Like polar bears on an Arctic ice floe, “climate denialists,” as California Gov. Jerry Brown calls them, have less and less to cling to. It has been sad and grotesque, in recent days, to hear Trumpian dead-enders yammer as the rest of the world gathers in Germany for the United Nations conference on climate change.
Brown’s celebrity at Bonn has been reassuring. To the extent that practical ideas on climate have emerged in the post-Obama United States, many have come from California, and it is good to see that other nations are listening. The scope of the task before us is impossible to overstate.
Global warming is an existential threat, most of which can be blamed on humans. This was clear even before this year of record hurricanes, record floods, record heat and record wildfires.
But in recent weeks, scientists have counted the ways in alarming detail: Earlier this month by 13 federal agencies in an exhaustive National Climate Assessment; on Wednesday in a sobering update from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and last month in a World Meteorological Organization report that found the combination of El Niño warming and man-made emissions had raised concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a level not seen in 3 million years.
This year is already the third warmest in the United States in 122 years of record-keeping. Only 2012 and 2016 were warmer, which means if you have a kindergartner, the three hottest years ever recorded on Earth have occurred in his or her lifetime. Sea level rise caused by melting ice is increasingly inundating coastal cities with storm surges. In the last 25 years alone, the sea level has risen three inches, the fastest rise in more than 2,800 years.
Ocean temperatures are up, too, changing the chemistry of the water. Since 1979, the intensity of storms has dramatically increased. NOAA recorded more extreme weather events last year than any but 2012. The impact was especially acute in the West, where California and Texas had their wettest year in history and North Dakota and Montana had their driest. Either way, fire seasons are longer and more violent. More foliage means more kindling.
Scariest of all, this has happened despite a worldwide slowing in fossil fuel use, suggesting that – as thawing permafrost or rotting rainforests emit their own greenhouse gases – we may already have put climate change into perpetual motion. So far, the thinking has been that since humans helped cause this, humans might also mitigate or stop it. That’s far more complex if climate change has acquired a life of its own.
Given that the United States is one of the world’s top polluters, and given the humanitarian crisis wrought by natural disasters from Puerto Rico to Houston to Santa Rosa, it would seem the Trump administration would take urgent action.
Instead, President Donald Trump is stubbornly sticking with his plan for the U.S. to withdraw from the landmark Paris climate accord by 2020, and has repealed Obama administration regulations on fossil fuels and efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Trump is assiduously scrubbing the words “climate change” from government websites, and the couple of people he sent to Bonn will, believe it or not, promote coal and fossil fuels as solutions to global warming.
On Wednesday, his nominee for the top environmental post in the White House, Kathleen Hartnett White, told a Senate panel she isn’t convinced climate change is caused by humans. This despite reams of data to the contrary, including some issued by Trump’s own administration.
Fortunately, the majority of Americans see through this. An August poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found that 72 percent of Americans believed climate change was happening. More than 60 percent believed the government should do something about it, and 55 percent said that went for state and local government.
To that end, the nation can thank its lucky stars for California. Brown’s Under2 Coalition – initially just California and a couple of cities and provinces committed to a shift away from carbon – has grown to nearly 200 subnational governments, the better to do an end run around Trump.
In July California lawmakers gave the state 13 years to get its greenhouse gas emissions down to 40 percent below 1990 levels. The extension this year of the state’s cap-and-trade program has offered a stable way to make that happen, if done wisely.
Meanwhile, California’s renewable energy targets have been a huge success story. The state Air Resources Board reported last week that the industries it regulates cut emissions nearly 5 percent from 2015 to 2016, a significant number, mostly because less electricity is being produced from coal-powered plants and more from solar, wind and hydropower.
That California has made such strides, yet maintained a booming economy, sets a powerful example. The market has been powerful, too. Utilities even in red states have quietly shifted to renewables because wind and solar are so cheap now. In the auto market, General Motors announced plans last month to phase out diesel and gas models and go all-electric because so many countries, from France and Norway to China, are moving toward bans on gasoline engines.
Building on such progress will be Brown’s job when he returns from the climate conference, and the job of the next governor. The implementation of this year’s cap-and-trade package, now being hammered out, will shape the state’s climate policy for decades. And a far bigger dent must be made in fossil fuels.
Transit will be key. The bulk of emissions now are on the freeways, and hybrids and electric vehicles must become the rule, not the exception.
Fairness will also be key. Livable space is already shrinking. All levels of society must have clean air and water, shelter from storms and environmental justice.
The good news is, it looks like we won’t have to. The bad news is, there’s no time to lose.