November 20, 2020 Climate

Six California Climate Change Actions: Are They Effective Enough?

Written by: Frances Maurer


California has recently faced a litany of problems, from rampant wildfires to fatal heat waves to growing sea level rise. Many of these problems are caused or intensified by climate change, whether through heatwaves and fluctuating weather patterns or through rising ocean temperatures.

Here in the Golden State, we pride ourselves on being forward-thinking with regard to preventing and mitigating climate change. But are we really that advanced? Here’s a look at six California climate change actions, and how effective they are.

1. Plastic bag ban

One of California’s most (in)famous measures to combat pollution was the plastic bag ban in 2016, followed closely by the 2019 straw ban. According to KQED, the 2016 measure lessened the number of bags, both paper and plastic, used by consumers.

However, the issue isn’t that simple: hard plastic, like the stuff used for your bottle of Coca-Cola, accounts for a larger portion of ocean waste and litter than soft plastic bags. Surprisingly, paper and reusable bags are produced through more harmful methods than plastic. For instance, a cotton reusable bag must be used over 130 times to have polluted less per trip than a plastic bag used once. And the proliferation of microplastics, a huge threat both to our oceans and ourselves, can’t be addressed through consumer bans. These problems are deeply rooted, and require large-scale action — not diffusion of responsibility. And at this point, one also has to wonder: why are we putting this burden on consumers, rather than the regulatory capabilities of the government? Instead of merely asking customers to pay $0.10 for a bag, or having to ask for a straw, why not pressure the 100 companies responsible for over 70 percent of emissions to change their production patterns?

Much of the ocean's plastic comes from harder plastic debris. Photo by Brian Yurasits.

2. Fracking and oil drilling permits in 2020

In April 2020, Gavin Newsom ended a moratorium on fracking permits. Despite dozens of new permits this year, the Mercury News reported that Newsom plans to phase them out again by 2024. Similarly, over 1,400 oil drilling permits have been issued in 2020 alone, more than in 2019. While this could be a pragmatic move on the governor’s part, California should still consider its priorities if we remain so dependent on fracking and other advanced extraction methods like steam injection for our oil and gas.

Expanding the state’s oil and gas production not only exacerbates existing environmental injustices, but directly undermines our greenhouse gas emission reduction goals set under policies such as AB 32, SB 32, SB 100, and EO B-55-18. Oil and gas wells continuously leak methane, a greenhouse gas with a warming potential roughly 100 times greater than CO2 over its lifespan, into the atmosphere regardless of whether the wells are active or inactive — as does the infrastructure used to transport and store natural gas. Essentially, if California continues to allow drilling for oil and gas, it will never be able to achieve its climate goals.

3. Newsom’s executive order of only electric cars by 2035

In a bold move, Governor Newsom passed an executive order that will ban the sale of non-electric cars in California by 2035. Though the measure is less progressive than similar policies in Europe (whose deadlines on similar policies are years sooner), it is the first of its kind in the United States.

We can hope that this order will be the first in a necessary succession of transportation measures to protect California and the world from climate crisis. We must also ensure that measures like this are equitably written and enforced, so they benefit low-income and marginalized communities equally to middle-class and privileged ones. For instance, the restriction of cheaper hybrids or efficient gas vehicles could heighten rather than lower barriers to sustainable living for those who can’t afford higher-priced electric vehicles. As such, it will be vital to ensure affordable electric cars, whether through efficient production or through subsidies.

2020 California wildfires turned the sky an ominous orange hue.

4. Wildfire mitigation and prevention

With great swaths of California charred or in flames, many residents have been affected by the wildfires of the past few years. As of October, over four million acres of land have burned in 2020 alone. And these horrific seasons seem to be a harbinger of climate emergencies to come.

Forbes notes that fire prevention in California has been poor or ineffective in recent years, from policy discouraging controlled burns to the decline of brush and tree clearing. When we have to constantly fight massive wildfires with time, money, and the near-slave labor of incarcerated firefighters (who in turn are disproportionately exposed to the coronavirus), we endanger our people and lose valuable resources. California has recently taken a small step toward allowing those who served on fire crews while incarcerated to attain firefighting jobs once released — which is less than exculpatory, given that they were unable to before — but the fact remains that a great deal of our safety is owed to the approximately 1,800 inmates of our 12,000 active firefighters who put their own lives at risk to protect California and its people.

Part of the reason this year’s wildfires have been so cataclysmic involves years of unmanaged habitats and the outlawing of Indigenous methods of landkeeping like tribal-controlled burns. Agencies like the US Forest Service and Cal Fire are beginning the work of involving Indigenous communities in the process of fire management to bring in a more holistic vision for how to live in balance with a fire-prone landscape.

5. Sea level rise

Sea level rise might not look like an existential threat at the moment, but the LA Times reports that this disaster could come sooner, and be deadlier, than expected. San Francisco, for one, could face three- to six-foot sea level rise in this century, displacing tens of thousands of people and over a hundred thousand jobs. Sea level rise will be a serious issue even if we build seawalls and levees, since the equalization of sea level and our groundwater will disturb cities’ drainage systems and drinking water. California is preparing for at least some aspects of this impending disaster, but will our preparations be fast and comprehensive enough?

6. Green New Deal

Along with states like New York, California is one of the leaders in the movement for state-level Green New Deals that can pave the way for a national Green New Deal. While California’s first Green New Deal bill, AB 1839 authored by Assemblymember Rob Bonta and the Coalition for a California Green New Deal, was unfortunately cut from the last legislative session due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the push for the first state Green New Deal has only gained momentum as it becomes more and more clear that “business as usual” is no longer working.

The Romero Institute has joined forces with the Coalition for a California Green New Deal to meet the new political and social landscapes of a state impacted by the coronavirus and pass a Green New Deal that creates a sustainable, resilient, and equitable California. In order to push forward the necessary and transformational policy we need to respond to a changing climate, it will take broad coalition building and significant political will. Stay tuned to our work for updates on that front.

To really attack the climate crisis, we can’t just implement piecemeal solutions to individual aspects of the problem. These must be part of a comprehensive, intersectional, and just recovery, in order to rebuild the system that allowed the crisis to progress this far. The Green New Deal is part of this journey, and other necessary aspects, like incorporating long-held Indigenous environmental stewardship practices, are slowly being incorporated. While we have just gotten through one difficult and historic election season, there is still major work ahead. We can all make our voices heard in this process, through voting, contacting our representatives, and movement building, so that our needs and the needs of our communities are recognized.