Opinion: California’s uphill battle against climate emergency will require sacrifice, innovation

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The threat posed by Earth’s steadily increasing surface temperatures due to a build-up of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere is manifest in myriad interconnected ways. Drier, hotter conditions lead to more severe storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and acidic oceans. These conditions make it more likely that more species will go extinct and that risks from food- and waterborne diseases will soar. They also herald higher sea levels as the polar ice caps melt, potentially threatening 570 cities with more than 800 million residents by 2050.

Despite this evidence, people who reject the mainstream science that says the climate is changing — people who pretend the rest of us are merely worked up about the weather — number in the millions. Denialism is a de facto industry in which hucksters know there’s money to be made by feeding disinformation to people who resist the evidence that people are causing the climate emergency.

This overall picture is so alarming that the historic action undertaken Thursday by the California Air Resources Board — with the encouragement of Gov. Gavin Newsom and the likely blessing of President Joe Biden — doesn’t seem extreme in context. The board approved a policy under which the state will require all new cars, trucks and SUVs to run on electricity or hydrogen by 2035 — a bold stand with annual benchmarks, related standards and huge promise to sharply reduce the transportation-related emissions that are the biggest single source of greenhouse gases in California. The 40 percent share such gases now have of dangerous state emissions wouldn’t disappear right away, but with each passing year, the problem would decline. The air board believes that what are billed as the world’s most stringent rules would cut all vehicle emissions in half by 2040. More than a dozen states, totaling a third of the U.S. auto market, tend to follow California’s lead on emissions. It’s a giant first domino.

Yet its ultimate significance depends on what Sacramento and Washington do to smooth the transition to an era in which clean vehicles supplant fossil-fuel vehicles. Despite substantial subsidies included in the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law by Biden earlier this month, the cost of electric vehicles is out of the reach of the vast majority of Americans. As noted in a recent analysis in The New York Times, electric vehicles will be accessible only to wealthy households for many years to come because of high demand from affluent buyers and shortages of semiconductors and of batteries and the raw materials like lithium that they rely on.

This problem is part of a much larger one related to the cost of the global response to climate change. Last year — well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupted and hammered global oil and natural gas markets — the International Energy Association reported that prices of conventional energy sources had broadly risen to “their highest levels in decades.” At the same time, hopes that technological gains would make renewable energy not just cleaner but cheaper haven’t come to pass. “Talk of a smooth transition to clean energy is fanciful,” Foreign Affairs magazine wrote in January. “There is no way that the world can avoid major upheavals as it remakes the entire energy system.” These upheavals will translate into economic pain that could lead to paroxysms of public opposition.

To stave this day off, what’s needed are ways to dramatically lower costs for battery-powered vehicles and renewable energy in general — starting with means-adjusted subsidies and heavy funding for new technological research. The effects of the world’s most profound environmental dilemma must not exacerbate the effects of one of its most profound societal dilemmas: income inequality.

Identifying a need for action is crucial — as is addressing the complexity and difficulty of what comes next. To ban new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, replacements must be available, affordable and accommodated with sufficient infrastructure. It’s a steep hill to climb. Put the pedal to the metal.