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Drought, Wildfires, Power Outages, Air Pollution and a Pandemic

Climate change has already cost states like California billions of dollars in damage to agricultural, tourism, recreation, and other industries. It’s also claiming human lives.

It’s impossible to escape the news. California is experiencing its worst wildfire season on record and it’s far from over. The state has been locked in a devastating drought for more than a decade. A warming ocean and a warming atmosphere are taking their toll on the most populous state in the U.S. and one of the largest economies in the world.

To help the state brace for the impact, the California Natural Resources Agency prepared reports to the Governor on California’s Climate Adaptation Strategy, and the Agency also produced three Climate Change Assessments based on peer reviewed science. Those reports detail the existing and expected impacts of global warming in California. These include:

Forest and rangelands cover over 80 percent of California’s 100 million acres. Climate change will affect tree survival and growth, reducing these lands’ productivity and changing their habitats. In addition, climate change makes forests more vulnerable to fires by increasing temperatures and making forests and brush extremely dry and combustible. Today’s fire season in the western United States starts earlier, lasts longer, and is more intense than in the last several decades.

Wildfire occurrence statewide could increase several fold by the end of the century.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack functions as the most important natural reservoir of water in California. Under current conditions, the snowpack is created in fall and winter and slowly releases about 15 million acre-feet of water in the spring and summer, when California needs it most. California’s dams and water storage facilities are built to handle the snow melt as it happened in the past. Higher temperatures are now causing the snowpack to melt earlier and all at once. Earlier and larger releases of water could overwhelm California’s water storage facilities, creating risk of floods and water shortages.

California drought and climate change

As sea levels rise, saltwater contamination of the State’s delta and levee systems will increase. Saltwater contamination of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta will threaten wildlife and the source of drinking water for 20 million Californians. Farmland in low areas may also be harmed by salt-contaminated water.

Approximately 85 percent of California’s population live and work in coastal counties. The sea level along California’s coasts has risen nearly 8 inches in the past century and is projected to rise by as much as 20 to 55 inches by the end of the century. A 55-inch sea level rise could put nearly half a million people at risk of flooding by 2100, and threaten $100 billion in property and infrastructure, including roadways, buildings, hazardous waste sites, power plants, and parks and tourist destinations. Coastal erosion could have a significant impact on California’s ocean-dependent economy, which is estimated to be $46 billion per year.

Global warming can cause drought, higher temperatures, saltwater contamination through rising sea levels, flooding, and increased risk of pests. These changes pose a very serious threat to California’s agricultural industry, which generated $39 billion in revenue in 2007, and which is responsible for more than half of all domestic fruits and vegetables. Because California feeds not only its own residents, but the entire U.S. and other countries as well, production declines could lead to food shortages and higher prices.

climate change and drought

Higher temperatures and more heat waves will drive up demand for cooling in the summer. As people turn up their air conditioners, increased electricity use will be greatest in southern California and the Central Valley, and may be as high as 60 percent above present demand by the end of the century.

Californians already experience the worst air quality in the nation. Hotter temperatures lead to more smog, which can damage lungs, and increases childhood asthma, respiratory and heart disease and death. Certain segments of the population are at greater risk, including the elderly, infants, persons with chronic heart or lung disease, people who can’t afford air conditioning, and those who work outdoors.

Climate change presents serious environmental justice concerns because its impacts will fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable residents – children, the elderly, and communities already suffering from pollution.

Disproportionate impacts can occur where certain groups lack the social and economic resources necessary to relocate to avoid impacts, or to purchase the technology necessary to adapt to our changing climate. As such, the state ensures that local governments take account of climate change and plan for a more sustainable future for all members of the community.

As temperatures rise, the number of days of extreme heat events also will rise, causing increases in the risk of injury or death from dehydration, heatstroke, heart attack and respiratory problems.

California is one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world, with the highest number of unique plant and animal species of all 50 states and the greatest number of endangered species. Climate change will adversely affect plant and wildlife habitats and the ability of the State’s varied ecosystems to support clean water, wildlife, fish, timber and other goods and services important for our wellbeing.

Despite the tragedy of the drought and the wildfires, California has been working in the right direction for years. Like the rest of the world, it must make further reforms and plan for greater aversion much faster to avoid a mass catastrophe that could displace millions of additional lives.

The Low Carbon Fuels Standard (LCFS)

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is a landmark regulatory effort to reduce the carbon content of all transportation fuel used in California, requiring at least a 10 percent reduction in carbon intensity of fuel by the year 2020. The Attorney General currently is defending against a challenge to the State’s innovative Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) brought by trade associations representing oil and ethanol producers and oil refiners. At the end of 2011, a federal trial court issued an order blocking enforcement of the LCFS, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted California’s motion for a stay of the trial court’s order, which allowed the LCFS to stay in place uninterrupted. In September 2013,, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, ruling in favor of ARB and rejecting on several of plaintiffs’ claims. Read the Opinion. The case is now back in the trial court for resolution of the plaintiffs’ remaining claims. Thanks in large part to the work of the Attorney General, the LCFS is now in its [fifth] year of successful operation.

The Cap and Trade Program

The Cap and Trade program is a cornerstone of CARB’s efforts to implement AB 32 to reach the target of getting to 1990 emission levels of GHGs by 2020. The program applies to the largest emitters in the state, reaching approximately 85 percent of total statewide GHG emissions. The Attorney General has successfully defended the Cap and Trade program in two separate lawsuits. One lawsuit challenged provisions in the program that allow a limited amount of a party’s compliance obligations to be met with offset credits (verified GHG emission reductions from sources not covered by the program). The other lawsuit challenges one aspect of the program’s method for distributing allowances (permits to emit GHGs), specifically ARB’s use of auctions to distribute a portion of such allowances (the remainder are distributed by other means, including free distribution). The Attorney General has prevailed at the trial court and court of appeal, and in June 2017, the State Supreme Court denied plaintiffs petitions for review, effectively bringing the case to a close.

Fighting Federal Rollbacks: California is the world’s sixth largest economy. Clean air, a healthy economy and improving quality are not mutually exclusive paths. Unfortunately, the federal government has become an obstacle to that agenda. California’s Attorney General is fighting federal rollbacks in protections of the environment and public health.

Energy Efficiency: The U.S. Department of Energy has the authority to set energy efficiency standards for approximately 60 categories of appliances and other equipment. Energy efficiency standards are a win-win for consumers and the environment. Over the lifetime of energy-efficient products, consumers can save billions of dollars in energy costs, and, through reduced energy use, millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions can be eliminated.

Under the Trump Administration, however, the Department of Energy has embarked upon a series of delays in performing its mandatory duty to finalize a series of energy efficiency standards all but completed by the Obama Administration. In April 2017, Attorney General Becerra joined eight fellow Attorneys General in filing a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit challenging the Department’s delay in issuing its Energy Conservation Standard for Ceiling Fans. The same month, the Attorney General filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit in order to defend energy saving light bulb regulations.

Public Lands and Oceans: The actions of the Trump Administration have called into serious question the federal government’s commitment to preserve and protect our public lands and oceans, and to ensure that any mining or drilling activity that occurs on public lands be done in an environmentally responsible way and in exchange for a fair royalty payment.

On June 8, 2017, exactly 111 years after President Teddy Roosevelt signed the landmark Antiquities Act into law, California’s Attorney General vowed to protect California’s national monuments against any unlawful attempts by President Trump to reverse prior President’s designations of treasured parts of our natural and cultural heritage. Similarly, the Attorney General has taken a firm stance against any move to open new drilling off the shores of the coast of California.

The Attorney General has also taken action to contest the Trump Administration seeming disregard for environmental concerns or taxpayer returns when it comes to private interests mining coal, oil or natural gas’s on federal lands. For example, the Attorney General filed a lawsuit when the Department of Interior restarted the federal coal leasing program on public land, while, at the same time, cutting short an ongoing, and long overdue, environmental review. And, the Attorney General stepped in when the Department of Interior unlawfully delayed its own rule adopted to ensure that taxpayers receive their fair share of royalties from companies that extract oil, gas and coal from public lands.

Formed The U.S. Climate Alliance: California helped found the Alliance was on June 1, 2017, following the announcement earlier that day by U.S. President Donald Trump that he had decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. The Alliance also forms a forum for its members to further develop and strengthen their existing Climate Action Plans, through sharing of information and best practices.

“New York, California and Washington, representing over one-fifth of U.S. Gross Domestic Product, are committed to achieving the U.S. goal of reducing emissions 26–28 percent from 2005 levels and meeting or exceeding the targets of the federal Clean Power Plan,” said former California Governor Jerry Brown.

The United States Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition of states and unincorporated self-governing territories in the United States that are committed to upholding the objectives of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change within their borders, by achieving the U.S. goal of reducing greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide equivalent) economy-wide emissions 26–28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 and meeting or exceeding the targets of the federal Clean Power Plan.

Power Plants and Industrial Sources: California is one of the leaders of a contingent of states that are contesting President Trump and Administrator Pruitt’s attempts to roll back EPA’s greenhouse gas rules. This includes defending the Clean Power Plan, which limits emissions from power plants, as well as rules limiting emissions of methane from oil and natural gas operations. California already is experiencing the cost of climate change. Severe droughts have cost its farmers billions of dollars in lost output; rising sea levels will threaten coastal cities; and record-high temperatures are increasing harmful ground-level ozone pollution, which can cause respiratory problems. Rolling power outages represent another threat to public health.

In 2004, when EPA took the position that it had no power under the federal Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution, Massachusetts, California and other states filed suit. In April 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act. As a result of California’s victory in Massachusetts v. EPA, EPA began regulating GHG pollution. In addition, when certain industry groups sued EPA over its 2009 determination that greenhouse gas pollution threatens the public health and welfare of current and future generations, the Attorney General supported EPA. This endangerment determination is a prerequisite to any Clean Air Act regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. California intervened with 17 other states to defend EPA. On June 26, 2012, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals called the endangerment determination “unambiguously correct” and upheld the agency’s regulatory actions. On October 15 2013, on industry’s petition, the Supreme Court let this important aspect of the Court of Appeals decision stand.

Agriculture and Food Services: Beginning in January, 2020, Zero Foodprint member restaurants provide funding for California farmers and ranchers to implement practices that build healthy soil, which will absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, as part of a statewide push toward carbon neutrality.

Restore California is a new program that offers diners a way to directly fund carbon farming projects such as compost application, cover crop planting, tree planting and improved grazing management. Zero Foodprint is aggregating a few cents per meal through its member restaurants and food service programs to provide grants to farmers and ranchers, in parallel with California’s Healthy Soils Program (HSP).

Governor Newsom significantly increased funding for the HSP in the 2019 budget signaling the importance of healthy soil as a key component in the state’s climate strategy. Restore California is a collaboration between the nonprofit Zero Foodprint and California state agencies to generate more funding for agricultural climate solutions and to optimally and equitably direct the funds to expedite the transition from extractive to renewable farming practices. Since 2015, ZFP has worked with some of the best restaurants in California and around the world to reduce and offset their carbon footprint. Restore California represents an innovative public-private sector collaboration, which creates a new way for restaurants and diners to effectively vote for climate solutions with their dollars by directly improving food production.

“Healthy Soil is the foundation of our food system and integral to combating climate change. Restore California gives consumers the opportunity to directly fund healthy soils management practices like compost application and cover cropping on farmland across the state. CDFA is excited for the launch of Restore California and the opportunities it creates for climate smart agriculture in our state,” said Karen Ross, Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Any restaurant in the state of California can choose to opt-in and become a Restore California Renewable Restaurant. Those restaurants will add a one percent charge to every customer bill The fee is optional, and customers can choose to decline to pay it, if, for example, they do not support the cause, or if they are tight on cash.

Corporate leaders such as Salesforce and Square, as well as nonprofit environmental leaders, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, have pledged to support other Zero Foodprint members. Both Square and Salesforce have also begun implementing measures to make their internal food programs carbon neutral through a combination of investments in carbon farming and traditional offsets.

public relations firm in Phoenix

Greener Cities is a division of Crossbow Communications. Greener Cities is a resource for sustainable and resilient cities and communities around the world.

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Author: Gary Chandler

Gary Chandler is a sustainability strategist, author and advocate. Follow him on Twitter @Gary_Chandler