Joe Mathews: Climate change touches every issue in California

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Windmills at Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm, California, generate clean renewable electrical energy without carbon dioxide emissions to fight climate change. By Patrick Poendl/Shutterstock.

California’s drive for green energy has produced mixed results. We’ve only been partially successful at achieving the carbon reductions that will help the state meet its progressive climate goals. But the push to cut emissions and plan for a sustainable future has yielded other benefits. Zocalo Public commentator Joe Mathews says climate considerations now permeate every level of California decision making, ushering in reforms and shifts in thinking that will benefit all of us.

Read Mathews’ column below:

California’s fight against climate change isn’t doing all that much to slow climate change. But it should be considered a success anyway.  

While California reached its 2020 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, it is lagging in meeting its next target — emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. That’s made California’s climate change regime a target. Environmentalists demand more progress, while conservatives say our one-state fight against climate change is folly. 

But judging California’s climate change policies by greenhouse gas emissions is backwards. Because the Golden State’s fight against climate change is about far more than just climate change. 

It’s about all kinds of change. Countering global warming has become the only reliable rationale for doing anything transformational in California. If your idea requires cutting through our governmental dysfunction and sprawling fractiousness, invoking climate change is your best hope.

In fact, climate is so central to California’s ability to change itself that, if the threat of climate change didn’t exist, Californians would have had to invent it.

Over a generation, climate change has been the most compelling reason for reducing pollution, starting industries, re-engineering products, seeding social movements, investing in infrastructure, and revamping regional government.

The state’s pathbreaking cap-and-trade program forced polluting industries to better measure their emissions, inspired collaborations with other countries, and helped fund California’s high-speed rail project. Climate concerns have forced California’s once-untouchable electric utilities to embrace renewables, especially solar, which provides one-fifth of our electricity. 

Critics of California’s climate change fight rightfully point to increasing emissions from transportation. But that sector’s transformation is nevertheless remarkable. The state’s regulations have encouraged more electric cars, electrification of bus lines, and more efficient vehicles of all kinds. Planning strategies are reducing the number of miles people drive. Petaluma even voted to prohibit new gas stations in its city limits.

Progress extends from the local to the global. California has altered the auto industry worldwide, via regulation and agreements with five global carmakers, including Ford, Honda and Volvo, to cut greenhouse gas emissions more than they were required to by the U.S. government. 

These days, Los Angeles — of all places — is a national leader in transit, with a fully funded, 50-year program for expanding its already robust Metro system of rail and busways. 

In California, climate change touches every issue. It has shaken up a California water system that seemed locked in litigation and time, helping to push the state to regulate its groundwater, and to adopt recycling and stormwater capture systems. 

Climate change fuels our debates over housing. Many zoning changes supported by the YIMBY, or Yes in My Backyard, movement grow out of climate concerns. They want housing closer to job centers, to reduce commutes and pollution. 

California’s schools and universities have modernized curricula as a by-product of efforts to make the state a leader in climate education. While the pandemic has inspired emergency investments in public health, telemedicine, and homelessness programs, it will be climate change, and climate-related emergencies, that will justify making those investments permanent.  

The bad news is that climate change has contributed to our political polarization. The stakes are higher. We are fighting for the survival of humanity, and who can compromise on that? 

The better news is that climate concerns also have ushered in a new era of activism. The movement to ban hydraulic fracking is a statewide force. Environmental organizations, civil rights groups, and even Black Lives Matter have refocused on how poorer people bear the brunt of both pollution and higher costs related to climate change. 

There are more examples of climate’s transformational impact here, too many for one column. Almost nothing has gone untouched. The bags we use, the straws through which we drink, the mowers for our lawns, the native plants with which we’ve replaced those lawns, the crops we grow, the materials with which we repair our homes — all have been altered by the climate fight.

And we should acknowledge that more. The saving grace of our desperate struggle to save the world from climate change is the opportunity it provides to change ourselves. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews