Setting the Pace for a Greener Future: An Interview with Senator Fran Pavley

October 27, 2014

By Carl Smith

California State Senator Fran Pavley has focused on energy and environmental issues throughout her career as a legislator. In 2002, she authored a law limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and light trucks, creating the model for today’s national standards.  In 2006, she authored the landmark Assembly Bill 32, which set a long-term cap on statewide greenhouse gas emissions. Most recently, she has addressed air quality, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and water issues.

You were a teacher for almost three decades before you entered politics. Why did you decide to make this change?

Politics and my teaching career intersected for a long period of time before I got engaged on the big level of the state legislature. While I was teaching 8th grade History in Moorpark I was simultaneously serving as Mayor and a Council Member in the city of Agoura Hills, which is in close proximity to Moorpark. Eighth grade history was a lot about American History from 1750 to 1900, the Constitution, how a bill becomes law and civics. I was teaching this during the day, running the Student Council meetings on the weekdays, then running a City Council meeting in Agoura Hills at night. Also at that time I had been appointed to the Coastal Commission and with the permission of my Superintendent, I was allowed to spend a couple of days each month on the California Coastal Commission which has jurisdiction over 1,100 miles of coastline.

Are there things you gained from your years in the classroom that have served you well in the world of politics?

We always try to figure out ways to make whatever the subject matter is more relevant to students. While I was teaching 8thgrade History in Moorpark, I would often have the Mayor of Moorpark come down and be questioned by my students. I always made an effort to connect the dots for kids about how being involved in policymaking and politics makes a difference in their lives. I would take the students to the Ventura County courthouse once a year to do mock trials and meet with judges. Before we called it “career education,” I was just trying to make what we were studying more relevant and not just rely on the textbooks.

When I first started teaching in Northern California, in a tiny little town called Esparto, I began an outdoor education curriculum for students. I took 6th graders in Moorpark up to areas near Shasta or Sly Park, near Pollock Pines. I was just a few days on the job in Moorpark when the Superintendent said, “Reading your resume I understood you started an outdoor education program for students in Northern California, why don’t you do that for us?” I searched for environmental education programs. There weren’t any in Ventura County.  Santa Barbara County Schools had a very good program and camp for outdoor education. I took students there every year for about 25 years, and for most of those kids it was the first time they were not only away from home but also staying overnight in the outdoors.

My whole life I had interwoven education and the environment. Timing is everything in life. I had gone back to school while I was teaching and earned a Masters Degree in Environmental Planning. An opening came up to run for State Assembly and a friend of mine, who I haven’t forgiven since, said, “Why don’t you run?”

I did and was outspent four to one—teachers probably aren’t in the best place to finance a political campaign—but ended up winning. It was an amazing election. I taught through almost the entire primary. After winning the primary, I left my classroom in June and took one bag of personal items, not knowing if I would be back or not. The rest is history.

Are there things you gained from your years in the classroom that have served you well in the world of politics?

Absolutely: organizational and listening skills, the ability to stay calm under any pressure. If you have taught middle school, you know that the last thing you want to do is lose your temper because that means they won. The ability to work with people no matter what their background was. Every year you were dealt a hand of cards, if you will, 100 students or so that you had to work with and do the very best you could to get the outcomes you wished for by the end of the year. You had to work with parents. You had to work with other teachers. You had to cooperate to be effective.

Teaching gives you many of those tools that you need. The one thing though I didn’t have as a teacher—and if you are in education you will appreciate this—was that I never had staff or an aide that worked for me. If the trash needed emptying you did it. Right? You did everything.

As a new legislator, I had to learn how to delegate responsibility and not micromanage. It took me a while to delegate responsibility to staff and allow them to initiate and complete things. It took me a couple of years to get rid of all of the red pens in my purses; I tended to grade their papers the first couple of years, drawing smiley faces and circling misspelled words. I’ve learned not to do that. I don’t own red pens anymore.

If you can teach Middle School and survive, you are very well qualified to serve in the California Legislature.

You are known for your success in pushing through legislation focused on environmental conservation. Did you always know that would be your priority?

I always knew it was going to be a priority. When I came in, I had some very good advice from my predecessor, former State Senator Sheila Kuehl. You have this moment of panic that sets in when you actually win an election and are going to Sacramento. I said, “Boy, there are so many policy areas I know very little about.” Sheila said, “Take what you know the best, focus on those issues, and make a difference.”

My background included local government, education and environmental policies, serving on the Coastal Commission, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and outdoor education. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley during those horrible smog-filled days of the 50s and 60s before unleaded gas and other kinds of air quality improvements. I spent weekends at the beach and was aware of water quality issues. All these worlds in my background came together when I went to Sacramento and I decided to focus on those basic areas. I have prioritized my focus in the areas of environment, energy, education, local government throughout my 12 years in the state legislature.

The first Speaker of the Assembly I served under told me, “We are going to have a void in terms of a member who will make environmental issues a priority. I need you to do that.” Everyone wanted to be involved in education—this was in the year 2000, when the state still had money. I was on the education committee, but I chaired a budget sub-committee that had to do with the environment and I focused on that.

The advice from my predecessor Sheila Kuehl was very good. I let people who had background in other issues take the lead, and I stayed focused on issues that actually have an amazing overlap with each other: education, the environment, energy, particularly clean energy, and transportation. Today, I chair the Natural Resources and Water Committee for the state Senate. All of these areas intersect very nicely with my past.

Are you happy with the progress that is being made toward the goals of AB32? Is there any area where you’d like to see things moving faster?

I started down this pathway back in 2001 with the introduction of AB1493, California’s clean car law, which is now a national policy. That accounts for about 25% of the emission reduction in the scoping plan under AB32. Look at our domestic and foreign automobile markets now. We have a broader choice of vehicles for consumers—cleaner, more efficient cars that get 50 miles per gallon. That saves you money on gasoline and it cleans up the air.

Transition is difficult. You need to create markets. We don’t pick which technologies should be the winners, but provide markets for investment in new, cleaner technologies, whether it’s automobiles or building designs for energy efficiency. We develop policies that create markets for solar and wind. We are seeing those market signals pay off.

Should it move faster? Absolutely—but it’s challenging because you need enough lead time. We have been successful in passing landmark legislation without harming the economy. In fact, we can make the case very clearly that the economy in California has benefited from these new markets, which are creating new jobs in sustainable energy or water for the next generation.

In 2002, most of us in California knew that climate change is real and caused by humans. The surprise is how much more quickly we have seen tangible proof of climate change—the characteristics of dramatic weather patterns, three years of record drought, less snowfall and snow only at higher elevations. We are witnessing the beginning of sea level rise along our 1,100 mile coast line. The undisputed evidence of the impacts of warmer climates on health, whether it’s children with asthma or other problems, has been documented by health care professionals.

When we started the discussion, these were things we thought our world would experience maybe 30 years from now, not so soon. There is a greater sense of urgency. This is why this year we will continue to work on climate policy. Senator Ricardo Lara has a bill that looks at short-lived climate pollutants, such as methane. That is something we can do that would accomplish some of our greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts sooner than later. We also need to look at strategies that can be implemented in other states and in other countries. We need to take the lead in California and become the incubator for these new technologies, and the ways you can scale them up so they can be used and developed in the U.S. and around the world.

Several years ago I was at a climate change conference and I was sitting next to a nice man from China, an engineer. We were looking at different technologies for vehicles to make them cleaner and more energy efficient. I was a little surprised to see him at a conference in the United States on this issue and he said, “You know, if California didn’t require catalytic converters we would not be using them today in China.” This is why it is so fantastic to be a state official in the state of California. California can take the lead on these issues because we have some of the best agencies, engineers, scientists and innovators in the world. California has some of the best experts, including our employees or board members with our Air Resources Board, our Energy Commission and the Public Utilities Commission. It’s a very exciting place to be and you can start to see how California can make an impact, not just on how much we reduce greenhouse emissions but how we can develop the technologies that other countries can use.

The next generation and the one after that are so incredibly important to continue to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. These are multi-generational policies. The exciting news today is there are job possibilities in all these areas in the private and public sector. We need to make sure that what we teach now in our K-12 school districts is relevant to this changing future in the 21st century; sustainability, whether it’s on energy or water, is critically important. On college campuses we are seeing a real sort of renaissance, if you will, of students picking majors in new fields that relate to sustainability.

You have first-hand knowledge of the world of education as well as the worlds of policy and politics. What kinds of things can educators do to support the state’s environmental conservation and protection efforts?

It is incumbent upon all of us, whether it’s in non-profits or youth organizations outside of school or in the schools themselves, to interweave environmental conservation and protection efforts into the curriculum wherever we can. That has been a challenge in our schools, frankly. We’ve been reading and math test-based and have sometimes lost our way as far as connecting key priorities like reading, math and writing into environmental education and sciences, having role models come to the classroom, or encouraging the private sector to offer internships to students.

In many cases, we are seeing an explosion of clean tech companies that are going to need an educated workforce. That means decent, well-paying traditional middle-class, 21st century jobs can be readily available. Providing that educational experience to meet their needs is very important.

How important is it for schools to model practices such as energy and water conservation?

Incredibly important, and we are starting to see some benefits of that. We know K-12 school districts have been under tremendous pressure during the recession and the challenge was finding the capital to invest in improvements in order to see long-term benefits in energy savings in your schools. We are seeing some good news. We are seeing solar companies, such as a Solar City, that can pay for the up-front capital costs for putting in solar panels. We have dozens and dozens of high school parking lots that are covered with solar panels providing shade for the cars and clean energy for the schools. The panels are paid for by savings on their energy bill; schools don’t lose any money and eventually start saving money. Proposition 39, Tom Steyer and Kevin de León’s effort, will make  money available for grants that go to school districts so they can invest in energy efficiency.

Whether it is different lighting fixtures or replacement of old, outdated, air conditioners, schools everywhere are very interested in operating more efficiently. Not only is it a good learning opportunity for students, but it is also good for the bottom line. We are seeing some win-win situations, and educating students on the multiple benefits of alternative energy is a great teachable moment on these school sites.

Any last words for teachers?

We’ve had difficult times the last few years and investing pretty much your entire adult life in educating is not only an amazing experience but a valued public service. I honor and appreciate their commitment to the next generation. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs and one of the most frustrating jobs I have ever had. Not only was I a long time teacher, but I married a teacher who recently retired after 31 years.

Finding the time to teach students about so many important things in the world, including environmental issues and sustainability and water conservation, has to be woven into their more pressing requirements from the administration. It’s very challenging and very rewarding.

We are looking for that next generation of teachers, and I salute those who are in the classroom every day. They have a tough job and I recognize their commitment.

Thank you

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.