Climate Change May be Inevitable. Doing Little as Possible is Ludicrous

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

What does the rapid thawing of nine million square miles of Arctic ice, the immense devastation left behind by Hurricane Dorian, and the tiny light bulb have to do with one another?

Perhaps more than you might suspect.

And what connection do these things have to California’s perennially shorthanded battle to eliminate carbon emissions and nation-leading efforts to implement stringent clean air rules?

Actually quite a bit.

Ever since the warning bells were sounded several decades ago about the perils of climate change public opinion has been divided into two camps.

One side argues that history has gone through repeated ice age cycles followed by long warming periods neither of which are man-made.

Another suggests that we contribute to both by releasing into the atmosphere immense amounts of carbon dioxide and the even more dangerous methane which accelerates these processes.

In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican with independent bent, signed into law the Global Warming Solutions Act better known as AB32 cautioning, “We simply must do everything we can in our power to slow down global warming before it is too late.”

“It will begin a bold new era of environmental protection in California that will change the course of history,” he said.

The then San Francisco Mayor and now Gov. Gavin Newsom, joined him for the ceremony which ushered in a new age of environmental consciousness.

As millions tuned in, British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, pledged his nation would join forces to develop “clean technologies” declaring the California governor’s initiative “a proud day for political leadership and a historic day for the rest of the world as well.” 

Gov. Jerry Brown doubled down on his predecessor’s bold initiative setting what even his allies thought an overly-ambitious target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by ordering a 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020.

Before leaving office, Brown went a step further issuing an order setting an even more ambitious target for cutting greenhouse emissions  that would make the state carbon neutral by 2045!

Brown realized however that for every governor who follows him the biggest stumbling block and what stymies greater progress is the ubiquitous gas-guzzling automobile—and our long standing love affair with the four-wheeler.

Brown set a goal to put 5 million plug-in and electric cars on the roads by 2030. That’s not likely since the industry is hardly ramping up at warp speed and driving habits will be tough to crack. 

More carpool lanes and rebates are not the answer and the oil industry has a vested interest in the status quo, California being the fourth-largest oil producer in the nation.

Environmental activists will not be satisfied short of a total ban on all oil production and so-called hydraulic fracturing (also called fracking)—remedies that may not be appealing to the Newsom Administration which is generally supportive of the more incremental changes Brown was proposing.

Adam Scow of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch flatly declared, “Governor Brown has been a major disappointment on the issue of fracking and oil drilling.”

California’s presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris has pledged she would do away with fracking and take stronger steps in reducing fossil fuel emissions even if Republicans chose not to cooperate. Every other presidential candidate is sounding variants of the same.

It is little secret that the transportation sector is the main culprit behind GHG emissions and air pollution with 39 percent attributed to cars, trucks and busses. Industries are a distant second.

Gov. Newsom has scaled down slightly on his predecessor’s pledge setting a target of  “4 million light, medium-and heavy duty ZEVs” (zero energy vehicles) on the state’s roads and highways by 2030.

That goal may clash with the view of the man sitting in the Oval Office currently overseeing the nation’s air quality regulations who has labelled climate change a “hoax” invented by the Chinese.

Trump raised some serious doubts regarding his credibility as either a weather forecaster or map reader when he insisted despite the opinion of every meteorological expert consulted that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama. It was never a threat.

However, Dorian’s severity and duration (a historic Category 5 when it pummeled the Bahamas) are seen by most climate experts as by-products of the conditions that create the global warming and concurrent rise in ocean temperatures responsible for the release of such fury.

While Dorian was committing havoc all along the East Coast, Trump was more focused on undoing the agreement reached under the Obama Administration granting California a waiver allowing it to set its own tailpipe emission standards which are stricter than federal regulations. 

This would undermine a carefully negotiated agreement with four California auto manufacturers—Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW –to implement the state’s higher standards for curtailing emissions. The four auto makers comprise nearly 30 percent of all U.S. car sales.

Newsom’s response was quick and unambiguous: “California stands up to bullies and will keep fighting for stronger clean air protections that will protect the health and safety of our children and their families,” said the governor.

Our clean air waiver has been in place since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970. The Trump Administration has seized upon another law,  the Energy Policy and Conservation Act which it argues gives the federal government the sole power to regulate fuel economy citing its nexus with tailpipe emissions.

The connection is dubious and concocting legal arguments designed purely to weaken California’s forward-thinking emissions rules merely weaponizes a discussion about climate change for political purposes that demands bi-partisan solutions.

Trump’s erroneous weather tweets are in the realm of the absurd and would be laughable if not coming from a president. The menace that greenhouse gases pose even if less dire than some of the gloomiest predictions merits better responses than frivolous lawsuits.

Which brings us to the Arctic Circle, Canada, and neighboring Alaska –a state with strong environmental interests–where the icecaps are melting with unusual velocity that is thawing once frozen landscapes in ways that were just a few years ago unimaginable.

As a result carbon and methane gases trapped for several millennia are being released with repercussions not only for wildlife and the indigenous populations. 

Precious resources underlying the melting layers of permafrost are being revealed opening up long-buried commercial trade routes. This could spur competition among the eight nations that border the Arctic Ocean, among them Russia which is becoming the dominant power in the region.  The implications of this giant meltdown are exhaustively as examined in 

September 2019 Issue – National Geographic. 

This is a magazine with meticulous dedication to scientifically proven findings in contrast to the know-nothing declarations emanating from some of the highest public servants.

Our growing interest in this declining expanse of frozen tundra was highlighted in Sec. of State Mike Pompeo’s recent stop in Finland to address the Arctic Council, which urges cooperation on climate change.

He was representing a president who among his signal acts decided over a year ago to pull the nation out of the Paris Climate Accords to which 174 states including the European Union have subscribed. 

Oil exploration on Alaska’s North Slope where there are abundant deposits further pits renewable energy advocates against those including a majority of Californians who polls show favor reducing reliance on fossil fuel.

And finally, we have the once celebrated but now suddenly lamentable incandescent light bulb which made its debut in 1880 in Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory. 

It turns out this indispensable fixture which we rely upon to see what our eyes cannot is a major emitter of greenhouse gases. They are now being replaced by the much more energy-efficient LEDs which are selling out in all 50 states and are reputed to be saving consumers “an estimated $50-$100 over a several-year lifetime!”

Another Ice Age may very well be in our distant future which could wipe out civilization rendering the debate about global warming moot and Dorian may one day be followed by a Cat 6 or 7 hurricane that could engulf Alabama and every state within two thousand miles.

But if we can take steps to mitigate what we see happening here and now why not try?

Seat belts will never save all lives but is that grounds to recall them? 

Aspirins are not a sure cure for all ailments but should we dispense in recommending their use?

A shortage of firefighters may retard efforts to put out the biggest conflagrations but should we give up on all fire prevention?

Even the soundest storm barriers cannot hold back the mightiest floods, but dare we stop building them? 

Cataclysmic weather changes over long periods of time may be inevitable and are certainly well beyond our human abilities to control. 

But if we take the necessary precautions to lower the risks now and for future generations it might be said that we will have done our job.

Rolling back tougher regulations to score political points and discouraging intelligent responses is not just ludicrous but dangerous. 

Credit California decision-makers with stepping up to the plate. The rest of the nation—and indeed the world—-may one day be grateful.

 

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