California’s climate strategy lacks clear direction

California’s elected officials have struggled with their most basic tasks such as providing enough water during recent droughts, assuring a consistent electrical supply, dealing with wildfires and addressing persistent traffic congestion. But Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature have been laser-focused on one policy strategy – battling climate change.

Yet a new report from the highly respected Legislative Analyst’s Office evaluated California’s climate approach and found that, lo and behold, the state’s plan lacks even the most basic direction for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is no surprise. A state that can’t manage the basics certainly can’t be expected to tackle global climate change.

The LAO found that “despite the significant reductions to meet these goals,” the California Air Resources Board (CARB) “does not identify which specific policies it will implement.” In fact, “the plan’s estimated reductions are driven primarily by assumptions developed by CARB, without specifying how those assumed outcomes might be achieved.”

California officials have not identified sufficient policy options, which “increases the risk that the state will not meeting its statutory” goals of dramatically reducing emissions by 2030. Its lack of specificity “could be costlier and/or disruptive for private businesses and households.” California’s highly touted cap-and-trade system is failing to meet its targets or achieve revenue predictions.

Typically, California’s leaders pivot from their usual bureaucratic failures by pointing to the global importance of their climate-change crusade – but the state’s bureaucratic strategy is failing on those terms, too. The LAO found California’s failure to develop a “credible” plan harms its ability to “serve as an effective model for other jurisdictions or demonstrate global leadership.”

Right on cue, the governor’s press office praised CARB’s actions. “This is a roadmap – one of the most ambitious and detailed in the world – to drastically cut pollution and transition to clean energy,” said the governor’s deputy press secretary in response to the Sacramento Bee’s inquiries. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if the administration spent more time improving its outcomes rather than relying on grandiose, Earth-saving rhetoric?

The usually understated LAO issued unusually harsh criticisms. It finds delayed actions, rushed policy implementations, limited information about budgetary and policy directions, and far-reaching ambitions that aren’t matched by effective real-world policies. Critics of the administration often make these points, but the LAO’s imprimatur on them is particularly stinging.

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Because of the expected budget deficit, Newsom has reduced the amount of climate-related investments from $54 billion to $48 billion (over the next five years). That’s still a whopping amount of money. For comparison’s sake, California’s investment in climate policy is almost as much as the entire general fund budget of the state of Georgia.

One of the key problems is California views our various weather-related challenges – drought, wildfires, floods – as a climate-change rather than resiliency issue. The distinction is crucial. We don’t dispute the climate is changing, but California has faced alternating floods and droughts since time immemorial. Historical weather data supports that point.

A sensible government would focus on upgrading the infrastructure that helps us weather whatever natural challenges come our way rather than trying to serve as global leaders who are trying to change the trajectory of the Earth’s climate. By trying for the latter, the state fails at the former. The LAO offers the latest evidence of that situation.

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