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Editorial: California leaders must show urgency on climate change in new year

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If it's true that the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging its existence, California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon is doing so by recognizing the state's lackluster record of meaningful climate action.

While attending the United Nations climate conference in Scotland in November, Rendon told CalMatters, "I don't at all feel that we are leading the world anymore," contradicting Gov. Gavin Newsom's rosy portrait of the state's achievements. Noting California's outdated emissions goals, overreliance on cars and freeways, and lethal shortcomings in dealing with weather extremes, Rendon acknowledged the leadership void that California once filled.

California Democrats celebrated a $15 billion investment in making the state more resilient against climate-fueled emergencies last year, but they mislabeled the fire and drought protections as climate action. The environmental plan lacked measures to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move away from fossil fuels, essential steps to avert climate catastrophe. A $735 million budget package to speed progress on the state's clean energy goals and advance new technologies was shelved for further consideration in the new year.

The Legislature's recent unseriousness about climate change must stop. Bogging down proposals in opaque committees, accepting fossil fuel industry contributions and letting trade groups dictate false narratives about job losses may be business as usual in Sacramento, but on this issue, it also amounts to a form of denialism. It puts California on a path toward squandering our last chance to stem the repercussions of climate change by the end of the decade.

The sobering truth is that California is nowhere close to meeting even its most basic climate goals. To fulfill a 2030 mandate and cut emissions to 40% below 1990 levels, the state would need to maintain annual reductions of more than 4%, according to a new report by the nonpartisan think tank Next 10. That is 2 1/2 times greater than our best year over the last decade.

Both houses of the state Legislature are reportedly developing major bills on the climate front, which is encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether they will be equal to the emergency and responsibility at hand — let alone pass. These bills have to be handled differently if state leaders want the public to believe they can deliver.

The most important change is in committee makeup, especially in the state Senate. Oil and labor dollars have purchased incredible sway in the energy and natural resources committees, contributing to Republican opposition and Democrat indifference. With Sen. Henry Stern running for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins can demonstrate climate leadership with her appointment of a new natural resources committee chair. If Sen. Ben Hueso is going to stick to the same broken formula for the energy committee, Atkins should replace him, too.

California's governor, who is up for reelection after fending off a recall attempt, also has a major role to play in shaping climate policy this year. Newsom has taken executive action to phase out oil extraction, expedite clean energy projects and shift the auto industry to electric vehicles by the next decade. But calculated strikes are not enough. California needs a clear and comprehensive strategy to eradicate carbon pollution in all forms and flood the market with clean energy. Next year's expected budget surplus is a chance to fund a faster transition.

With the federal government fractured by partisanship, California can use its innovative prowess and economic might to be a desperately needed world leader on climate change. Carbon emissions can be eliminated without sacrificing industry or labor; the power grid can be converted to clean energy without relying on nonrenewable sources; and communities can adapt without forgoing equity.

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