While the federal government retreats on climate change issues, states are stepping up. California, long a bellwether for progressive environmental policy, is setting the tone with innovative policies designed to combat climate change and encourage a sustainable energy future. What can the state’s progress teach us about how the U.S. will deal with environmental changes wreaking havoc and straining budgets across the country?

“The level of ambition is ramping up in California,” said Michael Wara, Senior Research Scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The state’s renewable energy targets represent an almost 10-fold increase in the rate of emissions decline, according to Wara. That’s in the face of challenges such as current low oil prices and a resulting consumer demand increase.

Wara was speaking at a Jan. 23 panel discussion, “California’s Climate Action: Leadership from the States,” hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute. The event, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., also featured Kit Batten, Climate Resilience Chief at Pacific Gas and Electric Company; and Dallas Burtraw, The Darius Gaskins Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future (speaker bios). Chris Field, Perry L. McCarty Director and Senior Fellow at Woods and Senior Fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy, moderated.

The panelists covered a range of issues from how to revamp California’s pioneering cap-and-trade program to drawing lessons for the climate-related role of policy and market drivers elsewhere. Some comments:

“It’s about change management,” Batten said of PG&E’s transition to a climate-aware focus on clean energy. “(It’s about) how to integrate information about a changing normal into the standard business practices and work plans for employees across the company.”

“Strong economic growth is consistent with climate policies,” said Burtraw. “I think, in part, California is positioning those companies for success in California and the world.”

“A key goal for the state of California should be to improve its relationship with the oil and gas supply chain… to partner to solve this problem over the next decade,” Wara said of ways to make process heat – heat used in manufacturing and building systems – cleaner.

This event was part of the Stanford Environment & Energy Panel Series, highlighting pressing environmental and energy challenges and potential policy solutions. Other panels in this series have focused on the intersection of food, water, energy and national security; clean energy research and development for a low-carbon future; and climate adaptation.