State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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California’s Continuing Climate Leadership

California’s political spectrum includes few climate deniers because one would need to be a complete fool to deny the impacts of climate change on that state. Drought, heat and forest fires are now a permanent feature of life for Californians and the people who live in that state don’t “believe in” climate change, they live it. The idea that scientific fact can be dismissed by “beliefs,” is ridiculous but it is one of the causes of global warming, just as it is one of the reasons that over 200,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Scientific facts need to be understood, not worshipped or “believed.”

In June, the state of California decided that by 2035 half of the trucks sold in the state would need to be zero-emission and by 2045, all of the new trucks sold would need to meet that requirement. Last week, that schedule was accelerated when the governor required that all trucks and cars sold in the state would need to be zero-emission by 2035. Since they also sell trucks and cars in Nevada, these bans are far from absolute. Nevertheless, they signify important goals. Reporting in the New York Times recently Brad Plumer and Jill Cowan observed that:

California has long cast itself as a global leader on climate-change policy, having already passed a law to get 100 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and other sources that don’t produce carbon dioxide by 2045. But in recent weeks, as the state has been scorched by record wildfires partly driven by rising temperatures, Governor Newsom has found himself pressured to act even faster. Ramping up sales of emissions-free vehicles in California will be an enormous challenge over a relatively short period of time, experts said. Last year, only 8 percent of the nearly two million passenger vehicles sold statewide were battery-electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles. Transportation remains California’s largest source of planet-warming emissions, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gases from human activity.”

As ambitious as this seems, some Californians want to decarbonize even more rapidly while others worry that the government is coming to take your car. Climate policy advocates do not want your car. They want you to have a modern one. But if you’d like to keep your eight-track tape player—fine. The rest of us prefer Bluetooth. As for targets pushed by climate policy advocates, they’re useful, but the hard work of technological transition and diffusion is not easily predicted. Setting a goal is not the same thing as reaching it. My preference is to rigorously measure and understand the current situation and then work hard to improve. These targets are aspirational and will be delayed if they can’t be reached.

The problem with the way the climate issue is defined is that advocates consider the issue of climate change to be a moral issue and believe that people must be required to give up consumption they value to save the planet. By doing this, they have allowed fossil fuel interests to define the issue as one of freedom vs. tyranny. Climate policy advocates have been influenced by economists who are attracted to carbon taxes and pricing fossil fuel externalities. The idea would be to raise the price of fossil fuels, so people pay its “true” cost. More expensive fossil fuels make renewables more price competitive. While that is good economic theory, it is bad practical politics. A more effective strategy is to seek to lower the cost of renewable energy and other decarbonization technologies such as electric cars through tax incentives. Our goal should be to modernize our energy and transportation system and make it more cost-effective and efficient. Renewable energy is the future, fossil fuels are the past. Decarbonization is a win-win. It will lower the cost of energy. Since energy is an essential element of economic life, a strategy that seeks to lower its cost will be more popular than one that requires the average person to directly incur increased costs. And, of course, California can’t mitigate climate change on its own, it can lead but our biosphere is global. Carbon from Texas warms the climate in California. The droughts and fires in California cannot be stopped by the actions of Californians.

Climate change leadership must come from the American government and must be projected both inside and outside the United States. President Trump has not only refused to play this role, he continues to resist the facts of climate change and has added it to the many myths and lies he feeds his political base. If he is not reelected, then it will be possible to focus attention on America’s role in addressing climate change. If he is reelected, the strategy of stimulating change in our states, communities, institutions and corporations must continue. Change from the ground up will be required in any case. I think this view was well expressed in December 2018 by John R. Allen, the president of the Brookings Institution when he wrote that:

“Increasingly, and especially here in the U.S., there’s developed an important distinction between the leadership that can be provided by a president or the federal government, and the wider values-based leadership that a country can deliver on major issues through the actions and efforts of businesses, state and local government, NGOs, and every-day citizens. Climate change is a leading example of this: where, through the collective leadership of “everyone else,” the United States is continuing to act as a force for meaningful change despite the retrogressive thinking and recalcitrant behavior of the current Administration on this issue. That’s what I call “American leadership” – or, leadership defined by the values and norms that have made America the greatest nation on the planet these many decades. And it doesn’t require the U.S. government, or, “U.S. leadership,” to be effective.”

There is a great deal of old infrastructure, buildings and vehicles in the American economy and they will not be replaced overnight. The process of decarbonization is a generation-long struggle. The speed of change would be much greater with the American national government at its center. Our ability to provide technical breakthroughs and economic incentives to the developing world would be greatly enhanced by an active and aggressive national climate change policy. But I agree with Brookings’ Allen, that America can lead without Washington as well.

We saw this after Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate agreement when Mike Bloomberg mobilized institutions, corporations and state and local governments to join him in bringing America’s civil society back into the agreement. The unfortunate other side of the argument is the sad spectacle of an American president telling state and local officials in the midst of the worst forest fires in memory, that climate had nothing to do with the intensity of the fires. According to Trump: “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.” And the coronavirus will “just disappear.”

Californians know better and understand that climate change is no hoax or delusion. Their governor is playing a leadership role but is being pushed by activists responding to the urgency of the crisis. As in all else, events in California predict events in other parts of America. Extreme weather events are made worse by climate change, and our infrastructure and way of life are vulnerable to these events. We need a national effort to adapt to climate change and rebuild communities after they are damaged. And then we need an intensive, urgent effort to mitigate climate change and reduce all sources of greenhouse gasses, starting with energy and transportation. California deserves our gratitude for again leading the way and providing hope in this most difficult time.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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David Kaplan
David Kaplan
3 years ago

We need to make sure that grid integration is effective. It’s not enough to build lots of renewable generating capacity. Recent blackout events in California are exhibit A illustrations to poor planning/thinking. We need to see more rigorous input from the academic community which to date, sees itself primarily as policy advocates. In the medium to long run, if the implementation of these policies doesn’t work, the public will lose confidence in these initiatives. That won’t be good for anyone.