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A firefighter standing in front of a fire engine sprays water toward a group of palm trees against a bright orange sky.
If the rest of the country tackled climate change like California, U.S. carbon emissions would be 24 percent lower,
AP Photo/Ethan Swope

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Don’t Lecture California About Fires. Look at the State’s Climate Action.

The state has worked for over 40 years to successfully reduce emissions—but that never gets mentioned when hillsides burn

I don’t expect people who don’t live here to understand what it’s like. Trying to fall asleep as the ominous scent seeps into your bedroom, then awaking to your windowsills flecked with ash. Watching flames chew through a beloved destination on a live local newscast while you attempt to block out the near-constant throb of helicopters ferrying water across the sky. Tugging the air purifier closer to your baby’s crib in the hopes it might quiet their coughs as your toddler asks you: “Mom, is the fire coming to our house tonight?”

As Californians, we’re used to outsiders attempting to add “context” to our disasters by sharing celebrity evacuation tweets and quoting Joan Didion back at us from thousands of miles away. But this year’s planned electricity outages have added new fuel to the hot takes. While our lives are upended, sending us scrambling to locate reliable phone service or safe refuge for our aging parents, we’re getting lectured on Twitter about underground power lines, battery storage, and solar microgrids.

Now there’s a new, annoying way for people who don’t live here to explain our situation to us: “This is what climate change looks like.”

Yeah, we know. That’s why we decided to do something about it — four decades ago.

In the 1970s, long before the federal government had taken any action on climate, California was bringing scientists into its legislative chambers to advise policymakers on how to reduce emissions. We had a governor who made this issue his top priority — not once, but twice — enlisting some of the country’s most progressive environmental experts to set ambitious goals for the state.

It worked. Over the past 40 years, California not only dramatically reduced its reliance on fossil fuels, the state managed to hit its 2020 emissions goals — meaning statewide annual emissions were back to 1990 levels — four years early.

All of this, it should be noted, happened as the state became more populated and more profitable. Over the last ten years in particular, California’s economy has grown at almost twice the rate of the rest of the country, even as our per-capita emissions plummeted.

In fact, if the rest of the country had reduced its emissions at the same pace as California during that period, U.S. carbon emissions would be 24 percent lower, according to the NRDC report “California Stars: Lighting the Way to a Clean Energy Future.”

“Because the U.S. as a whole didn’t act as aggressively as California to reduce economic dependence on fossil fuels, we missed a chance to wipe out the carbon emissions equivalent of our entire fleet of automobiles,” writes the report’s author, Charles Komanoff.

And if it weren’t for California, overall U.S. transportation emissions would be higher. Americans in 13 states, about 40 percent of the U.S. population, drive more fuel-efficient cars thanks to California’s strict emissions standards. We haven’t just set the standards, we’re out there defending them by swatting down legal challenges and negotiating with automakers. Our former governor who set those standards in place is, right at this moment, heading to Washington D.C. to testify against the automakers who aren’t on board. Even our former Republican governor is basically an electric car salesman now.

Wait, you want to tell us about some game-changing, revolutionary climate solution we should really be considering? Putting solar panels on every new building? Incentivizing utilities to switch to renewable energy? Thanks, we did that. We probably even came up with it ourselves. Virtually every energy-saving, emissions-reducing technology has been invented, invested in, and implemented right here in California.

Our accomplishments also go beyond state boundaries. California has served as a global leader on climate during a precarious geopolitical moment. As the Trump administration turned its back on climate change, we rallied a coalition of states that agreed to uphold the goals of the Paris agreement, organized a global climate summit, and signed climate treaties with China.

Just because California is leading the U.S. on climate doesn't mean we’ve got it all figured out. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do. We still extract fossil fuels. Our transportation system remains too car-dependent, mostly because of where we choose to put our housing. Adding more homes closer together has proven politically difficult due to obstructions from wealthy property owners. Uneven growth of our cities has resulted in some of the worst economic inequality in the world, leaving our most vulnerable populations at risk for the inevitable climate disasters of the future.

Yet, at the same time, California is passing some of the most far-reaching legislative proposals to fix these problems, and placing climate at the core of each of those strategies. Our housing policy, our transportation policy, our economic policy — all of it is knit together by an underlying goal to reduce emissions.

No state can claim to have taken more radical, sustained action against climate change than California. And without the state’s 40 years of climate mobilization, our current situation — and your current situation, too — would be much, much worse.

That’s because California’s problems are not unique, and as your state confronts the same climate realities, you’ll be drawing from our experience. We have entire institutions charged with sharing California’s climate successes with other states — heck, even other countries — to help apply what we’ve learned. As you look at climate platforms of the Democratic presidential candidates, many of those policies, from mandating more energy-efficient homes to trading in polluting cars for zero-emission versions, were pioneered right here first.

But is this the story that gets told, against the b-roll of glowing embers skittering along a freeway? Of course not. It’s so much easier to yell at us for building neighborhoods on cheap, fire-prone lands because that’s the only place people can afford to live.

It’s been said over the last few weeks that if these fires were happening in New York or Washington D.C., the national discussion about climate would be different. But we’ve been out here having the same conversation for years. You all just haven’t been listening.

Yes, this is what climate change looks like. But this is also what climate action looks like. This is what climate leadership looks like. We’ve been trying to tell you this for decades. Are you paying attention now?

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