Wildfires and smoke-filled air have become increasingly common in California in recent years. (Shutterstock)

California can do better on climate

By Scott Wiener

The night of August 29, 2018 capped off a summer of real progress in California’s fight against climate change. The California State Senate had just taken the final vote to approve SB 100, landmark legislation that would commit California to 100% carbon-free power by the year 2045. That same week, the legislature passed my legislation adding a billion dollars’ worth of funding to clean energy storage development. The state Air Resources Board had just announced attainment of our 2020 climate goal years ahead of schedule, thanks in large part to a globally recognized (flawed, but still significant) cap-and-trade program that a supermajority of the Legislature had recently voted to renew.

Two years later, smoke and ash black out the sky as we face down the biggest wildfires in our state’s recorded history. The impacts of climate change are more extreme than ever. While an intransigent federal government and its allies abroad shoulder much of the blame, new projections show that California is on track to miss our 2030 climate goal without much more aggressive reductions in carbon emissions. Unfortunately, in the last couple of years, we have seen significantly less progress from California on our climate goals. What happened?

Put simply, California has begun to abdicate its leadership in the fight against climate change. After they experienced major defeats several years ago, big polluters like oil and gas companies have regrouped and now exert more influence over our state than ever before. Just this summer, the oil industry killed legislation to phase out single use plastics and to restrict oil drilling near homes and schools.

California has long led the way on environmental issues, and our state’s climate laws will likely serve as the template for domestic and even international climate policy under a future Biden administration. While California cannot solve climate change on its own, it can show the leadership for which our state has long been known, influencing other states and countries to follow. Whatever California can accomplish becomes standard fare for progressives nationwide: a 100% clean energy system, once treated as impractical, is now a consensus goal. Unfortunately, though, if a proposal can’t pass on the left coast, it’s unlikely to be part of the conversation in Washington, DC.

I hope the past month — with horrific wildfires destroying homes and lives, our terrifying orange skies, and unimaginably bad air quality — will serve as a wake up call for all Californians who sit on the fence about some of these issues and to voters who must hold their elected officials accountable to fight climate change. We cannot slide into a sense of comfortable moral authority because we’ve passed some good climate policy in the past. We are living everyday in what seems more and more like a climate apocalypse, and as leaders, we have to keep pushing – even when it means getting slammed by big oil.

California needs a comprehensive Green New Deal that can once again set the gold standard for climate policy. While we’ve done a great job cleaning up our electric grid, the electric grid is only one piece of our carbon emissions — not even the biggest piece (that’s transportation) — and more action is needed ASAP.

Here’s what needs to be part of renewed broad climate action and a Green New Deal in California. Of course, these are not the only climate policies we must enact. But it is critical that we focus on supporting front line communities dealing with the worst impacts of climate change, and put Californians back to work by investing in job growth in green industries.

  • Make Corporations Responsible for Climate Change Pay: Investigations show that big oil companies like Exxon knew about climate change as early as 1977, but lied to the public for years in order to keep on polluting. These companies should be held accountable, and one way to do this is to compel them to pay into climate resiliency funds. We should also enact carbon taxes on big polluters and use those funds to support communities on the front lines of climate change, in the form of direct Universal Basic Income (UBI) payments, infrastructure improvements, or tax credits.

  • Transportation and Housing: The transportation sector is the largest and fastest-growing source of carbon emissions in California today, thanks to our nightmare housing costs and restrictive land use policies — harshly limiting new housing in places like the core Bay Area through zoning and other tools — that push people further from job centers and into sprawl development with longer commutes that worsen vehicle emissions. Making matters worse, much of that sprawl development is in wildfire zones, which increases wildfire risk and makes controlled burns much more challenging due to the presence of so much development. While we need to ban the sale of fossil-powered cars and switch to electric vehicles, we can’t make the switch fast enough to meet our 2030 climate goal under even the most optimistic projections. We need to make it easier for people to walk, bike, or take public transit to work, or at least to drive a shorter distance. That only happens when we ensures that cities build housing close to job and transit centers. Building new sustainable transit and housing projects are also excellent job creators in a sector that is struggling.
  • Going Electric: Buildings are some of the biggest polluters we have. We need to immediately stop building homes and offices heated by dirty natural gas and start building all-electric. For those buildings already hooked up to our gas system, we need to replace the supplies of fossil gas with clean hydrogen and other alternatives. This is a key fix that is also better for building residents.
  • Industry: California can and should lead the world in clean manufacturing. We need to make it easier for our industrial facilities to use electrolytic hydrogen and other renewable fuel sources in the next few years, not the distant future.
  • Fossil Fuel Extraction: We need an immediate ban on fracking, followed by a phase-out of all fossil fuel extraction. To make this a reality, though, the state needs to invest significant resources in helping fossil fuel workers transition to well-paid, union jobs in the green economy. And we need to remove barriers to massive deployment of clean energy, including arbitrary barriers erected by the California Public Utilities Commission.
  • Carbon Sinks: Even if we stopped emitting carbon today, we’ve already passed the limit of how much our atmosphere can bear. We need to empower our farmers to cultivate healthy soils, which can store massive quantities of carbon if managed correctly. We also need to rebuild our endangered marine ecosystems, such as kelp forests, which are the biggest carbon sinks of all.

It won’t be easy to regain our leadership in the fight against climate change, but California has done it before. Public pressure can and will change the dynamics in our state. We’re in the fight of our lives, for our lives – it’s time California recognized the urgency.

State Sen. Scott Wiener represents San Francisco and northern San Mateo County. He is up for reelection in November.

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