Change has come.
That's both good and bad.
Good, because the Obama administration appears to be taking steps to address global warming that go beyond even the green elements of the massive economic stimulus package -- a stark change in direction from the Bush Administration. Bad, because the changes wrought by global warming are already being felt, and being felt in the United States perhaps nowhere more keenly than in California, the nation's incubator for progressive environmental solutions.
At home, the Obama Administration is set to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant -- acting on a 2007 Supreme Court decision that the Bush Administration did everything in its power to avoid, obscure and ignore. Obama's Environmental Protection Agency, in contrast, is set to declare carbon dioxide a pollutant and set rules for reducing its harm using the Clean Air Act -- which does not require Congressional action. President Obama, as a candidate, pledged to institute a cap-and-trade regulation that would reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050. This could be the first step -- though the details are still sketchy.
Abroad, the Obama Administration can't seem to stop talking about global warming -- another welcome change for U.S. foreign relations. Last week, Obama sent a message to Canada that its Alberta oil sands development is a dangerous source of energy, since it's such a prodigious producers of greenhouse gases. And then, in China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton frankly called U.S.-style fossil fuel-based economic development a "mistake" that China and the world could not afford to repeat. She pledged to work closely with China to develop clean, smart energy -- a healthy start to reducing emissions (China and the U.S. are the world's No. 1 and 2 carbon dioxide polluters, and together account for 40% of world emissions -- and half of China's pollution can be traced to demand from the U.S. and Europe for cheaply manufactured export goods.)
That's the good. Now the bad.
California is facing another year of drought, as warmer-than-average winter temperatures and low precipitation have again conspired to produce a miniscule mountain snowpack. Californians have already been asked to cut back on water use by 20%, and water is in such short supply that as many as 1 million acres of the most productive farmland in the United States may go unplanted because there isn't enough water to go around. Obama's energy secretary, Stephen Chu, had warned recently of the drying up of the U.S. "Salad Bowl" -- and this could be an early sign of things to come.
California, of course, is facing a fiscal crisis even worse than many other states or the U.S. as a whole. Which is all the worse, since the solutions to many of the nation's environmental problems have originated in the Golden State. As a recent Newsweek feature put it:
"This is a trick question. What big country is, by most measures, greener than Japan and Germany and produces more geothermal energy than all of Europe combined? It might help to know that this nation is also a pioneer in environmental stewardship, having passed many of the world's toughest regulations on vehicle emissions, energy efficiency and nature conservation. ... If you were to answer the United States, you'd be more right than wrong. The statistics for the country as a whole obscure tremendous differences among the individual states several of which, on their own, would rank as major 'green' countries in their own right (which gets us to the trick). California, with its 37 million people, emits 20% less CO2 per dollar of GDP than Germany. It generates 24% of its electrical power from renewable fuels like wind and solar, compared with only 15% in Germany and 11% in Japan. It also has the world's largest solar-power plant (550 megawatts in the Mojave Desert), the largest wind farm (7,000 turbines at Altamont Pass) and the most powerful geothermal installation (750 megawatts at The Geysers north of San Francisco).
California also set in motion the impending regulation of carbon dioxide nationally by passing a 2004 law restricting emissions from vehicles. That rule has yet to go into effect, but the years of court challenges led the Supreme Court to rule that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon today. Obama, unlike Bush, appears willing to use the authority.
Here's hoping California-style environmental benefits can be employed across the U.S. without the financial hardship. The Earth is counting on it.
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