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Climate change and Petaluma

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It was day 7 of last November’s horrific Camp Fire in Butte County and members of the Petaluma Valley Rotary Club had begun gathering for their weekly meeting at the Rooster Run Golf Club, which lay shrouded beneath a thick layer of toxic smoke. With Bay Area air quality rated as “Very Unhealthy,” local public schools were closed due to concerns over children’s health.

Many in attendance were eager to hear the day’s speakers who were slated to discuss the science behind climate change and, coincidentally, the connection between global warming’s persistent droughts and the increasing frequency and intensity of California’s deadly wildfires.

The speakers, both retired professional women from the North Bay, had been trained by the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, a group of 17,000 people from around the world who discuss the impacts of climate change and advocate for the shift to clean, renewable energy such as solar and wind power. Despite their dire forecast that a lack of swift action globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have catastrophic consequences for humanity and the environment, their talk was well prepared and generally well received.

Two weeks later, just as long-awaited rainfall finally began to douse the 240-square-mile inferno that had obliterated the city of Paradise, scientists from 13 separate federal agencies released their latest report on climate change, noting that more and more of the predicated impacts of global warming have now become a reality, including the unprecedented magnitude of California’s megafires. The report noted that the likelihood of large, fast-moving wildfires will continue to increase in the coming decades, threatening lives, property and the nation’s economy.

To get a better understanding of what efforts are underway locally to battle this threat, I met with Bruce Hagen, a program management professional from Petaluma who co-chairs the Sonoma County Chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonprofit, nonpartisan grassroots advocacy organization focused on national policies to address climate change.

Hagen told me he’s grateful that so many people in Sonoma County are doing things like installing solar panels on their homes, buying electric vehicles, eating less beef (the production of which is a major contributor to global warming), and signing up for the all-renewable energy “Evergreen” program offered by Sonoma Clean Power, the public electricity provider. He’s also encouraged that the State of California has mandated that utility companies generate at least 60 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030, while also requiring that all new homes built after 2020 have solar power.

“But it’s not enough,” Hagen said. “We’re running out of time.”

Citing the most recent United Nations Climate Panel report noting that the impacts of global climate change are rapidly accelerating and worsening around the world, he and the Citizen’s Climate Libby are advocating for national legislation, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which, if passed, would reduce the country’s carbon emissions by 40 percent within 12 years.

As conceived, the law would place a per-ton fee on carbon-based fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas that would grow over time. Monies collected would be rebated to all American households in equal monthly installments, with an average family of four receiving about $3,000 annually. Such a carbon tax assumes rising prices of fossil fuels will reduce consumption, thereby encouraging increased use of renewable energy sources.

Hagen said the proposed law, which has bipartisan support, is remarkably similar to a “carbon dividend” plan co-authored by former Republican Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz of the Climate Leadership Council. Several major U.S. corporations, including Exxon Mobil, have endorsed the concept of a carbon tax.

I called our Congressman, Jared Huffman, to get his take. While acknowledging that a national carbon fee and dividend program can be a “powerful tool” in reducing greenhouse gases, Huffman said the proposed law does not go far enough since “it only applies to the energy generating sector and exempts the transportation and agriculture industries. We’re going to have to take a deeper dive, on par with the Manhattan Project, so that agriculture” can also find a way to significantly and sustainably reduce its carbon footprint.

Despite differences in the exact policies to fight climate change, with Republican elder statesmen joining together with Democrats and environmentalists in supporting the concept of taxing carbon-based energy sources, Huffman said he’s hopeful that the new Congress will ultimately adopt effective national policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is despite the current occupant of the White House who has foolishly rejected the overwhelming scientific facts about climate change.

In the meantime, many Petalumans are doing what they can. One member of the local Rotary Club recently told me she was so moved by the speakers’ message on climate change that she went out and bought an electric car.

“I figured I had to do something,” she said.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com)