
2019 was the second warmest year ever
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)
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