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Citing ‘existential threat,’ House climate action plan has a big focus on California

Morning traffic bathed in the orange glow of sunrise crawls across the many lanes of the 101 Freeway
Morning traffic crawls across the many lanes of the 101 Freeway in the San Fernando Valley in this 2015 photo.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

California and other U.S. states face “an existential threat” from climate change that requires a robust government response, a House select committee stated in a 538-page action plan Tuesday.

The ambitious plan, authored by Congress’ first-ever committee dedicated exclusively to climate change, could be a framework for addressing the planet’s warming, depending on the outcomes of the November election.

“Individuals and the private sector cannot achieve unprecedented pollution reductions on their own,” the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis said in its report. “Only through a coordinated national response can the United States deliver the urgent and systemic changes needed to avert the worst consequences of climate change.”

The report calls for 12 pillars of action, including reducing carbon pollution, making communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change and building a more equitable energy economy. Specific targets include bringing the U.S. to net zero emissions by 2050 and delivering $8 trillion in health and climate benefits.

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May 2020 tied for the highest global May temperature since record-keeping began 141 years ago, according to the NOAA. It also exceeded the highest monthly average for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

The plan’s emphasis on establishing pollution reduction targets — including substantial reductions in net U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — aims to reverse or at least mitigate these trends, but it is unlikely to have any immediate impact since it would need to be embraced by the Republican-led Senate and President Trump, who has called climate change a hoax and appointed skeptics to top environment and energy posts.

In the past, Republicans have been critical of Democratic action plans such as the New Green Deal, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, arguing such blueprints will hurt the U.S. economy and sectors dependent on inexpensive energy sources.

In a joint statement issued Tuesday, Republicans on the committee said they were disappointed the plan’s rollout did not include an “amendment process where all committee members could vote on recommendations to report to Congress,” and argued that the country should look toward renewable energy as a supplement to, not a replacement for, oil and gas.

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“Smart climate policy must seek ways to address emissions, while protecting the economic and geopolitical value of our natural resources,” they wrote.

But Democrats see the action plan as a way to elevate environmental issues as they try to hold the House and take back in the Senate and White House in the coming election.

“Against this backdrop, one may wonder why Select Committee Democrats would choose to release this report with recommendations to solve the climate crisis,” the preface reads. “We cannot wait.”

The report also hits close to home: it calls for the creation of “clean energy” jobs, a field in which more than 100,000 workers in California have been laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Long and intense heat waves are nothing new in Southern California and the Southwest, but amid COVID-19, public health experts are warning they could become deadlier for people self-isolating in homes they can’t keep cool.

It recommends timely action on several California-introduced climate bills, including the Wildfire Defense Act, which empowers local communities to implement wildfire prevention and mitigation methods, and the West Coast Ocean Protection Act, which prohibits the Interior Department from issuing oil and gas leases off the coast of California, Oregon or Washington. Three of the committee’s nine Democratic members hail from California.

“Our report will build on the progress in California with bold action and legislation,” said committee member Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano), “while also putting Congress on a path to ensure our state has a federal partner that truly wants to address the climate crisis.”

In several instances, the climate action plan points to California as a model for other states to follow: it lauds Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2018 legislation requiring 100% zero-carbon electric generation by 2045, and identifies California as the “strongest example” of state-authorized funding for public participation in natural gas proceedings. It also touts the state’s stance on vehicle emissions and recommends that Congress “allow all states to adopt and enforce California’s motor vehicle emission standards.”

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But the report also points to California as a case study for the negative impacts of climate change. The state’s aging electric sector — whose equipment malfunctions constitute the third leading cause of wildfires — is vulnerable to outages caused by hotter, drier conditions. The plan calls for a comprehensive federal strategy to help grid operators and utilities such as PG&E plan for and prevent power interruptions in the face of increasing extreme weather events.

Noting that California and other western states will become increasingly vulnerable to wildfires, floods, droughts and other disasters caused by more extreme conditions, it also reflected on the current moment — the COVID-19 pandemic, rampant unemployment and racial justice demonstrations — to argue that climate change is sure to spread its impacts unevenly, and is already doing so.

“Populations that are already vulnerable, including lower-income communities, communities of color, children, and the elderly, are more at risk to the health impacts of climate change,” the report said.

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Like the Green New Deal before it, the new climate action plan seeks to counteract environmental injustices. It calls for the creation of a private right of action under the Civil Rights Act for disparate pollution impacts, as well as investments into housing and solar projects and the reduction of contamination within impacted communities.

“Engaging leaders from these communities early in the policymaking process and soliciting their expertise throughout is essential for ensuring the policies will work in their communities and benefit those most in need,” the report reads.


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