California Can Do It

October 10, 2023 | 3:19 pm
A real-life 'Rosie the Riveter': a woman wearing a Rosie-style bandana works on an airplane motor at North American Aviation, Inc., plant in California.The Library of Congress/Flickr
Juliet Christian-Smith
Western States Regional Director

I’m not a native Californian but an adopted one. I love the way the state isn’t afraid to lead in times of great change.  

I was reminded of this recently when visiting the Rosie the Riveter museum, not far from my home in the Bay Area. Photos and audio recordings from the 1940s recreate a time of enormous upheaval. Amid fascist forces marching across Europe, democracy and a lot of lives were on the line. Here in Richmond, California, shipyards were bursting with thousands of men and women (for the first time allowed into the workforce en masse). Together, their tireless work helped end World War II and deliver victory to the Allied forces. But those workers, all the Rosies riveting away under welding helmets, sleeping in shifts, for months and even years, didn’t know how the story would end.  

To me, the museum is a testament to transition. Even in the tumult, even in times of great uncertainty, we can get up every day and, one rivet at a time, build the future. 

There is so much at stake for our state right now 

Today, we are in another time of upheaval and change The world just had its hottest three months on record with record-breaking sea-surface temperatures. This summer was a wild period of extreme heat waves, floods, and fires. And, while a historic level of federal funding for climate action is on its way via the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, too many bad actors and opposition forces are working hard to stall and stop the help Californians need. 

California has been at the forefront of everything from limits on greenhouse gas emissions and 100% renewable energy requirements, to a human right to water. And just last month California filed the most significant lawsuit for climate deception and damages to date, and over this past weekend, Governor Gavin Newsom signed two important climate disclosure bills. The state continues to lead. 

But we can’t take our eyes off the details. Planning and action at the state and local level must catch up with the ambitious targets we Californians have set. Not only are these policies necessary for California’s future, many of these policies have been exported to other states, and even the federal level.  

We are at a critical moment in California where the clean energy and transportation transition is well underway, yet the stakes are high if we don’t get that transition right. 

Information and advocacy are key right now 

My colleagues and I at UCS believe California can have healthier communities and a sustainable economy. At this high stakes-moment, I am grateful to lead the UCS Western States office in a state that has established itself as a leader in reducing and responding to climate change. If the state is going to meet its precedent-setting climate commitments, then we must drive the transition with information and advocacy—a combination of skills, expertise, and passion that our staff is uniquely positioned to share. 

Here’s what we at UCS are doing to make that happen.

Planning for an equitable clean energy and transportation transition in California :   

  • Every success brings new challenges: for example, 1 out of every 5 cars sold in parts of California is electric. This means that while we are on track to reach our 2035 goals, concerns around mining and disposal of batteries are real and need to be addressed. In response, UCS is working to advance policy in the California Legislature to require responsible electric vehicle battery recycling and closed-loop battery systems.   
  • To date, the oil industry has controlled the closure of fossil fuel infrastructure, most often leaving labor and local communities behind, resulting in gasoline price spikes, brown fields, and local unemployment. Right now, UCS is working towards a fast and fair fossil fuel phase out. In California, we are helping to develop a Transportation Fuels Transition Plan that will create a road map
  • As we move away from fossil fuels and electrify more sectors of our economy simultaneously, concerns mount about the reliability of our grid. Right now, UCS is analyzing how electric vehicles can assist our electrical grid during pinch points, and is helping develop a proposal for a governance system for broader grid integration throughout the Western U.S., based on our Equitable Grid Principles. 

Taking advantage of unprecedented funding flows to ensure they benefit the projects and people who need it most :

  • The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is an incredible opportunity to increase climate resilience, particularly for frontline communities who need it most. Right now, UCS is tracking announced and awarded projects in California to understand the extent to which they are benefiting frontline communities, and to recommend improvements where they aren’t reaching those who will most benefit.  

Advancing solutions to the most pressing problems in the Western U.S. :

  • In the Western states, climate impacts are perhaps most acutely felt in the water and wildfire spaces. This past year we swung from extreme drought to extreme flood, but we know that irrigated agriculture is still using far too much water year in and year out. Right now, UCS is helping to target state investments in strategic cropland repurposing. Californians pay billions to compensate for the negative side effects of extractive agriculture, and frontline communities also pay further with their health. In contrast, cropland repurposing, if technically sound and agreed upon with communities, can yield social, environmental, and economic benefits for all stakeholders. 
  • Finally, a peer-reviewed analysis published this year by the Union of Concerned Scientists determined that 37% of the total area scorched by forest fires in the Western United States and southwestern Canada since 1986—including those in California—can be attributed to heat-trapping emissions traced to the world’s largest fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers. Up until now, taxpayers have footed the bill for the damages. Right now, UCS is using climate science to inform dozens of lawsuits seeking damages from the fossil fuel companies that have known their products were damaging to people and the planet, but still chose to actively deceive the public and deny this harm. It’s long overdue that these polluters pay their fair share of the costs that the climate crisis is imposing on Californians. 

This is how California’s leadership will continue in this time of change, upheaval and high stakes.  

We still have a long way to go, but the clean energy and transportation transition is underway—and who else but California to lead the way? In Rosie the Riveter’s words: we can do it.