California is a climate leader—can other states follow?

Image: Courtesy of Noah Berger via Land Line Magazine.

California is a leader in climate-based action. But they’re also dangerously subject to its effects. The rest of the United States doesn’t have the option to wait until their own disasters ensue to take action. 

Eighty-five percent of California’s population work and live in coastal counties. The sea level along these coasts are projected to rise by 20 to 55 inches by 2100, which would put 500 thousand people at risk and threaten $100 billion in property and infrastructure. California’s largely “ocean-dependent” economy, estimated at $46 billion in size, would be significantly impacted by coastal erosion. Rising sea levels correlate with an increase in saltwater contamination of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, predicted to affect the source of clean drinking water for 20 million people. The 2020 California wildfire season was considered the worst ever, with nearly 10,000 fires burning over 4.2 million acres. California’s August Complex fire was described as the first of its kind, the first ever “gigafire” as it burned over 1 million acres of land. While wildfires are considered a natural phenomenon, climate change has altered the wildfire season, which now starts much earlier and ends later than in previous years. And the list of disasters goes on. California, with its unique and beautiful climate, is also one of the most vulnerable states when it comes to climate change. 

California contributes to less than one percent of global emissions and just under seven percent of U.S. emissions. At the same time, California’s air quality is often ranked the worst in the country. Six of the 10 most polluted cities are in California, with Fresno-Madera leading as the  most polluted city in the country. 

Simultaneously, California has long led the charge on climate change for the United States. In 2006, the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) was passed, marking a watershed moment in the state’s commitment to transitioning to a clean economy. AB 32 was the first of its kind to take a longer term approach to addressing climate change while maintaining the state’s natural resources and robust economy. AB 32 is considered a Cap-and-Trade program: the “cap” refers to the limit on greenhouse gases, which typically becomes more strict over time. The “trade” is essentially a market for polluters to buy and sell allowances that allow them to emit a specified amount, letting supply and demand set the price, thus creating a strong incentive for companies to save money by cutting emissions in the least costly way. Companies that cut their pollution faster are able to sell their allowances to less renewably developed companies, effectively “banking” them for potential future use. In essence, the market creates flexibility for companies, increases the pool of funds for reductive measures and encourages innovation and business. 

The passage of this act required a sharp reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, namely,  a decrease to 1990 levels by 2020. And believe it or not, California hit this target four years early, supporting the case that pollution can be cut while growing an economy. The cap and trade worked. California reconfirmed its commitment to the cause by extending and strengthening its limit on GHG emissions with the passage of SB 32 in 2016 and AB 398 and 617 in 2017. The next goal is to cut emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. But the state still has their work cut out for them. A recent report from the research firm Energy Innovation discovered that over the next ten years, the state has to cut emissions two times faster than they did the last ten to reach the aforementioned 2030 goal. 

So we know two things: California is a climate leader and also most vulnerable to its effects. I think there’s a correlation, if not a causal relationship. And it makes sense: A state witnesses the dire reality of climate change by experiencing prolonged fires, droughts, rising temperatures and horribly polluted cities. It’s no longer some far off threat. It’s right in their face. The state is largely Democratic and thus consumes media sources that are aligned with the climate science. People vote to reflect the mainstream attitude towards climate shifts, and the state is able to enact change (with the help of finally affordable clean options). 

Yes, California’s progress is important. They’re the exemplars for the transition to a cleaner and greener economy. But states cannot wait any longer to follow. For many states with big economies, the effects they experience won’t reach the extremes California already has. But that cannot matter, because if it does, we’re in a whole lot of trouble.

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