California must act urgently on climate

What state leaders do next will dictate the future of our children

By Mike Young

Special to CalMatters

A delegation of 15 state lawmakers is joining a conference of world leaders in Scotland to discuss climate change solutions. As leaders of the world’s 5th largest economy, their participation is important, but it’s more urgent for them to act once they return.

The latest research reveals California’s climate crisis overwhelms policies to stop it, and our low-income communities, communities of color and seniors face the most harm. If unchecked, this mismatch will undo decades of work Californians have dedicated to preserve a healthy environment and build an equal society.

Leaders rarely face circumstances where bold action is a moral duty. Our planet will reach a dangerous level of climate change as early as 2027. After failing to take meaningful action this year, what state leaders do next will dictate whether we preserve a safe and healthy future for all Californians or leave behind a damaged state for our children.

The climate is already changing. This summer was California’s hottest on record, after the 2010s were the hottest decade ever. California just experienced its driest year in a century. Every corner of the state faces severe drought. Conditions are so extreme in our agricultural heartland that fields are being left fallow, orchards are being ripped out and harvests will be smaller. Rain is now a rare event that comes through bomb cyclones causing deadly mudslides and flash floods.

These conditions fuel catastrophic wildfires that block out the sun while choking millions with toxic air. A record 4.2 million acres burned last year, an area only slightly smaller than the nine-county Bay Area. Over the last four years, wildfires caused “smoke days” 45 times a year in San Jose, 32 in Los Angeles and 23 in San Diego.

The intensity of these climate extremes is expected to grow by at least half this decade, an alarming reality that will further reduce our water supply and access to clean air and fresh food. The pressures of a changing climate may be a nuisance for some Californians, but they threaten the survival of many.

Extreme heat causes more deaths than other natural disasters, especially in our cities. Concentrations of pavement and building materials absorb and re-emit heat. A lack of urban greenscapes intensifies heat through the urban heat island effect, disproportionately harming communities inhabited by low-income people of color unable to afford air conditioning.

Prolonged heat exposure can cause death from heat stroke and dehydration. It also increases the risk of death and health complications from chronic illnesses like kidney disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Workers on construction sites and farms face new exposure risks from heat and smoke. If climate-altering emissions continue at current rates, workers will collapse at higher rates at jobs they can’t afford to lose. This seems like an inevitability in Fresno, which will experience 43 extreme heat days per year starting in 2050.

Our seniors may face the greatest risk. Wildfire-induced interruptions to our power supply, now common, create a frantic scramble for those reliant on electrical medical devices. Many have died because they cannot find emergency oxygen tanks, backup generators or conserve dwindling battery power.

Ultimately, Californians must acknowledge an uncomfortable truth. Other governments are doing significantly more on climate. Last year, the United Kingdom – just behind California with the world’s 6th largest economy – pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 68% below 1990 levels by 2030. That’s 70% more aggressive than California’s climate goals. Last month, the city of Los Angeles committed to run on clean energy by 2035 – 10 years ahead of California.

Leading scientists claim California must reduce emissions at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2030 while also removing more carbon from the atmosphere than we emit. They also note we have the tools to do the job and eliminate 75% of the state’s air pollution.

It’s time for Californians to demand real action on climate.

Mike Young is the political and organizing director for California Environmental Voters. CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.

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