Climate Change at Crisis Level
Global warming is the greatest environmental threat that humanity has ever faced.
Caused mainly by the unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by automobiles and industries, the rise in temperature is already starting to melt the polar ice caps and disrupt weather patterns.
The potential consequences for California are dire. At current rates of warming, state researchers project that the sea level will rise as much as three feet by the end of the century, flooding many low-lying areas and tainting important sources of fresh water like the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. Higher temperatures will drastically shrink the Sierra snowpack that stores much of our water. They will increase smog, boost the risk of wildfires and upset California's vital agricultural industries.
The United States produces about one-fourth of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, yet we're the only major nation that officially denies there's a problem. This is the year for all of us -- government, business, individuals -- to aggressively attack global warming.
California already is in the vanguard. Last year lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger passed a landmark law to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by about 25 percent by 2020. Although the details remain to be worked out, including how to implement an emissions trading scheme, the structure is in place for positive change. Northeastern states are implementing similar initiatives, and others may follow suit.
California is also leading the nation by providing incentives for drivers to purchase hybrids and by creatively using clean-air laws to force automakers to boost average vehicle fuel economy.
Sadly, the Bush-Cheney administration, loyal lackey of the energy industry, has consistently opposed any national efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The best we can probably hope for from the Roughneck-in-Chief is more funding for alternative energy research and added incentives for purchasing hybrid cars.
That puts the pressure on Congress -- particularly California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the new chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Congress needs to pass sensible and veto-proof legislation to reduce U.S. production of greenhouse gases.
The Supreme Court should also strike a blow for planetary sanity by backing the dozen states that have sued the Environmental Protection Agency to force regulators to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant. If the court doesn't step up, Congress will need to dictate regulations.
Here in Silicon Valley, venture capitalists like John Doerr are doing their part by investing billions of dollars in alternative energy start-ups. Computer and chip makers are creating more power-efficient devices. And local business leaders are trying to cut costs and streamline the permit process for solar power.
There's also a lot we can do as individuals: dial down the heat and air conditioning, drive a fuel-efficient car, carpool, recycle, turn off unused lights and electronic devices. Most of all, we need to keep the pressure on our elected leaders to act.
Other environmental priorities for 2007 include:
• Protecting our oceans. This is almost as important as the fight against global warming. Federal overseers are deciding how much to extend protection of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. They should err on the side of more rather than less, including tackling difficult issues such as fishing restrictions.
The United States also needs to renew its push in the United Nations for global restrictions on bottom trawling, the practice of dragging fishing nets along the ocean floor, which destroys critical habitat. A proposed ban on bottom trawling in international waters was defeated in November after opposition from fishing nations such as Iceland and Russia. But with new evidence of declining seafood stocks, it's worth reopening the issue in 2007. (Perhaps if the United States gets serious about global warming, the rest of the world will take us seriously on other global environmental issues.)
• Protecting us from floods. The state Legislature and Department of Water Resources need to wisely spend the $4.1 billion that voters approved in November for flood control and levee repair. As we saw during last winter's heavy rains, the aging Delta levees are extremely vulnerable. They have been neglected for too long. At the same time, the state needs to discourage more building in flood zones -- a lesson from Katrina that California should take to heart.
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