This past Wednesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring all new passenger vehicles to be zero emission by 2035. The goal is a 35% reduction in transportation emissions which account for more than half of the state’s carbon pollution and 80% of its smog-forming pollution. But the timing of this bold announcement also captured how carbon-driven climate change impacts every aspect of our lives.
During the ceremony announcing the order, for example, Newsom explicitly connected climate change and natural disasters. “Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse,” he said, referencing the ongoing, unprecedented blazes that have burned more than 7.1 million acres this year across California, Oregon, Washington, and several other western states – already more than 1 million acres more than the annual average.
For residents of California and many other western states, the effects of climate change have been impossible to ignore. Rainfall so far this year is only about 50% of normal and the summer was warmer than usual including 130 degrees in Death Valley, possibly the planet’s highest-ever recorded temperature. Both factors fueled fatal, historic forest fires in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. The western fire season has only just begun, but California and Oregon have emitted the highest annual carbon levels ever measured in both states. Some of the worst air quality in the world has been recorded from San Francisco to Seattle and the pollution has spread all the way to the east coast. In the eastern part of the country, climate change is a key factor in the incredibly active 2020 hurricane season.
But the threats of climate change extend beyond such natural disasters. The smoke from these wildfires will likely magnify the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wildfire smoke contains particulate matter called PM2.5 that damages lungs, compromising the respiratory system’s ability to fight off illnesses like flu and COVID-19. Previous studies of rural Western areas have suggested a correlation between elevated amounts of wildfire smoke and a more deadly influenza season the following winter, and recent studies show declined lung capacity for two years after people were exposed to wildfire smoke. As many as 3000 deaths may already be linked to the toxic smoke of the California fires, alone.
Climate change even has a connection with the racial justice protests that have taken center stage in American cities for months. While protestors’ demands explicitly focus on the shooting deaths of African-Americans by police, air pollution is a much deadlier threat to minorities. According to Science magazine, dirty air kills more than 90,000 Americans a year. A disproportionate amount of these victims are minorities, in part because they are more likely to live in areas with higher amounts of air pollution.
The same is true of climate change. As Rachel Morello-Frosch, a public health professor at AC-Berkeley explains, “Climate change does not affect everyone equally in the United States, people of color and the poor will be hurt the most – unless elected officials and other policymakers intervene.”
California has long been the nation’s environmental innovation laboratory—as well as an important impetus for change in other states and countries. Its leadership in addressing the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States, the transportation sector, is vital. At 28% of total emissions, it has surpassed the gas, oil, and-coal powered electricity generation of the energy sector.
Today, 11 other U.S. states have already adopted an earlier zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) program California developed in the mid-1990s. If those same U.S. states adopt this new mandate, new car sales in over 40% of the country will be zero emissions vehicles in 15 years. In California, transportation electrification saves $54 per ton of emissions reductions, saves residents up to $1,100 annually, and could create 500,000 jobs – accelerating electric vehicle deployment could create similar benefits in other states.
California is also the home of Tesla, the car manufacturer leading the global transition towards electric vehicles. Tesla’s success has already turned the conventional wisdom about electric vehicles on its head. The claims of old-school naysayers that traditional automakers would easily overtake Tesla’s early lead have not come to pass. Instead, Tesla has become the most valuable automaker by market capitalization and the world’s automakers are playing catch up, publicly announcing some $300 billion in investments to transition to electric vehicles over the next decade.
The rise of Tesla, and other promising startups like Nikola, Proterra, and Rivian, in an industry that has traditionally had high barriers to entry did not happen by chance. It was sparked and nurtured by visionary government officials in California who have been working on zero emission vehicle programs for nearly three decades.
In short, reducing carbon emissions can no longer be pigeonholed just as an “environmental issue.” Climate change is an unparalleled disruptor and threat multiplier. Actions like Newsom’s executive order help protect all Americans’ homes, health, and lives—especially those of the more vulnerable poor and minority populations. By creating ambitious new goals, California can again lead the nation—this time toward an emission-free future.