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Analysis | Tensions rise as drought worsens and heat surges across California

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Good morning! The Climate 202 researcher Vanessa Montalbano is taking over while Maxine is out. If you live in the D.C. area, we hope you stayed cool while temperatures soared above 90 this weekend. But first:  

As drought worsens and heat surges across California, tensions rise

The effects of climate change are advancing at a pace no one could have anticipated in California, as the state enters its third consecutive summer of a painful drought. 

Research published in February showed that California’s current drought season is linked to a longer megadrought, which has persisted since 2000. 

But the 22-year period, which is the driest in 1,200 years, is fueled by human-caused climate change, according to environmental scientists. As a result, the state is battling relentless wildfire seasons that blot out the sky, forcing some people to keep their windows shut for months and others to become climate refugees. 

Sasan Saadat, a senior policy expert for Earthjustice, said this megadrought is pushing Californians to make environmental choices that scientists didn’t expect to come for decades.

For example, to conserve water resources amid dwindling supplies, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California last month ordered unprecedented limits to “nonessential” water use, or any water used for reasons other than public health, marking the most severe cutbacks ever enacted in the state and affecting about 6 million people.  

“We didn’t expect these results,” Saadat told The Climate 202 when asked about the intensifying weather events Californians face almost every day because of human-caused climate change. “They’re the result of the procrastination of our failures from before,” Saadat said. And, he added, “things will get much worse if we continue to procrastinate.” 

Despite California being known as a beacon for environmental policy across the country, state Sen. Dave Cortese (D) said state legislators have put the drought on the backburner. 

According to Cortese, a matter of what issues should take priority has been a source of delay for California’s state legislature. Part of the reason for the delay, he said, was hoping that the drought would end. The other part, however, is that the legislature was preoccupied with other issues, such as the pandemic, homelessness and wildfires.

But now, he said, that “can’t be an excuse anymore,” adding that the state needs to “make this the highest priority.” 

“These fights have to happen because we have no choice, to sit on our hands is going to result in a multiplicity of disasters and catastrophic consequences.” 

Meanwhile, a new climate plan calls for more gas

In September 2020, after wildfires had affected more than 3 million acres of land, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) vowed to ramp up California’s climate change plan, citing the growing risks from severe heat, sea level rise, and impacts on environmental justice communities. 

He also called the state’s target of reaching 100 percent clean energy by 2045 “inadequate” and ordered the California Air Resources Board to draft its 2022 Scoping Plan — a climate action blueprint that is published every five years — and “evaluate pathways” to reach carbon neutrality by 2035 and phase out oil entirely.

But a draft of that new plan, which was released last week, still maintains the original 2045 target because it was “the most economically and technologically feasible route to carbon neutrality,” according to the board.

“The modeling shows that the ambitious target towards 2035 does result in some significant costs that will have significant economic impacts,” CARB Chair Liane Randolph told reporters, according to E&E News’ Anne C. Mulkern. “When you’re trying to transition away from fossil fuels, you need to replace that activity with something else. … The 2045 target allows us to fold in those costs over time.”

Apart from modest increases in renewable power, the plan relies on carbon capture technology for the elimination of air pollution and restates many of California’s existing commitments to slow global warming, which has frustrated many environmentalists who at first saw Newsom’s responses as a turning point. 

“The plan doesn’t accelerate any near-term solutions available today — like wind and solar, or more rapid electrification in our transportation and building sectors,” Saadat said, calling the carbon removal target “wildly unrealistic” and “a failure to the communities who live with fossil fuel infrastructure in their neighborhoods.”

Martha Dina Arguello, a co-chair of the CARB Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, who advised the board while it was writing the plan, agreed with Saadat and is pushing against the draft’s direction. 

“The California Air Resources Board’s draft Climate Change Scoping Plan is disastrous for climate and leaves working class Californians behind.  At a time when California needs to be phasing out fossil fuels, our top air regulators are bowing to fossil fuel lobbyists at the expense of our health and future,” Arguello said in a statement. 

A spokesperson for Newsom told the Climate 202 that “California is on the front lines of the climate crisis and the governor remains bullish on our aggressive climate goals. The governor welcomes the release of CARB’s draft Scoping Plan and looks forward to engaging on the finalization of the state’s climate plan.” 

The plan is currently in a 45-day public comment period, and is set to be finalized by the end of the year. 

Australian voters chose climate in weekend election

Australian Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese, who campaigned on the promise of ambitious climate action, claimed victory on Saturday, beating incumbent Scott Morrison and ending nine years of conservative rule in the nation, Hilary Whiteman reports for CNN. 

Albanese’s party has pledged to cut emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. At the same time, it plans to modernize Australia’s energy grid and to scale up renewable projects while conceding that it will approve new fossil fuel infrastructure if it is environmentally and economically viable. 

Marija Taflaga, lecturer in politics and international relations at the Australian National University, said Saturday’s win for climate action was unprecedented. “I think everyone has been taken by surprise by these results … I think it will mean there will be greater and faster action on climate change more broadly.”

Although Albanese claimed his win on Saturday, it is not clear whether his party will secure enough seats to form a parliamentary majority. However, early counting suggests a swing toward climate-focused candidates who demand emissions cuts greater than those backed by the current coalition. 

Climate change on hot seat at World Economic Forum this week

About one-third of the 270 panels scheduled for the World Economic Forum this week in Davos, Switzerland, will focus on energy security, climate change and its direct effects, Peter Prengaman reports for the Associated Press.

Topics for the various climate panels include “eco-anxiety,” helping developing countries finance a clean energy transition, emissions reductions pledges, and considering climate risks or indirect effects on the environment when investing. 

Many climate leaders are expected to attend this year’s gathering, which is being held in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic. U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry, Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate and Alok Sharma, the president of last year’s United Nations conference on climate change, are participating.

5 dead, nearly 1 million without power after Canadian derecho

Violent thunderstorms tore across Toronto, Montreal and Quebec on Saturday, killing at least five people and cutting power to nearly a million, Jacob Feuerstein reports for The Washington Post.

With wind gusts of about 75 mph, the string of storms qualified as a derecho, or a thunderstorm complex that features powerful winds across a wide swath and sometimes compares to a hurricane. These kinds of severe storms are rare in the north, especially during this time of the year, and typically don’t affect densely populated areas. 

According to the Storm Prediction Center website, Saturday’s derecho probably was triggered by climate change. A warming world is changing the locations of such damaging storm events, pulling warm, high-pressure domes northward.

On Tuesday: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will meet to examine President Biden’s proposed budget for the Forest Service for fiscal 2023. 

  • The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on how the nation can build an “affordable and resilient” food supply chain.

On Wednesday: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on the nomination of Joseph Goffman to be an assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

  • Goffman, a veteran of the EPA under Barack Obama, has been the acting leader of the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation since January 2021, and he has already helped develop tighter limits on tailpipe emissions from new cars and trucks.
  • With a tightly divided Senate, Goffman is expected to receive pushback from Republicans on the committee, who will probably denounce some of his writings from his time at Harvard Law School that were often critical of the EPA’s efforts to dismantle environmental regulations under President Donald Trump.

The House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on the Environment will also hold a hearing to discuss the future of weather research and innovation.

  • The House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security will meet to discuss the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s proposed budget for fiscal 2023.
  • The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, environment and related agencies will meet to discuss Interior’s proposed budget for fiscal 2023.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on water and power will meet to examine multiple bills on drought preparedness and water infrastructure, including the “aquabus” legislation that was introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) last week to create a national water data framework and help bring water security to the Rio Grande Basin.

On Thursday: The House Appropriations subcommittee on defense will hold a hearing to discuss environmental restoration.



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