Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Back in January, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) made a promise. His state, he said, would pursue a new package of climate goals that are the most ambitious in the nation (and among the most ambitious in the world). California was already a leader in efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions and promote clean energy. Brown pledged to go further. By 2030, he declared, California would double the energy efficiency of state buildings; get half its electricity from renewables; and halve consumption of gasoline by cars and trucks.
At the time, all those nice-sounding goals were just words in a speech. But they could very soon become the law of the land. The state legislature is currently considering several bills (SB 350 is the most important) that would codify Brown's climate agenda. The legislation is widely expected to pass before the end of the legislative session next Friday, but not without a fight from the state's powerful oil lobby.
Before we get into the bills themselves, let's talk about California. Believe it or not, the state where America fell in love with cars and highways is now leading the nation, and the world, when it comes to climate action. And that matters, because California, the world's seventh-largest economy, is a world-class emitter of greenhouse gases. It ranks second for state emissions, behind Texas, and if it were its own nation, it would rank 20th globally, right between Italy and Spain. Still, it's remarkably clean for its size: On a per-capita basis, it ranks 45th among US states and 38th when compared with countries around the world. (Below, the bars represent total emissions and the dots represent per-capita emissions.)
California Air Resources Board
California is also special because of how much of its emissions come from road transportation (cars, trucks, buses, etc.), which is why a major reduction in gasoline use would be so significant. Nationally, just 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation; in California, it's 37 percent. Another way to crunch those numbers: One-tenth of the nation's road transport emissions come from California. Unsurprisingly, California is also the biggest consumer of gasoline, accounting for one-tenth of the national gas market. As a result, it also has an infamously aggressive oil lobby—more on that in a minute.
"If California can do this, it could really be the beginning of the snowball," Tim O'Connor said.
California first stepped onto the national climate stage back in 2006 during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration, with the passage of AB32, known as the Global Warming Solutions Act. That law sets a target of reducing the state's economy-wide carbon footprint to 1990 levels by 2020. Since the bill was enacted, gasoline consumption in the state is down 9 percent—double the nationwide decline. Total carbon emissions are also down, while GDP and population are both on the rise. Roll those things together and you get the most impressive number: The carbon intensity of the state's economy (that is, emissions per unit of GDP) is down 28 percent. The upshot is that California has become a proving ground for the notion that strong economic growth and climate action can go hand in hand:
That's where the current bills come in. SB 350 would bring the state's gasoline consumption down to about where Florida's is now, while setting new targets for clean energy and energy efficiency projects. There's also SB32, which would build on Schwarzenegger's targets and require the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 (to meet that target, emissions have to start falling about five times faster than they currently are). That would be the most aggressive state target in the country; nationally, the furthest President Barack Obama has gone is to aim for a 26-28 percent reduction by 2025 (and that's not enshrined in law, either). Both bills passed the state Senate in June by a wide margin; they're due for a vote in the Assembly within the coming week. If they pass, they'll head to Brown's desk for a signature.
Neither bill includes specific prescriptions for how to meet the targets. Those are left to the state's Air Resources Board (CARB), which would be required to turn in an enforcement plan by 2017. The gas consumption target would likely require some combination of new fuel efficiency standards for cars, incentives for alternative fuels and biofuels, cooperation with local planning agencies to improve public transit and make communities less car-reliant, and a push to get people to buy more electric vehicles. (California is already home to half of the roughly 174,000 electric vehicles on the road in the United States.)
"If California can do this, it could really be the beginning of the snowball," said Tim O'Connor, director of California policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. "This is how California can really shake up the national conversation on climate."
The oil lobby has long been the most powerful special interest group in Sacramento.
Combined, these efforts are expected to create up to half a million jobs, according to a recent University of California-Berkeley study, and draw billions in clean tech investments (for which California is already the undisputed national champ). The bills' supporters in the California capitol also say they will save millions of dollars in traffic-related public health costs and result in reduced energy bills.
Because of the state's share of the gasoline market, and its robust oil and gas production industry, the oil lobby has long been the most powerful special interest in Sacramento. The biggest group, the Western States Petroleum Association, spent $8.9 million on lobbying last year. Now, Californians are getting blitzed by ads like the one below, from the so-called California Drivers Alliance (backed by WSPA, and representing "fuel users & providers"). The ad claims SB 350 will lead to gas rationing and is all about "limiting how far we can drive" and "penalizing drivers for using too much gas." The bill's sponsor, Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), called the ad "absurd" and "fear-mongering."
"There's a significant amount of inertia protecting the industry," O'Connor said. "The lobby is putting its aim right at the center, at swing moderates" in the Assembly.
We'll have to wait and see how this pans out. But California has a strong history of leadership on climate policies—including carbon trading programs (it created the nation's first economy-wide cap-and-trade market in 2012) and clean vehicle standards—so the odds are pretty good.
"The governor has put his reputation on the line," O'Connor said. "It's hard to imagine 350 won't pass."
These are dark days for coal. In July, the industry hit a milestone when a major power company announced plans to shutter several coal-fired power plants in Iowa: More than 200 coal plants have been scheduled for closure since 2010, meaning nearly one-fifth of the US coal fleet is headed for retirement. President Barack Obama's recently completed climate plan, which sets limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, is designed to keep this trend going over the next decade. But the industry was in deep trouble even before Obama's crackdown, thanks to the rock-bottom price of natural gas made possible by America's fracking boom.
In case the shutdown of hundreds of coal plants wasn't a sufficient indicator of the industry collapse, here's another clue: coal companies' rapidly deteriorating bottom lines.
For execs at the top 10 public coal companies, cash pay grew 8 percent on average while combined share price dropped 58 percent.
A study this spring from the Carbon Tracker Institute found that over the past five years, coal producers have closed nearly 300 mines and lost 76 percent of their value. In August, Alpha Natural Resources, the country's second-largest coal company, filed for bankruptcy, making it the biggest domino to fall in a string of more than two dozen corporate collapses during the past couple of years. On Monday, one of the company's top executives resigned. Meanwhile, shares of Peabody Energy, the world's biggest coal company, hit their lowest price ever, dipping below $1. A year ago, Peabody's share price was hovering above $15; it peaked at $72 back in 2011. The stock plunge at Arch Coal was even more extreme—it fell from $3,600 to under $2 between 2011 and August 2015. (It has since rebounded slightly.) This year, both companies have been among the worst performers in the S&P 500.
You might think that the leaders of coal companies would be made to pay the price for these failures. But in the perverse world of American corporate compensation, they are, in fact, getting a raise.
According to a report today from the Institute for Policy Studies, which bills itself as the country's oldest progressive think tank, executive salaries and bonuses at the top 10 publicly traded coal companies increased an average of 8 percent between 2010 and 2014, even as the companies' combined share price fell 58 percent. Meanwhile, the same executives cashed in well over $100 million in stock options, according to the report, which analyzed the companies' public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In other words, coal execs are cashing in while their companies tank.
"That [stock-based] part of their compensation package is not so valuable right now, so the value of their cash-based pay has been going up," said Sarah Anderson, the report's author. "We're seeing this move to insulate them from the implosion of the coal sector by handing out more cash."
The chart below, from the report, shows how cash compensation started to rise just as the share prices took their second dive in five years:
At Peabody, for example, CEO Greg Boyce cashed in $26 million in stock before the price collapse that began in 2011. At Arch Coal, cash compensation for the company's top five executives grew 94 percent between 2010 and 2014, to an average of $2.3 million. Arch, Alpha, and Peabody did not return requests for comment.
To be clear, there's no evidence of anything criminal happening here. But you can include this trend in the pantheon of corporate executives getting rewarded for their companies' bad performance. Even the world's best CEO probably wouldn't be able to save these corporations—the fact is, the American coal market is disappearing and isn't coming back. But, Anderson argues, if these execs were truly interested in fixing their business models, they could have invested in alternative forms of energy, such as gas or renewables. "The smart thing," according to Anderson, "would have been to diversify their portfolio so they wouldn't be so vulnerable."
In front of us, construction crews are shaping mounds of rock and dirt into a mile-long, 12-foot levee. On one side is a canal, crammed with boat traffic for the offshore oil drilling industry. On the other side is Terrebonne Parish, a rural community of commercial shrimp fishermen and oil roughnecks who rely on these waterways the same way a city kid like me relies on the subway. The levee dead-ends into a shiny new $25 million floodgate, the last line of defense against storm surges that accompany the hurricanes that frequently slam this coastline.
Dupre is the director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District, a county agency tasked with keeping the homes here above water. A decade ago—when Hurricane Katrina forced 1.5 million evacuations, killed nearly 2,000 people, and caused $100 billion in damage—Dupre was the parish's representative in the Louisiana legislature in Baton Rouge. After the storm, he became a key architect of the state's overhauled flood-control agenda, pushing through legislation to create a new state agency to manage coastal issues and working to steer tax revenue from oil drilling into coastal protection projects. Now he's back home, overseeing projects like the one in front of us. Since Katrina, his office has built 35 miles of new levees.
"We've gone from being the laughingstock to the model for the rest of the country," Reggie Dupre says.
But the levees are just a small piece of the unprecedented transformation taking place along Louisiana's coast. Dupre is also an evangelist for a new, broader ethos that has washed over the whole state since Katrina. Experts here agree that levees and floodwalls like this are only effective if they're buttressed by natural barriers further out in the delta: The barrier islands and marshlands that are rapidly disappearing thanks to erosion, land subsidence, and sea level rise. Because of those forces—driven in part by a century-old practice of sealing the Mississippi River in its course and thereby starving the adjacent wetlands of nutrients and fresh water—Louisiana loses coastal land area equal to the size of a football field every hour.
Before the storm, hurricane protection and coastal restoration were treated as separate, or ever-competing, interests. Now, they're one and the same.
"Without Katrina, this wouldn't be happening," Dupre says. "We've gone from being the laughingstock to the model for the rest of the country."
In 2012, officials in the state's new Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority—Dupre's brainchild—released their most recent 50-year, $50 billion "master plan," a sweeping document that encompasses everything from wetland restoration to the elevation of at-risk houses. Already, according to CPRA chair Chip Kline, the state has reconstructed 45 miles of barrier islands and restored nearly 30,000 acres of wetlands. These natural barriers slow storm surge before it reaches the levees, the first in what are known here as "multiple lines of defense."
There are also 250 miles of new levees, a two-mile storm surge barrier wall, the world's largest pumping station (it can drain an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than five seconds), and a host of other projects designed to control floods and stymie land loss. Kline says he's confident that New Orleans is now safe from at least a 100-year flood (that is, a flood so severe that it has only has a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in any given year). Katrina was a 150-year flood in New Orleans. But given the realities of climate change, most experts think the city won't be truly secure until it reaches the 500-year level.
President Barack Obama agrees: Earlier this year he signed an executive order stipulating that any flood protection measures supported by federal money must meet a 500-year standard. Louisianans like Kline and Dupre contend that that standard is unreasonable and could hamper vital projects that are too expensive for the state to roll out on its own.
Either way, the Louisiana coast is now a massive laboratory for the kinds of measures that coastal cities like New York and Miami will need to survive climate change. For Dupre, the stakes are clear: "If I'm not successful, my whole culture disappears."
There's no better way to see the coast's plight, and the scramble to save it, than from a bird's-eye view. So Climate Desk hopped aboard a pontoon plane for an exclusive flyover. Check out the video above.
On Monday afternoon, the mayor of Los Angeles found a ballsy way to fight California's unprecedented drought:
LA just completed a project at the LA Reservoir to save 300 million gallons of water by deploying shade balls on its surface, saving our city over $250 million dollars while keeping our water clean & safe.
There are now 96 million "shade balls" floating on the surface of the LA Reservoir. They're made of plastic, the same kind of polyethylene that gallon-sized milk jugs are made of, so they don't pose a threat to the drinking water, according to the LA Times. They're designed to keep water from evaporating and are expected to conserve 300 million gallons per year. And at a cost of $35 million, they're about $250 million cheaper than the alternative, a tarp-like covering.
So, saving California from the drought just takes leadership from someone with a pair of…sorry I'll just stop now.
The Rocky Fire outside Santa Rosa is the biggest wildfire in California this week.
On Friday, California's wildfire season turned deadly, when Forest Service firefighter David Ruhl, 38, became the first wildland firefighter to be killed this year. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 homes are under evacuation orders as nearly 10,000 of Ruhl's peers tackle two dozen wildfires that have scorched tens of thousands of acres across the state. As of Wednesday morning, the state's biggest fire, the Rocky Fire north of Santa Rosa, had been burning for a week and was only 20 percent contained.
2015 has been an above-average year for wildfires in California, as the state continues to bake in an unprecedented drought. Last week Gov. Jerry Brown described his state as a "tinderbox" and declared a state of emergency. Back in the spring, conditions for wildfires were already so bad that fire ecologists were predicting a "disaster" fire season.
Summer has proved them right—to an extent. Since the beginning of the year, the number of acres burned has topped 100,000, more than twice the average of the past five years and more than burned in all of 2014. So the wildfire situation is indeed dire. But federal records show that it actually isn't too far above the longer-term average. In other words, thanks in part to global warming, nasty fire seasons are just par for the course in California these days.
"Our vegetation hasn't received enough water to resist wildfires. All it takes is one little spark."
"Absolutely the drought is the biggest factor," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, the state's wildland firefighting agency. "Our vegetation hasn't received enough water to resist wildfires. All it takes is one little spark." (For an explanation of how climate change worsens wildfire conditions, check out the video at the bottom of this post.)
The moisture content of dead "fuel" (trees, shrubs, grasses) has been below average for most of the year across nearly the whole state, according to federal data, in a few cases dropping to the lower levels than at any time in the three decades since record-keeping began. Jeremy Sullens, a predictive wildfire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center (a federal agency that coordinates firefighting efforts), said that there is also more fuel than normal on the ground this year. The long-term drought has caused more trees than normal to die, while at the same time a smattering of spring rain grew a fat crop of grass, he said. Those two factors combined are a perfect recipe for wildfires.
So far this year, as the following NIFC charts show, the cumulative total of fires has been just above average. Meanwhile, the total acreage of fires has been about normal. Here's northern California:
And here's southern California:
Now compare that to what's happening in Alaska, which is truly terrifying. This could be the state's worst fire season on record. Fires there are literally off the charts:
Back in California, the situation seems likely to improve into the fall. Sullens explained that it's much easier to bring fire conditions back to normal—which, he stressed, does not mean no fires at all—than it is to relieve the state's overall drought conditions. That's because the amount of water needed to dampen potentially hazardous fuel is much less than what is needed to restock an aquifer or supply a farm. And fire managers are less concerned with season-long trends, and more focused on what the status of fuels is today and tomorrow.
"A small rain could have a huge impact on the fuel condition, even if it doesn't have a big impact the drought condition," Sullens said. "On a landscape level, all we're really looking as is, 'Is it enough to dampen the live fuels, at least for a little while?'"
That explains some differences between what scientists are projecting for the drought itself, versus for fire conditions, for the next few months.
NOAA recently estimated that it would take two feet or more of rain over the next six months to lift the drought. While the strong El Niño currently gathering steam in the Pacific Ocean might send some extra rain California's way, it's unlikely to be that much. Here's the most recent drought outlook from NOAA, which shows drought conditions in California persisting or getting worse through the fall:
Meanwhile, the wildfire outlook shows signs of improvement across the country. Here's a GIF that shows the conditions from August through the fall. Bear in mind that under "normal" conditions, there will still be plenty of fires.
For the fires that do happen, will firefighters have enough water to put them out? Berlant said that although the lakes and streams that wildland firefighters source water from have been lower than normal, the agency hasn't yet run into any situation where they had less water than they needed to do their job. Ken Frederick, a NIFC spokesperson, said that firefighters are accustomed to foregoing the luxury of a steady water supply.
"At its most basic level, wildland firefighting involves denying the fire a continuous source of heat, fuel, or oxygen," he said. "Water can be a huge help with that task, but it can certainly be done without any water at all. And it often is."