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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

California Backtracks on Its Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Program

[Updated September 17, 2015]
California’s praiseworthy effort to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, initiated by former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, suffered a major setback when present Governor Jerry Brown and state legislators agreed to exempt petroleum from the program.  They succumbed to intense pressure from the oil industry. 
To minimize further global warming and its harms we all have to limit accumulation of additional atmospheric greenhouse gases.  The oil industry campaign in California has the opposite effect, ensuring addition of more gases rather than minimizing their buildup.   We and future generations will suffer the harmful consequences.

Former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, addressing a United Nations conference on the environment in June 2005, indicated his understanding that climate change is an indisputable threat.  He revealed his plans to combat global warming, stating

"Today, California will be a leader in the fight against global warming….I say the debate is over. We know the science, we see the threat and we know the time for action is now." 

Under the Governor’s leadership California enacted emissions reduction legislation, its Global Warming Solutions Act, in 2006 (read more). The Act imposes statutory limits on the annual emission rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) only until 2020, requiring reduction to the level of 1990 by that date.  Yet, recognizing that more drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are required in order to minimize global warming, Schwarzenegger further issued an executive order establishing the goal of reducing GHG emissions by 80% below the level of 1990 by 2050, with an interim objective of reducing emissions by 50% by 2030.  These limits are modeled after similar goals established by the European Union.

Ten years later and now no longer the governor, Schwarzenegger has not relented, stating  

“The debate is over and the time for action is now….[T]his is the challenge of our time. And it is our responsibility to leave this world a better place than we found it, but right now we are failing future generations.”


Oil Industry Lobbies for Exemption.  On September 10, 2015, however, according to a report in the New York Times, the Democratic majority in the California Senate and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown opted to exempt oil products from the rules of the plan. They faced successful opposition from Democrats in the California Assembly.  The report stated that the legislators succumbed to intense pressure from the oil industry, including  a massive advertising and mailing campaign, to let them continue operating unhindered.

This opposition asserted, incorrectly, that the restrictions could result in gas rationing and a ban on minivans, stating, for example, “This law will limit how often we can drive our own cars”.  The photo below shows a Los Angeles, California highway during rush hour, showing how important it is to “drive our own cars”.

Clogged rush hour traffic recently on a Los Angeles, California highway.
The legislation remaining after the exemption for petroleum still keeps California on target in other segments of the energy economy, including energy efficiency and providing for renewable electric power.  Nevertheless, removing petroleum, which powers automobile traffic, excludes a major contributor to total GHG emissions from the overall emission limits.
This represents a major setback for Gov. Brown, for he strongly supports his state’s emission reduction program.  In addition, it clearly compromises the strength of his position before international negotiators involved in finalizing a worldwide agreement on emissions reduction under the umbrella of the United Nations.
President Obama highlighted the damages to Alaska resulting from global warming already under way, during his visit there the week before.  In a major speech he stated
“[T]he Arctic is the leading edge of climate change -- our leading indicator of what the entire planet faces.  Arctic temperatures are rising about twice as fast as the global average….  Last year was Alaska’s warmest year on record….[a]nd the impacts here are very real….[Damages] could cost billions of dollars to fix.”
British Columbia’s carbon fee.  In contrast to the rollback of the limits on GHG emissions that California is carrying out, the Canadian province of British Columbia has implemented a revenue-neutral carbon fee.  The program went into effect in 2008.  It progressively raised the fee each year until 2012.  The fee continues in effect at that level.  It is revenue-neutral, because the increase in revenues from the fee are returned to British Columbia taxpayers by reductions in other taxes.
The more GHGs are emitted the higher the temperature of the entire earth system becomes.  The excess heat stored in the atmosphere, reflected in higher long-term global average air temperatures as well as in the total excess heat energy stored in the oceans (about 90% of the total heat), is directly related to the total excess burden of CO2 and other GHGs that accumulate in the atmosphere.  These GHGs originate from humanity’s use of fossil fuels to provide our energy.  CO2 emitted into the atmosphere remains there undiminished for centuries.  As long as we continue to emit excess GHGs into the atmosphere the total heat content of the air + oceans will continue to increase. 
This is the reason that it is essential to minimize annual rates of GHG emissions, ultimately reaching near zero annual emissions.  Only then will the total heat of the air + oceans stabilize at a new, higher value governed by the higher level of GHGs then prevailing.  So the faster humankind succeeds in reducing annual GHG emission rates to near zero, the less will be the increase in the new stabilized global average temperature.
This reality is why the action of California’s legislature is disappointing, indeed counterproductive.  The continued unconstrained emission of CO2 from burning gasoline and other petroleum products slows the needed reduction in GHG emission rates, resulting in a higher stabilized global average temperature.
California’s economy alone contributes about 1/7th of America’s entire economic activity, as of 2014; its proportional energy economy likewise is comparable since the various sectors of the economy provide the demand for energy use.  For this reason any backtracking in California’s ambitious program to reduce its emissions rate is a serious, and irreversible, setback.
Evidence of the devastation wrought by man-made global warming is already apparent in California.  Its multi-year drought has critically affected its agricultural productivity, and triggered forest wildfires that are more extensive than in past decades.  Droughts typically arise when rain and snowfall are less than expected.  But the current drought is more severe because of the excessive heat that worsens the dry conditions.  It is unconscionable that oil industry interests seek to perpetuate the activities that lead to California’s extreme drought.

[Update] Valerie Trouet and colleagues published a detailed analysis of precipitation in the Sierra Nevada mountains of eastern California online in Nature Climate Change in September 2015.   They focused on the annual mountain snowfall that on melting provides much of the water resources for the state, going back to 1500 C.E.  They found that the water originating as snowfall in the winter of 2015 was the least for the entire 515 year period examined.  The likelihood of such a low snowpack having occurred in the past is estimated at once in every 3,100 years, which points out the extreme nature of this year’s minimum.  In view of projected worsening of man-made warming in the Sierra Nevada, the authors fear “major future impacts” on the region’s water storage ability.
The self-serving exemption from GHG emission limits by the oil industry enhances its short-term financial gain, but also contributes to long-term worsening of global warming, with all its harmful and damaging effects on the world’s population.  Even so the companies’ executives and shareholders, and their progeny, will be affected to the same extent as others around the world will be.  This select group of individuals can’t build biosphere domes over their homes and places of work to protect them from harm.  Their own actions will come back to harm them and their children. 
This notion has been poignantly underscored by President Barack Obama, who said in his State of the Union address on January 28, 2014 : 
“Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”
Conclusion.  The damaging effects of global warming are already upon us, and are made worse by our continued use of fossil fuels, and other GHG-producing activities.  All peoples of the world have to coalesce around positive steps to minimize further emissions and stabilize the heat added to the earth system.

© 2015 Henry Auer

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