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Commentary: Orange County climate advocates are elated by political changes

Pumpjacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif.
Pumpjacks operate at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield. California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 12, 2019, signed a law intended to counter Trump administration plans to increase oil and gas production on protected public land.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

During his first week in office President Biden signed sweeping executive orders on climate change and in the process lifted the spirits of local climate advocates. Among them are hundreds of members of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Orange County is home to seven chapters of this 200,000 strong national nonpartisan grassroots organization whose sole objective is to persuade Congress to take action on climate change. For years CCL volunteers have been advocating for legislation that would use market forces to suppress the use of fossil fuels and spur investments in clean energy by placing increasing fees on coal, oil and gas companies and then using those revenues to support households through the transition to a clean energy economy.

After years of tireless work, spreading scientific information, speaking out, demonstrating, writing letters to the editor and lobbying government officials, climate advocates in CCL are seeing their hopes come to fruition.

Over the last four years the Trump administration, in league with fossil fuel interests, did all it could to denigrate and dismiss the climate emergency. All the while, the results of global warming were becoming more and more evident. The impacts are undeniable: record breaking high temperatures, chronic drought, more frequent and intense wildfires, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels.

Here in Orange County the loss of beaches and billions of dollars in coastal property means that we stand to be among the biggest losers to global warming. In January 2018, city of Newport Beach staff and UCI consultants warned that seas could rise as much as 5 and a half feet by 2100 and the adaptation costs to taxpayers could approach $1 billion.

Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to stifle action on the climate crisis some progress has been made. In Washington more than 80 members of Congress co-sponsored the bipartisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act; in Orange County five members of Congress and the city councils of Santa Ana, Brea, Costa Mesa and Laguna Beach supported this action.

The Biden administration has now set challenging goals: ending carbon pollution from power plants by 2035, reaching a national net-zero economy by 2050 and protecting communities that have been disproportionately affected by emissions. Of course, what can be done through executive orders is important and symbolic, but it will not be enough.

Good policies by one administration can be undone by the next. To endure changes in political power, history shows that we need broad-based and bipartisan support for national climate legislation. For this to happen, the demands for action need to come from more than climate activists. Today, it is the coalescing of multiple forces that is so encouraging.

Major cities, states, universities and religious organizations have pulled their money out of fossil fuel companies and are taking a stand against the industry. In recent months General Motors, BMW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Volvo have made commitments to end the sale of gas and diesel engine vehicles.

And, perhaps most significant, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobby group in the country, has shifted its position on climate change. In January they announced that “urgent action is needed” and declared that it now “supports a market-based approach to accelerate greenhouse gas reductions across the U.S. economy.” The Chamber’s embrace of the policy approach favored by CCL is further cause for members to rejoice.

Despite all these positive changes we are still far from realizing a clean energy future. Fossil fuel interests have powerful political allies and can be expected to do all they can to slow the transition. However, we now have leaders in Washington who respect science and are willing to do more than ever to address the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.

Citizens have a crucial role too. We need to keep pressure on our elected officials to convert good intentions into solid legislation. We must not only educate ourselves and others about the threat global warming presents, but also promote systemic solutions that effective climate action requires.

Ultimately, we all are compelled to be climate activists because the quality of our lives and the lives of future generations, in America and around the world, depend on it.

The writer is an environmental journalist and a volunteer with the Orange County Coast Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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