Preventing catastrophic climate change requires changing the conversation about it.
“Environmentalists, even though their heart is in the right place, have been communicating the wrong way,” former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Saturday at the “After Fossil Fuels” conference. “We’ve got to talk about what’s happening today, not in 2050 or 2100.”
Schwarzenegger was one of about 30 experts and prominent figures in the battle against global warming at the three-day conference sponsored by Oberlin College and held at The Hotel at Oberlin.
It was the first major event at the Gateway conference center, which opened in May.
Schwarzenegger said climate change is a “national security threat” far worse than ISIS. He noted global warming exacerbates cancer-causing air pollution. A 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology found air pollution prematurely kills 200,000 Americans annually. Emissions from cars and power plants are the biggest killers.
Schwarzenegger and speaker Tom Steyer of NextGen Climate, a group organizing young people to fight climate change, said the victorious fight to preserve California’s global warming law in 2010 is a blueprint for success. Supporters of the law focused on health problems deepened by global warming, such as asthma and cancer, rather than long-term environmental threats like drought, famine, melting polar ice caps, and rising oceans.
“People care about local, human issues. They care about their families, their communities, the people they love right now,” Steyer said. “If it’s too long a time frame, if it’s something too complex and intellectual, they don’t care.”
Besides health, backers of the law stressed converting to renewable energy like wind and solar power creates far more jobs than those lost to dirty energy like coal and oil. With an approximately $2.46 million gross domestic product, the sum of all goods and services produced, California recently overtook England to become the world’s fifth largest economy, according to The Guardian newspaper.
Schwarzenegger said California has become a leader in electric car and solar industry jobs. He said last year, California’s economy grew 4.2 percent compared to a two-percent national average increase.
“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Schwarzenegger said. “Just copy us.”
Steyer said California, which has about 39 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has about 550,000 clean energy jobs.
By contrast, Ohio and its roughly 11.6 million people have about 100,000 clean energy jobs. Despite getting about 62 percent of its energy from coal, Steyer said Ohio has just 5,000 coal jobs.
“We have an image in our head that we’re tied to the old economy,” Steyer said. “But moving to the new economy means new jobs and faster growth.”
Schwarzenegger said the economic message about clean energy needs to be communicated in the same way as the health message. He said coal miners need to know that rather than putting their health and safety at risk in mines, they can get safer jobs making solar panels or wind turbines. “You have to have a vision for the people,” he said to applause from the audience of about 200.
Schwarzenegger, a former body builder and movie star known for movies such as “Conan the Barbarian,” “The Terminator,” and “Total Recall,” was governor from 2003 through 2010.
Unlike many Republicans who deny the existence of global warming — presidential candidate Donald Trump has called it a hoax — Schwarzenegger has been outspoken about it.
His environmental record was praised by Steyer and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who introduced Schwarzenegger. Ritter, a Democrat who served from 2007 through 2011, said the clean energy laws passed under Schwarzenegger were “remarkable.”
However, critics say Schwarzenegger’s environmental record has been “green-washed” by supporters. Detractors said he cut funding for game wardens and his water policies led to the extinction of many fish species. Schwarzenegger, in a brief interview after the conference, defended his record, saying he preserved more land than any other California governor. The website Poltifact rates that statement as “mostly true,” although it says the 25 million acres figure cited by supporters is exaggerated.
During the conference, Schwarzenegger said environmentalists sometimes obstructed efforts to build solar plants due to concerns about endangered species. While Big Oil tried to roll back California’s global warming laws, Schwarzenegger said he tried to work with oil executives.
Schwarzenegger said by reforming the political process — he successfully lobbied for nonpartisan redistricting to avoid gerrymandering and open primaries to increase voter participation — reducing global warming is easier.
Change has historically come from the bottom up, he said, citing the independence movement in India, the U.S. civil rights and women’s suffrage movements, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
“People have the ultimate power,” he said. “This is why it is so important for us to go and really talk to the people.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Ex-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke during the “After Fossil Fuels” conference Saturday at The Hotel at Oberlin and Gateway Conference Center. The former body builder and movie star was one of about 30 speakers at the three-day event sponsored by Oberlin College. Schwarzenegger said California should be a model for the nation in reducing global warming and creating clean energy jobs.