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California Strengthens Its Role as Leader on Climate Change: State Steps Up As Federal Support Lags

August 01, 2017 | Kim Krisberg | The Nation's Health

A few years ago, a new but familiar vehicle hit the streets of Gilroy, California. It was a first of its kind for the state: a yellow school bus powered entirely by electricity.

Organizers behind the project partnered with the Gilroy Unified School District to retrofit an existing school bus and completely convert it from fossil fuel to electricity. Beyond the more obvious goal of reducing health-harming emissions that contribute to climate change, organizers also wanted to find a way of converting existing buses that would actually save the school system money in the long run. The final product, unveiled in 2014, could run 70 miles on one charge and the cost of conversion was lower than the cost of a new bus.

An agricultural worker prunes a grapevine in April in Windsor, California. A record winter rainfall ended the state’s five-year drought, which has been linked to climate change. California is one of the states leading the charge on combating climate change, particularly now that federal action has stalled. Photo by George Rose, Getty Images.
An agricultural worker prunes a grapevine in April in Windsor, California.
A record winter rainfall ended the state’s five-year drought, which has been linked to climate change.
California is one of the states leading the charge on combating climate change,
particularly now that federal action has stalled. Photo by George Rose, Getty Images.

The school district ultimately decided to sell the school bus to another agency, but the bigger point of the project was to prove it could be done, said Illyasha Peete, MBA, executive director of Breathe California of the Bay Area, one of the lead organizations on the school bus project. In fact, Peete said organizers hope to test out the feasibility of solar-powered school buses in the future.

“We try to get people’s interest by helping them save money,” Peete told The Nation’s Health. “Then, later on, that support for stewardship of the environment is created.”

The Gilroy school bus project may be a first for California, but its mission is a familiar one. For years, California has led the nation in efforts to mitigate and prepare for climate change, doggedly building a comprehensive, policy-driven agenda focused on reducing greenhouse emissions and reducing the impact of climate effects. The state’s commitment to climate change action seems especially heartening in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the nonbinding Paris climate accord in June.

In response to Trump’s decision, California Gov. Jerry Brown has continued to push forward with global partners to address climate change. Just weeks after the U.S. withdrew from the Paris agreement, Brown was appointed special advisor for states and regions for the Under2 Coalition, a group of 176 jurisdictions around the world committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions up to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Brown also joined with governors in 12 other states to form the U.S. Climate Alliance, a forum for driving state action on climate change.

“Donald Trump has absolutely chosen the wrong course,” Brown said in June in a news release. “He’s wrong on the facts. America’s economy is boosted by following the Paris agreement… California will resist this misguided and insane course of action. Trump is AWOL, but California is on the field, ready for battle.”

APHA also condemned the decision to withdraw from the agreement in June, predicting the move would have “disastrous consequences for human health.” APHA has designated 2017 as the Year of Climate Change and Health and is sharing tools to help people become informed. That work includes APHA’s 2017 Annual Meeting and Expo, which is themed “Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health.”

“The science is clear. Climate change is happening and it’s affecting our health,” Benjamin said in an APHA news release. “A changing climate affects our food supply, the spread of infectious disease, our water systems and air quality and much more. All have significant impacts on human health.”

A growing, multisector policy framework at the state and local levels underscores California’s climate change efforts. Linda Rudolph, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Climate Change and Health at California’s Public Health Institute, said California has “taken the climate problem to heart” because in many ways, the state is on the front lines of climate-related impacts. Scientists warn that California is at risk for a range of climate effects, including sea level rise, more frequent and intense wildfires, more drought, drinking water contamination and worsening air quality.

“Just take drought,” said Rudolph, an APHA member. “Other states haven’t seen droughts that led to thousands of poor rural households running out of tap water and local health departments having to put in place systems for community showers… There’s a recognition here that climate change is real, it’s happening and it really is impacting people.”

Rudolph said California has long been at the forefront of air pollution policy and still has a ways to go—the state remains home to some of the country’s worst air quality. On climate change, she said the state’s seminal legislation was the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which set initial state targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Last year, Brown signed legislation that expanded that reduction goal to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Other significant policies, she said, include a 2015 law to increase the state’s renewable energy use to 50 percent and double energy efficiency in buildings by 2030, as well as a 2008 law that engages localities in creating regional greenhouse gas reduction targets, which is also driving local innovation in climate-friendly transportation and land use.

Much of the state’s policy work has been process-oriented, Rudolph noted, but will prove critical over time, such as a 2013 law that embedded the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions into new transportation impact assessments.

“California is taking a climate change-in-all-policies approach,” she said.

Read the full article in The Nation's Health.