Californians must steel themselves against the Texas oil companies and other dirty energy sirens that have underwritten the campaign for Proposition 23. That measure, on November’s ballot, ostensibly would “suspend” AB 32, California’s landmark climate law, until unemployment drops below 5.6 percent for a full year. Because annual state unemployment has dropped to that level in only three periods over the last 40 years, Prop 23 could essentially repeal AB 32. Worse, that repeal would begin just when the clean energy investment that AB 32 promotes is most urgently needed.
The state legislature and Republican governor enacted AB 32 in 2006, in partial reaction to the federal government’s negligence to deal seriously with the environmental impacts of fossil-fuel burning. AB 32 requires reduction of climate pollution within California to the maximum feasible extent, speeds adoption of energy efficiency standards, and fosters greater investment in sustainable, renewable energy. Oregon, Washington, and several other states have adopted similar goals and rules to limit climate pollution.
But the new Congress and president have been unable, so far, to replicate California’s leadership, as Republican senators have blocked any meaningful new climate legislation. Now, with Prop 23, the dirty-energy lobby seeks to eliminate one of the strongest sub-federal efforts to contain climate pollution. In this context, California’s willingness to turn them back would serve as a model to the nation. By rejecting Prop. 23, voters would also keep alive a principal driver of U.S. clean tech innovation and renewable energy development.
Two recent reports underscore the need for strong climate action at all levels. In the first, Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia, the National Academy of Science (NAS) reexamines the available evidence and finds that increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations stemming from human activity, “very likely account for most of the Earth’s warming over the past 50 years.”
Consistent with the prior work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the NAS examined impacts expected with continued rising global average temperatures. Of immediate concern for the western U.S., the study reports that for each one to two degrees Centigrade of warming there will be at least a doubling of the area burned by wildfire, and for each two to three degrees Centigrade of warming, “summers that are among the warmest recorded or the warmest experienced in people’s lifetimes would become frequent.”
The NAS study goes beyond the IPCC in examining the long-term implications of continued burning of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels. Noting that emissions currently far exceed natural removal rates by the oceans, land, and biosphere, NAS finds that “climate changes that occur because of CO2 increases are expected to persist for thousands of years even if emissions were to be halted.” Therefore, “stabilization of CO2 emissions at current rates will not lead to stabilization of carbon dioxide concentrations.” Instead, reductions larger than 80 percent are required to stabilize the atmospheric CO2 concentration in the next century, and even greater reductions are required to avert extreme disruption of the climate system in the long run.
The second report, prepared by the research group Tetra Tech, bears a mind-numbing title: Evaluating Sustainability of Projected Water Demands Under Future Climate Change Scenarios. It focuses on a shorter time period, i.e., through 2050, because that is, “within the time horizon of most major infrastructure planning activities, especially [that] related to water resources and energy production.” The study concludes that by 2050 “water supplies in 70% of counties in the U.S. may be at risk to climate change, and approximately one-third of counties may be at high or extreme risk.”
Tetra Tech supplied me with details for California. These show that increased evaporation and transpiration triggered by a warming climate system impose an extreme risk to water supply in 19 California counties, while 17 others face a high risk of insufficient supply. Counties facing extreme water supply risk include Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Clara, and San Luis Obispo. Los Angeles is among those projected to face a high, though not extreme, water supply risk in the event of continued climate change.
We live in the short term, of course, but informed by the relevant science, we can no longer escape our obligation to act to secure a habitable future for our children and their progeny. California will not reverse global warming on its own, but by soundly rejecting Prop 23 in November voters can reaffirm the state’s determination to do its part to combat climate pollution while pursuing a clean energy path. Public support for such strong action will only grow, as the untenable consequences of unabated emissions become more widely known.
Dan Galpern is an environmental attorney. His article “Climate Change 101: Urgency and Response” was published in the spring 2008 edition of Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation. Send comments via the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.