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Boiling Point: How far behind is America on climate change? Just ask ‘The American President’

Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd in "The American President."
(Francois Duhamel / Castle Rock Entertainment)

Way back at the beginning of the pandemic, I watched a movie I had never seen before: “The American President.”

The 1995 romantic comedy-drama stars Michael Douglas as the president and Annette Bening as a lobbyist with whom he falls in love. I figured I would enjoy the film, and I did — great acting, fun writing, wonderful score. I just didn’t expect the story to revolve around climate change.

The president and the lobbyist first meet when Bening’s character is hired by Global Defense Council, an obvious stand-in for the real-life Natural Resources Defense Council, to persuade the White House to support climate legislation. Specifically, she wants the president to send Congress a bill that would reduce carbon emissions by 20% over 10 years.

My eyes pretty much popped out of my head when I heard that number. Twenty-five years ago, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin envisioned the United States cutting climate pollution by one-fifth by 2005, which sounds almost incomprehensible today. Here’s what actually happened with U.S. emissions from 1990 through 2018:

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U.S. greenhouse gas emissions stayed relatively steady in the United States from 1990 through 2018.

Hardly any change.

This wasn’t some minor plot point. Bening’s character spends much of the movie lobbying for the climate bill, at one point telling a member of Congress: “Ten years from now any car with an internal combustion engine is gonna be considered a collector’s item.” She asks another lawmaker: “Wouldn’t you like your kids to be able to take a deep breath when they’re 30?”

You might think it’s wild that Sorkin wrote these lines in 1995. But really, it’s not. The science of climate change was well-understood at the time, even as the oil industry and car companies funded denial campaigns with long-lasting impacts.

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As Bening’s character tells the president’s chief of staff: “It’s the burning of fossil fuels that’s been mostly responsible for global warming, and the 20% reduction ... is a necessary first step toward arresting the catastrophic greenhouse effect.”

All of which is my way of saying: A quarter-century after “The American President,” the United States is still far behind on tackling this existential threat. Whichever candidate wins the presidential election, we will still be far behind.

A Donald Trump victory would likely mean four more years of inaction, taking us halfway through a decade in which scientists say humanity must cut emissions roughly in half to be on track to avoid some of the worst consequences of a heating planet.

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But a Joe Biden victory — at the time of this writing, he holds narrow leads in enough states to put him over the top — wouldn’t magically solve the climate crisis. The former vice president certainly upped his climate ambition over the course of the campaign. But even if he could implement his entire agenda — which isn’t likely with a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, especially if Republicans hold the Senate — it might not be enough to keep global warming from spiraling out of control.

Again, the United States is far behind where scientists say it needs to be. Reducing emissions would have been a lot easier if we’d started 25 years ago, but we did not.

If Biden wins, you’ll probably hear a lot in the coming days about the United States rejoining the Paris climate agreement, which by a weird quirk the country formally exited yesterday. Keep in mind that rejoining Paris wouldn’t, in itself, reduce emissions. One expert actually suggested to Bob Berwyn of InsideClimate News that rather than rejoin immediately, Biden should first take a few months to develop a robust national emissions plan, to show other countries the U.S. can be trusted again.

Another idea you’ll hear about, if Biden holds on, is clean energy stimulus funding, much like what President Obama signed into law during the Great Recession. As Politico’s Michael Grunwald tweeted, “The obvious play for Biden with a Republican Senate would be a giant infrastructure bill. (He should smuggle in a ton of green stuff, without calling it a green infrastructure bill.)”

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One more policy arena that could see a lot of play, should Biden win: Renewable energy development on public lands, which federal agencies can push along without any help from Congress. I recently moderated a panel discussion about this very topic, focused on the balance between promoting climate-friendly energy and preserving ecosystems in the American West.

Wind turbines stand near a solar array in the San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs
Wind turbines stand near a solar array in the San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs.
(Paul Buck / European Pressphoto Agency)

So the climate story is a lot more complicated than just figuring out who won the election. I’m not saying this to make you feel optimistic or pessimistic, necessarily; the reality is the reality, and we all respond in our own ways.

But if you’re looking for signs of hope, I’ll leave you with two notes.

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First, economics continue to favor clean energy, at least on the electric grid. The financial advisory firm Lazard reported last month that solar and wind power continue to get cheaper, and continue to be the cheapest sources of new electricity in America.

And second, the American public continues to express strong support for climate action. A few weeks ago, a poll from Climate Nexus, George Mason University and Yale University found that 82% of registered voters say achieving 100% clean power should be the primary goal of U.S. energy policy.

Public support and attractive economics won’t dissolve the political obstacles that have kept the U.S. from committing to serious climate action for decades. Even Sorkin knew it wouldn’t be easy. His film ends (spoiler alert) with the president pledging to send a bill to Congress and fight for its passage. The ultimate outcome is left to the imagination.

Twenty-five years later, we still don’t know how the story ends. We didn’t know before the election, and we won’t know on Jan. 20, 2021, either. The ending is yet to be written.

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And now, here’s what’s happening around the West:

TOP STORIES

A consumer watchdog agency says Pacific Gas & Electric should be fined $166 million for botched power shutoffs. The Public Utilities Commission’s Public Advocates Office is arguing that PG&E’s failure to properly warn customers of a series of intentional power outages last fall is grounds for a huge penalty, as I reported here. In another dispute between the consumer watchdog and a major utility, PUC staff are advising the commission to force Southern California Gas to respond to a subpoena seeking information about its pro-gas advocacy; here’s the proposed decision, and here’s my deep dive from July on why it matters.

Pandemics are likely to get a lot worse if human beings keep destroying the natural world. That’s according to a new study, which finds that pandemics “will emerge more often, spread faster, cost more and kill more people than COVID-19 without bold action to halt the habitat destruction that helps viruses hop from wildlife to humans,” as Matthew Green writes for Reuters.

More than 1 million people in the United States live in households without piped water, and they are significantly more likely to be people of color. That’s according to a new study from King’s College London, which found that the largest numbers of such households are in Los Angeles and New York, as the Guardian’s Nina Lakhani reports.

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POLITICAL CLIMATE

Voting has obviously come to a close, but you should still read Steve Lopez’s column about why climate change should be voters’ top concern this election. Steve talked with a UCLA researcher about how far California still has to go in areas such as land use, transit and oil and gas drilling. Also check out this encouraging pre-election story from The Times’ Sarah Parvini, about Gen Z voters who share a common ground on issues including climate whether they consider themselves liberal or conservative.

A young male gray wolf near the Oregon-California border.
(Gary Kramer / Associated Press)

The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, is trying to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list. Here’s the story from my colleague Anna M. Phillips. This could change if Joe Biden is elected president, although as best I can tell Biden hasn’t taken a position. The Trump administration is also trying to open old-growth stands in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging, per the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin; again, I don’t think Biden has taken a position on this.

The longtime chair of the California Air Resources Board, the state’s powerful climate change regulator, is retiring soon. Politico’s Debra Kahn has an excellent piece on the campaign to influence Gov. Gavin Newsom’s choice of replacement for Mary Nichols; environmental justice activists want to see the governor choose a chair less favorable to the market-based cap and trade program, whereas Nichols reportedly supports Hector De La Torre, a former Democratic lawmaker already on the board.

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AROUND THE WEST

Joe Biden vowed to block a proposed copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. But even if Biden loses, the mine may have problems. The Trump administration has thus far withheld a permit, and The Times’ Richard Read reports that executives behind the project expect a massive state subsidy and plan to claim hundreds of millions of dollars in government compensation if the federal permit is rejected. Those revelations come from videos secretly recorded by environmental activists posing as investors.

Arizona may become the latest state with a 100% clean energy requirement. The tentatively approved rules still need a final vote from regulators, but if finalized would require 50% renewable electricity by 2035 and 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050, as Ryan Randazzo reports for the Arizona Republic. But even as the Southwest moves toward cleaner energy, the AP’s Susan Montoya Bryan reports the Navajo Nation has agreed to expand its investment in the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico.

For $41 million per mile, the Trump administration is destroying an extremely remote and rugged canyon along the U.S.-Mexico border that serves as a key wildlife corridor. The destruction is meant to clear a path for President Trump’s border wall, even though this is a region few migrants are likely to cross, as High Country News and Arizona Public Media report.

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CALIFORNIA BURNING

U.S. Geological Survey biologist Elizabeth Gallegos holds an endangered frog.
U.S. Geological Survey biologist Elizabeth Gallegos holds an endangered mountain yellow-legged frog recovered from a fire-ravaged stretch of Little Rock Creek, near Wrightwood in the San Gabriel Mountains.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Biologists are hurrying to relocate yellow-legged frogs and other rare species in the San Gabriel Mountains. Why the rush? In areas burned by the Bobcat fire, winter rains could bring devastating mudslides, The Times’ Louis Sahagun reports. In one case, fish that were rescued and relocated after an earlier fire are now being returned to their original home. Some conservationists are critical, saying relocating endangered species doesn’t address underlying issues such as climate change and nonnative predators.

It was a grim year for firefighters in California, but the Silverado fire in Orange County was a rare victory. A combination of luck and good planning saved the Irvine suburbs, per my colleague Joseph Serna. “Despite 45-mph gusts launching embers into the suburban sprawl, where cars sat bumper to bumper trying to flee the oncoming flames, not a single home was lost,” he writes. Meanwhile, the North Complex fire claimed a 16th victim, Hayley Smith reports, bringing the death toll from this year’s fires to 31.

For all of Trump’s talk about “raking” forest floors, his administration only achieved half of its forest management goal last year. More details here from the AP’s John Flesher. Consider this a reminder that no matter who you are, Democrat or Republican or independent, virtue-signaling does not actually accomplish anything; spending money and passing laws does.

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What do you want to know?

When you think about California’s climate future, what comes to mind? What keeps you up at night, and what gives you hope or gets you excited? What do you want to understand, and what should I?

This newsletter is for you, to help you understand how we’re changing our world and what we can do about it, and I want to hear your questions, concerns and ideas. Email me or find me on Twitter.

ONE MORE THING

Actually, two things this week.

First, check out these amazing pictures of the American West from High Country News’s annual photo contest. You won’t regret it.

Second, there’s a Disney comic strip from 1930 in which Mickey and Minnie Mouse race across the country to find a lost gold mine in Death Valley. This is relevant because it combines two of my greatest interests, Disney and the California desert.

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If anyone knows what a character in the comic might have meant by “cryin’ Joshua trees,” give me a holler.

We’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues.


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