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Trump stalls California's climate efforts

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For the past three years, countries and companies around the world have looked to California as a counterweight to the Trump administration’s aggressive dismantling of efforts to combat climate change.

But this past week, as wildfires burned across the state — fires that scientists said have been made worse by a changing climate — and as at least five large carmakers sided with President Donald Trump’s plan to roll back California’s climate pollution standards, the state’s status as the vanguard of environmental policy seemed at the very least diminished.

The state’s leaders found themselves both witnessing firsthand the effects of climate change and hamstrung to take actions to fight it.

“We’re waging war against the most destructive fires in our state’s history, and Trump is conducting a full-on assault against the antidote,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in an interview.

Trump has taken broad aim at efforts to fight global warming since his first days in office. He has mocked the established science of human-caused warming as a hoax, turned his pledge to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord into a campaign rallying cry and directed the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back nearly every federal policy designed to curb the heat-trapping fossil-fuel pollution that is the chief cause of global warming.

But Trump’s quest to tear down rules that restrict the fossil fuel industry has homed in on California as a particular target. That’s in part because of California’s unique role as a beacon of the nation’s climate change policies: Some signature federal climate change programs Trump seeks to dismantle originated in the state. And since Trump has vowed to pull the United States out of the international climate accord, California has actively sought to replicate and link its policies with other countries.

As Newsom sees it, there is a contradiction between Trump’s willingness to help fire victims and his refusal to address the underlying reasons for the increasing ferocity of the fires.

“Last night they approved seven additional emergency grants in record time,” Newsom said. “But what’s so insidious, and what’s so remarkable, is that he’s doing everything right to respond to these disasters and everything wrong to address what’s happening to cause them.”

Asked to respond, a White House spokesman, Judd Deere, said California’s leaders “support destructive liberal policies” and have not done enough to manage wildfire risks. “California should focus on its own affairs rather than trying to regulate 49 other states with its big-government policies.”

Experts said that the administration’s efforts to roll back climate policy in California will not lead directly to worse wildfires. But California is the fifth-largest economy in the world, and what happens here can reverberate and affect national and international efforts to halt global warming.

The past 10 days have brought home to many Californians the brutal reality of a changing climate and cemented the feeling that politicians far away in Washington are not just ignoring it but actively working to undermine their efforts to address it.

“The seas are rising, diseases are spreading, fires are burning, hundreds of thousands of people are leaving their homes,” Jerry Brown, the former California governor, told a hearing in Washington earlier this week. “California is burning while the deniers fight the standards that can help us all.

“This is life-and-death stuff,” he said.

The images of the wildfires beamed around the world barely begin to capture the grinding frustration of California residents at home. In Wine Country, Mike and Debby Bailey watched helplessly night after night last week as the mountain across from their ranch was on fire — again. The same hills burned two years ago.

Like many in Northern California, the Baileys, who defied evacuation orders to protect their home and their animals, faced the double threat of fires and a power company, Pacific Gas and Electric, that turned off their electricity, disabling their water pumps. Bailey, a retired pharmacist who has metastatic prostate cancer, missed five days of radiation treatment.

“I’ve reached my limit,” he said Thursday as the fire was being brought under control. “This is the climate change that scientists have been telling us about for years, and we’ve buried our heads like ostriches.”

The most destructive, the deadliest and the largest wildfires in California history have all occurred in the past two years. The Camp fire, which incinerated the town of Paradise in the Sierra foothills, killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 homes.

A year earlier, wildfires killed more than 40 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes. The Mendocino Complex fire last year, which burned 460,000 acres, was the largest ever recorded in the state.

The trauma of these fires has kept Californians in a heightened state of vigilance, sniffing the air for smoke, scanning hilltops for any signs of ignition.

Amid widespread anxiety, there are some reasons to be hopeful so far this year. Although the state’s fire agency, Cal Fire, has recorded about 5,000 fires this year in the area it oversees — about the same as during the same period last year — far fewer acres have burned: less than 100,000 compared with about 600,000 at this point last year.

But the number of people affected this year swelled into the millions because of the large-scale power outages that PG&E, the state’s largest utility, carried out to prevent downed lines and other equipment from sparking fires.

Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University, said the extreme winds that are knocking down power lines and starting fires are only one factor.

“The conditions that we are observing right now are a function of climate change, and climate change will get worse,” he said.

California has contended for over a century with an annual wildfire season. But scientists have found that climate change — including longer, hotter and drier fire seasons, diminishing snowpack and lengthening droughts — have already measurably worsened the size and scale of fires in the western United States. Hotter temperatures means drier vegetation, making it more likely to burn.

The 2018 National Climate Assessment — a major scientific report produced by 13 federal agencies — concluded that if greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels continue to increase at current rates, the frequency of severe fires in the West could triple.

The report noted that climate change will also bring more specific threats to California. Increased drought could devastate the state’s farmers, warming waters could close fisheries and spur the growth of toxic algae, and rising seas could inundate the homes of 200,000 Californians and erode two-thirds of California beaches by 2100.

The Trump administration moved this summer to eliminate California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set standards on planet-warming tailpipe pollution that are stricter than those set by the federal government.

When California officials struck a deal in July with four automakers to abide by the state’s tougher standards, the EPA formally revoked California’s authority, prompting a lawsuit.

The Trump administration has also threatened to withhold highway funding, opened an antitrust investigation into California’s deal with carmakers and filed suit to block part of a state initiative to limit greenhouse gases from power plants, arguing that its regional cap-and-trade system was unlawful because it included Quebec, Canada.

“Why are they going out of their way to attack this authority now?” asked Daniel Lashof, director of the World Resources Institute, a research organization focused on environmental policy, adding that California has been working with Quebec for over a decade.

The lawsuit against California could slow the spread of such programs. And if the courts back the Trump administration in the fight over auto pollution standards, 13 other states that have adopted California’s stricter standards would also be forced to abandon them.

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