As the state continues to experience the effects of climate change, green advocates in California are pushing for increased resource efficiencies through a series of pioneering new laws and regulations—and they’re succeeding.

WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

In early June, in the days after President Barack Obama announced plans to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent by 2030, USGBC California chair Dennis Murphy noticed that much of the news coverage surrounding the announcement focused on the location of the speech.


Instead of outlining his executive order from behind a podium or in front of a smokestack, Obama delivered his address from Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where the president said he was visiting with children who had asthma and other breathing problems. Obama linked their illnesses to air pollution and said that the country needed to reduce emissions, not for the sake of the environment, but “for the sake of all our kids.” Instead of reciting statistics about climate change, he talked about creating solar energy jobs that “cannot be shipped overseas.” And rather than issue warnings about rising thermostat readings and shrinking ice caps, the president said the new emissions standards would prevent 2,100 heart attacks during the first year of implementation.


Dennis Murphy listened to the news as pundits like Democratic strategist Chris Lehane talked about how Obama’s address represented a pivot in the national conversation about the environment. The president could win over voters, Lehane argued, if he succeeded in framing the climate debate in terms of “kitchen table” concerns like energy bills and kids’ health.


The argument had a familiar ring to Murphy. “It was stuff that we’ve been talking about for years,” he says. “It’s important to understand climate change, but it’s complicated, there’s a lot of nuance—weather isn’t climate.” It’s easier, Murphy says, for most people to relate to the issue when they’ve experienced the impacts firsthand. “Last year in Dallas, they had 30 days in a row over 100 degrees,” he says. “Just imagine somebody’s 85-year-old grandma living alone in an apartment and basically burning up.”


A transplant from New Jersey who retains the self-described “zeal of the convert,” Murphy is unapologetically boastful about California’s environmental record, and so it’s no surprise that he gives the state a bit of credit for the president’s new political strategy on environmental issues. Innovation, Murphy is fond of saying, is like the wind, blowing from the West to the East—starting in California and then making its way across the rest of the country.


While green advocates in a number of other states might dispute that notion, there’s no denying the Golden State’s long history of leadership on environmental issues. In 1884, a state judge outlawed the dumping of gold-mining rubble into waterways, a decision that predated the federal Rivers and Harbors Act by 15 years. In 1959, the state developed its own air quality standards, and when the Federal Air Quality Act was passed in 1967, California received a waiver allowing it to enforce tighter emissions regulations than called for by the law. The state is home to the country’s first carpool lanes, and passed the first law requiring smog checks for cars.


Even the U.S. Green Building Council itself was founded in San Francisco. The organization is now headquartered in Washington, D.C., but—like the wind in Murphy’s metaphor—it originated out West.


Advocacy in Action


In 2010, when opponents of California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 tried to suspend the law, a new-on-the-scene group was there to help fight to protect the legislation: USGBC California. Murphy helped start the statewide group in 2009, giving the California’s eight individual USGBC chapters an umbrella organization that could advocate for their shared values in precisely moments like this one. The 2006 climate law created a state cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, and although supporters conceded that California’s actions would have only a very minor impact on a worldwide problem, the legislation was designed to help mitigate the state’s outsized contribution to that problem (then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in 2006 that the state was the twelfth-largest emitter of carbon worldwide). Proponents also hoped that the law would continue the state’s tradition of leadership, showing people in other parts of the country that meaningful carbon regulations did not have to signal a death knell for industry.

LEED Silver property Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites in downtown Los Angeles.

Photo: Adeeb Howrani.

Although the legislation was a little outside of USGBC’s usual green-building wheelhouse, it spoke to the larger environmental concerns that are shared by nearly all of the organization’s members. “If this law went away, it almost wouldn’t matter what we were doing on more narrowly defined green building issues,” Murphy says. “We realized that we needed to be part of a broad coalition.”


Murphy set up phone banks where volunteers called USGBC members and urged them to vote against Proposition 23 that would have suspended AB-32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, requiring greenhouse gas emission levels in the state be cut to 1990 levels by 2020. Ultimately, the proposition was defeated by more than 2 million votes.


While USGBC California was only one of a number of groups fighting against the proposition, the election gave the young organization a chance to test out its fledgling voice on an important statewide issue. Before the state umbrella organization was founded, Murphy says, it was impossible for the different chapters to speak as one.


“A bunch of us would go up to Sacramento, and we would explain what we were doing, and we met with a number of legislators and staffers,” Murphy recalls. “And they would say, ‘Oh, this is really great, but you guys are the Northern California Chapter. Where’s the rest of you?’ If you’re dealing with state policy, you need a state organization.”


Candice Wong, chair of the California Central Coast Chapter, says that the creation of the statewide group has helped connect her small branch, which has no paid staff, to the other chapters in the state. “Instead of all of us individually doing our advocacy, that’s what USGBC California was built to do. It’s a good thing,” she says. “They’re much more connected to Sacramento than the rest of us.”


“In the past,” says Wes Sullens, vice chair of USGBC California, “one chapter would advocate on an issue or bill, and then another chapter would contradict that. So it’s been good to have a consistent voice.” Sullens calls the organization Murphy’s “baby.”


“He’s got the vision, the history, and sets the tone on things,” Sullens says of Murphy. “I think his strength is in pulling the right kinds of advocates together at the right time. If there’s a water issue, or an energy issue, he knows the players to pull in.”


Since the fight over Proposition 23 Murphy has focused the state organization’s efforts on legislative and regulatory battles ranging across a broad swath of issues, from getting health-hazardous flame retardants out of furniture foam and home insulation to ensuring that more recycled water is used to mix concrete for construction projects. Each year, the group organizes an Advocacy Day in Sacramento where USGBC members from around the state lobby legislators on environmental issues. “That’s exciting, because legislators realize when we go to Sacramento that we’re real people, not just a professionally staffed organization,” Murphy says. “That’s a big difference. Volunteer-driven advocacy takes extra work, but it’s very powerful.”


More often than not, Murphy has found himself on the winning side of debates, thanks in part to California’s environmentally friendly executive branch. In the same 2010 election in which voters upheld the state’s climate law, they also returned Jerry Brown to the governor’s office. Brown, who is up for reelection this November, was already a hero to many green advocates for the environmental legislation he championed as governor in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he’s largely picked up where he left off, forcefully advocating for national action on climate change.


At USGBC’s Advocacy Day in 2012, Brown announced Executive Order B-18-12 that Murphy and the state organization had pushed for, requiring state agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and requiring all new or substantially renovated state buildings larger than 10,000 square feet to obtain LEED Silver certification or higher.


“That same year, USGBC California’s advocacy contributed to the victory of Proposition 39, which closed what supporters called a tax loophole for out-of-state companies. The proposition changed the way that out-of-state corporations calculate their state taxes, essentially raising taxes on corporations that have high sales figures in California but no physical presence there in the form of property and employees.


The change is expected to generate around $1 billion per year in new tax revenue. For the first five years of the new law’s implementation, half of that money is going to the state’s general fund, and the other half to the Clean Energy Job Creation Fund which will pay for energy-efficient school building projects.


Currently, Murphy is pushing for the state to pass “purple pipes” legislation requiring new buildings to include infrastructure for utilizing recycled water. “We get involved in a lot of stuff,” Murphy acknowledges, laughing. “Across the country, nobody has the irrational sense of hope and optimism that we do.”

Across the country, nobody has the irrational sense of hope and optimism that we do.

– Dennis Murphy

707 Wilshire, reflecting 550 S. Hope and the U.S. Bank Tower.
Photo: Adeeb Howrani.

The 2008 AB 32 Scoping Plan identified several actions to help California reduce GHG emissions from both new and existing buildings. Original estimates indicated that 26 MMT CO2e of emission reductions could be achieved from the green building sector, which represented 15 percent of California’s 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction target.


Executive Order S-20-04 outlined guiding policies that called for reducing electricity consumption in existing and new state-owned buildings 20 percent by 2015, through designing, constructing, and operating all new and renovated state-owned facilities to LEED Silver or higher certified buildings.


The Green Building Action Plan, included in Executive Order B-18-12, provided additional details and specific requirements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 to 1990 levels and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. It also includes requirements to reduce grid-based energy purchases by at least 20 percent by 2018, achieve LEED Silver certification for new or major renovated state buildings, retrofit half of existing buildings to be Zero Net Energy (ZNE) buildings by 2025, and implement electric vehicle charging stations to accommodate future infrastructure demand.

Healthier Communities


Central to these advocacy efforts has been a focus on the human effects of sustainability, much like the impacts Obama discussed in his emissions announcement. Opponents of environmental regulations have long argued that they result in job losses, but now green advocates are flipping that line of argument on its head—pointing, for example, to the green-energy jobs that will result from the school projects that the new Proposition 39 tax money funds. And instead of pointing out the environmental benefits of these green schools, advocates have largely focused on the health of the kids inside them. This is the dirty little secret that clean energy advocates have stumbled on: People don’t need to care about the environment to help save it; they only need to be told what’s in it for them.


“If you say, ‘Green schools have cleaner air, more daylight, less absenteeism,’ people get it right away,” says Dan Geiger, executive director of the Northern California Chapter of USGBC.


“The school districts that we’re working with are not focused on climate at all,” says Ted Flanigan, president of the environmental consulting firm EcoMotion. “They see this new tax money, and they want to not only upgrade their antiquated equipment, but they also want to reduce their bills so more of this money can go into education.”

Dominique Smith with Nicos Katsellis and Michelle Saquilayan at the office of USGBC’s Los Angeles Chapter.

Dominique Smith, executive director of USGBC’s Los Angeles Chapter, says she’s seen a “huge movement” toward including human health issues as part of environmental advocacy. “When you talk to somebody about a solar panel, or green building, they can sometimes kind of glaze over,” she says. “But when you talk about how it affects people —their health, their happiness, their well-being—everyone has a connection to that.”


If Californians have been quicker than others to connect climate change and other environmental issues to real-life human impacts, perhaps it’s because they’ve long been able to see the evidence of those impacts simply by looking out their windows.


There’s nothing theoretical, for example, about the smog that has plagued Los Angeles for decades, and it’s not difficult to see how breathing in brown air might turn someone into an environmentalist. Although smog is still a problem, the situation has improved through emissions regulations, a fact that—according to Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the group Climate Resolve—makes Californians more receptive to further regulation. “We already have a regime in place for dealing with smog, and so it’s not too much of a leap for us to take on carbon dioxide,” he says. “It’s one of those things where, when government succeeds, it gives people confidence in the government to take the next step.”


Looking at the data, it seems that those next steps are needed. On the American Lung Association’s list of most polluted cities (by year-round particle pollution), the top seven are all located in California. In Fresno County one in six children has asthma. A 2013 MIT study attributed 21,000 early deaths a year to air pollution in California, more than any other state in the country. The San Joaquin Valley is one of four areas the EPA has set as a priority for improving its air quality in the next 10 years. According to the EPA, its strategy includes reducing particulate matter (PM) concentrations by 7 percent annually through regulations to reduce levels by 34 percent next year (compared to a 2009 baseline). If the EPA can maintain the standard, it would prevent 640 PM-related deaths per year.


More broadly, California is experiencing a number of impacts associated with climate change, some of which are outlined in a 2013 state report titled “Indicators of Climate Change in California.” Extreme heat events have become more common in recent decades; for example, by the year 2100 there could be one hundred additional 90-degree days in Los Angeles each year; long-term data shows rises in sea levels at 10 of 11 tracking stations along the state’s coast; winter chill periods important to fruit and nut crops are shortening; and wildfires have burned up hundreds of thousands more acres in the last decade than in years past.


“We’re really beginning to live these impacts,” says Renée Daigneault, interim executive director of the San Diego Green Building Council. “The climate conversation in Los Angeles isn’t about polar bears and ice caps; it’s really about heat, wildfires, our water resources, and sea level rise and storm surge,” says Krista Kline, managing director at the Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability. “People can see the beach eroding, they can see their cliffs shearing off. They understand it. They see it. They know they have to do something about it.”


Smith, the Los Angeles Chapter executive director, gives an even starker example: “If you’ve never seen a fire tornado, it’s really something. I don’t think you can put that image out of your head.”


Because of the gradual and complex nature of climate change—and the naturally erratic bounces of weather—it’s nearly impossible to tie any specific storm or heat wave to a warming planet. In particular, many people argue that California’s current drought is cyclical, a result of normal year-to-year variability in precipitation. But the fact is, these are the types of outcomes one would expect to see as climate change begins to manifest itself as something more readily accessible to average people than readings on Arctic thermometers. And, from an advocacy perspective, it simply may not matter all that much whether specific phenomena are the direct result of climate change. Climate and weather may not be the same thing, but even so, Californians are a lot more likely to listen to warnings about climate change when it’s 105 degrees outside, water is being rationed, and a wildfire in the distance is filling the air with smoke.


As the impacts of climate change have begun to be felt, Murphy says, much of the advocacy surrounding the issue has shifted toward a focus on adapting to the reality of a warmer plant—meaning less talk about emissions, and more talk about utilizing resources efficiently.


One example is the ongoing effort to require recycled-water pipes in all new construction throughout the state. Another example is the 2013 Los Angeles “cool roofs” ordinance, which requires new and refurbished homes to be topped with reflective surfaces, keeping houses from heating up too much on sunny days.


Los Angeles is the first major city in the country to require cool roofs, but it likely won’t be the last. As other parts of the country start to feel the effects of climate change, they’ll likely look to replicate much of what California is doing now. And if they do, the smile on Dennis Murphy’s face won’t be any mystery: He’ll have been proven right again. As with so many times in the past, he’ll have watched innovation blow from west to east.

When you talk to somebody about a solar panel, or green building, they can sometimes kind of glaze over. But when you talk about how it affects people —their health, their happiness, their well-being—everyone has a connection to that.

– Dominique Smith


(top) Dennis Murphy and Jeremy Sigmon, USGBC Director of Technical Policy, in Sacramento, California; (middle) kids at a sand playground in Laguna Beach; (bottom) young boys on skateboards in downtown Los Angeles.

Photos: Adeeb Howrani.

Health and the Built Environment

Last fall, USGBC’s Northern California Chapter launched its Building Health Initiative, a partnership of more than 30 businesses, nonprofits, and government entities aimed at reframing green building as a human health issue.

Each partner in the initiative—which includes the state health and retirement benefits agency CalPERS, the healthcare consortium Kaiser Permanente, and companies like Facebook and Google—has pledged to take specific steps like making their own buildings healthier, using their clout to push for healthy building materials and practices, or studying the relationship between health and the built environment.

“We realized there’s lots of great people doing great work around health and buildings, but they tend to be siloed,” says Dan Geiger, executive director of the Northern California Chapter. “The idea was to get people out of the silos and help them collaborate.”

Some of the partners, like Google, have pledged to develop procurement practices that take into account materials transparency and product declarations about health and the environment, to help show suppliers that demand exists for healthy and sustainable products. Adobe is studying its LEED-certified workplaces to determine whether the buildings have an impact on employee health and creativity. Other partners are developing health standards for affordable housing, educating clients about the relationship between health and sustainable building practices, and creating wellness programs for their employees.

“We’re talking about everything from toxins to walkable communities,” says Geiger. “Once you start talking about health and the built environment, it’s a huge issue.”