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Californians Stand By Call for Climate Action

…though most remain clueless about the state’s imminent cap-and-trade program

Craig Miller / KQED

Wind turbines in Solano County. 78% of Californians polled favor federal support for renewable energy.

Much has been made lately of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller’s recent “conversion” to the position that global warming is both happening and stoked by human activity.* But it turns out that the controversial scientist and author has been playing catch-up.

In a statewide survey released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), 60% of Californians polled said that the effects of global warming have already begun. Asking the question in a slightly different way, both the Brookings Institution and the Pew Center for People & the Press found that in 2011, 60% and 63% of Americans, respectively, believed that there was solid evidence that global warming is happening.

Californians took it a step further, however, with nearly three-in-four of the 2,500 participants responding that government should take steps to “counter the effects of global warming right away.” PPIC conducted the survey in July and it includes responses in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. Continue reading

What Will Your Water Cost?

Report: Big changes needed to avert “widespread environmental and economic losses” in California

Grand illusion? Water rushes over the spillway at Nicasio Reservoir in Marin County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

A high-profile team of experts is calling for a major overhaul of the way California manages its water. In a 500-page report from the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, the authors say decades of well-intended water policies simply haven’t worked, leaving the state vulnerable to major crises, including water shortages, catastrophic floods, decline & extinction of native species, deteriorating water quality, and further decline of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Our system has been dying a death by a thousand cuts,” says co-author Ellen Hanak, an economist and policy analyst at the PPIC. Hanak says that the state’s water management efforts have been “incremental” and “piecemeal,” with little success to show for it. Continue reading

State Struggling to Reduce Vehicle Emissions

This post was originated by our content partners at California Watch.

Report says driving needs to be more costly to get us out of our cars

By Marie C. Baca

Drivers now pay $6 to cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge during peak traffic hours. "Peak pricing" is one strategy to push commuters to alternative transit. (Photo: Craig Miller)

California faces significant obstacles in complying with a 2008 state law aimed at reducing passenger vehicle usage, according to a report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

The report points to unrealized rail transit investments and resistance to pricing tools like fuel taxes as factors that have slowed reduction in car usage.

The two-year-old SB 375 mandates that California’s major metropolitan areas reduce per capita emissions from driving by 7 percent by 2020 and by 15 percent in 2035. While the primary focus of the bill is a reduction in the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, the legislation places a special emphasis on addressing traffic and public health concerns by reducing the number of miles residents drive. Continue reading

Candidates Question Climate Science

Third-party candidates for governor call the science of global warming “junk science” and “a scam at worst.”

Photo: Craig Miller

While Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown debate the pros and cons of the state’s global warming law (AB 32) and the ballot initiative that would suspend it (Proposition 23), two of the four “alternative” candidates interviewed this morning on KQED’s Forum program, attacked the science behind California’s climate change policy.

“I’ve become convinced that the whole thing is an exaggeration at best, and a scam at worst,” said Dale Odgen, the Libertarian Party candidate.  “The science has been fudged in order to get grants for people.  People like Al Gore have used it to become even more wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.” Continue reading

Poll Shows Support for Climate Law

An expansive new poll on environmental attitudes suggests that despite the recession, Californians are holding fast to their environmental priorities.

Among the findings in the report released this week by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California is that support for the state’s climate change strategy remains strong, even in the face of a well-financed campaign against the law known as AB 32. Two-thirds (67%) of the respondents support the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California–about the same level as when PPIC polled the question last year. Continue reading

The Air Quality-Carbon Connection

I-80Here’s a news flash: California has an air pollution problem.  According to the American Lung Association’s 2009 State of the Air Report, 38 of California’s 52 counties get failing grades for either high ozone or particle pollution days.  (You can see your own county’s grades for ozone and air particle pollution at the State of the Air website.)

In fact, last month the federal EPA’s new director for San Francisco-based Region 9 made an astonishing claim on KQED’s Forum program. Jared Blumenfeld said that more Californians die from air pollution than from car wrecks. When a caller asked him to back up the claim, Blumenfeld provided the following statistics:

- Traffic-related fatalities: 3,949 deaths per year from 3,535 fatal collisions (average for 1999-2008)
- Deaths associated with PM2.5 exposure above 5 ug/m3 in California : 18,000 deaths per year

Cars are doing double duty in these statistics, since passenger vehicles are a large source of air pollution. Over the decades the state has addressed this fact with landmark efforts to regulate vehicle emissions, in efforts initially to improve local air quality and more recently, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In a new study released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC),  researchers looked at two state priorities: reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and improving air quality to benefit public health, and evaluated the effectiveness of four potential transportation strategies to address both.

What they found is something that policymakers have known all along: there are no easy answers.  And everything involves a trade-off.

PPIC research fellow Louise Bedworth compared the cost, public health benefits, and GHG reduction potential for various alternative-fuel vehicles; battery-electrics, fuel cell, ethanol, and for reducing overall vehicle miles.  What she found is that transforming California’s vehicle fleet to battery-electric vehicles provides the greatest public health benefit, but that high costs and technological uncertainty make this option far from ideal.

On the flip side, said Bedsworth, while we have the technology for vehicles to run on corn-based ethanol, research shows that when indirect land-use costs are considered, corn-based biofuels provide no significant public health or climate change benefit.

But while the PPIC looks at local health and global warming effects separately, a new study out of Stanford has found that the two are directly linked. It’s well established that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and that increased temperatures can exacerbate air pollution, but the new study shows that CO2 “domes” that develop over urban areas are, in fact, causing health problems for city-dwellers.  The study, conducted by civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Jacobsen, looked at models for the contiguous 48 states, for California and for the Los Angeles area. Results showed an increased death rate in all three areas compared to what the rate would be if no local carbon dioxide were being emitted.

Neither current regulations, nor the federal cap-and-trade bill passed by the House address the local effects of CO2 emissions on health.  Jacobsen says that this study provides evidence that they should.  He estimated an increase in premature mortality of 50-to-100 deaths per year from local CO2 emissions in California.

Jacobsen talks about his study in the video, below.

Everything You Know (About Water) is Wrong

If Dan Brekke isn’t editing newscasts at KQED Radio, chances are that he’s poring over charts full of arcane statistics from the state Department of Water Resources. Call it a hobby. Okay, call it an obsession. Either way, we frequently turn to Dan for his insights into California’s water conundrum.

Flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Everything You Know is Wrong

By Dan Brekke

California is home to 37 million people—and to 37 million water experts. If no one’s ever said that, someone should have.

There’s nothing more central to life here and no subject that excites stronger opinions. Recent events have shown that those opinions can easily harden into certainty about what needs to be done to solve all of California’s water problems—the needs of those 37 million people, the needs of the state’s incomparably rich agricultural industry, the needs of native fish and ecosystems.

We’ve long since learned that one person’s “solution”—to build dams and divert water for farms and cities, say—can be another’s nightmare—for instance, the communities that depend on healthy fisheries for their well-being. The conflicts over water are so deep and longstanding that they can make rational discussion difficult or impossible.

This week, though, the Public Policy Institute of California published a report that aims to inject some understanding into the water debate by challenging opinions and misconceptions. The report tests eight widely-held beliefs about water against the complex realities that underlie them. The first myth is fundamental to how we see water issues: “California is running out of water.” The reality the PPIC and its all-star panel of water experts propose is a sobering one: “California has run out of abundant water (our italics) and will need to adapt to increasing water scarcity.”

There’s something in the list of myths to rankle just about everyone. One myth goes like this: “[Insert villain here] is responsible for California’s water problems.” The report goes on to assess several villain-candidates, including:

- Wasteful Southern California homeowners with their lush lawns and luxurious swimming pools,

- Farmers who get federally subsidized (read “cheap”) water, and

- Protections for endangered species (as in “Why are we giving water to that Delta smelt?”).

In reality, the report says, coastal Southern California does an excellent job of limiting residential water use; farmers getting cheap water are in fact paying a price for the subsidy and are becoming more efficient water users; and actions taken to protect the smelt has had a comparatively small impact on water shipments through the Delta.

The PPIC says in the introduction to “California Water Myths” that a “policy based on facts and science is essential if California is to meet the multiple, sometimes competing goals for sustainable management” of water for the rest of the century. No one can argue with that, though it’s certain that squabbles over water will persist. Maybe the best we as Californians can hope for is an honest effort to try to understand the needs of all other water users, and to give each of them the benefit of the doubt when considering solutions to our water problems.

The PPIC report: “California Water Myths,” is available on the institute website or in an excellent interactive version put together by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Meanwhile, how are we doing this winter? Not great. Below is an interactive map of California’s major reservoirs, comparing their current levels to average or “normal” levels for this time of year.

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

Do We Need Nuclear?

This is an updated re-post from August 24th, when my radio feature first aired on KQED’s Quest series. That report repeats on this week’s magazine edition of The California Report.

More people appear to be saying “yes” these days, even if grudgingly. The question is: Is it too late?

The Public Policy Institute of California has been tracking public support for expanded nuclear power over the past several years. Survey participants are offered a menu of four potential energy options, one at a time.

The question posed is: “Thinking about the country as a whole, to address the country’s energy needs and reduce dependence on foreign oil sources, do you favor or oppose the following proposals?” Then the four options are offered, including: “How about building more nuclear power plants at this time”

As recently as 2002, adults surveyed in California opposed the idea by a margin of 59% to 33%. But that gap has been closing steadily in the years since and by this July, Californians were split just about down the middle on the question, with 46% in favor and 48% opposed. The poll has a margin of error of about 2%, making it a virtual tie.

When you dig into the numbers a little deeper, some demographic preferences emerge. Support increases with both age and education. Californians 55 and older support more nuclear by a wide margin (58% to 36%) as do college graduates (50%-43%).

Many people use cost as an argument against nuclear but just as the PPIC was phoning around for opinions on the matter, the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute was finishing up its own report, concluding that trying to reach greenhouse gas reduction goals without baseload technologies like nuclear power, could end up costing much more.

Dan Kammen, who runs an energy lab at U.C. Berkeley, would appear to agree. He said in a recent interview for Climate Watch that “Without knowing exactly where things will come down on nuclear, I think that it absolutely has to be part of the equation in a way that it has not been in the past. Energy costs from fossil fuels are rising at almost 5% a year now, and the damage we are doing and are going to do more of, if we don’t stop our fossil fuel expansion, in terms of greenhouse warming, is so large an issue that these technologies have to be back on the table.

Is the road back to nuclear a dead end? Cooling towers at the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

Is the road back to nuclear a dead end? Cooling towers at the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

But there are serious doubts whether the nation–let alone the state–is in a position to embrace nuclear as it did in the 1960s. Kammen is also a professor of nuclear engineering, and noted with some alarm the rate at which the industry is “graying.” Now in his mid-forties, he told me that when he attends technical meetings for nuclear engineers, he’s often “the youngest guy in the room–by 20 years.” Since the U.S. more or less abandoned its nuclear hopes following the Three Mile Island debacle, the nation has ceded most of its nuclear industrial capacity to other nations, and few young people have chosen to enter the field.

Reports from new projects around the world have not been encouraging of late. Finland is struggling mightily to get its newest reactor up and running. This goes directly to doubts expressed by Kammen and others, that the industry can cowboy up fast enough for nuclear to play a meaningful role in meeting CO2 reduction targets.

The effective ban on new nuclear plants that California has had in place since 1976 could be reconsidered. But ultimately electric utilities will have to want it and I sense a certain “nuclear fatigue” in that arena.

Managers at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) shut down its only reactor in 1989, after a thumbs-down referendum. When I called to ask for an interview on the prospects for a nuclear revival, they declined. They didn’t even want to talk about it. Managers at PG&E, whose twin reactors at Diablo Canyon produce nearly a quarter of the utility’s output, still claim an interest in nuclear. But when I asked CEO Peter Darbee about it recently, he said he had the sense that most people in California would prefer to look elsewhere for energy solutions.

Of course, that was before the latest PPIC poll.

Former Climate Watch intern Amanda Dyer prepared an interactive “atomic timeline,” marking off some of the milestones in nuclear power history in the U.S. Use your cursor to move around the timeline.

Delta Dawn

Scientists and policy wonks seem to be in general agreement on this: that it’s time to close out the current management epoch on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and begin anew. There’s less accord on how to proceed.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Policy makers have assembled “blue ribbon” panels to study the options and make recommendations. Volumes of studies and proposals line the shelves in Sacramento and elsewhere.

Last week a new idea surfaced for moving water through the Delta: Instead of channeling around it, tunnel under it.

This week the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California released its recommendations for a mechanism to fund the enormous fixes that will be required: Those who benefit pay (ecologists use the term “ecosystem services” for all those bennies we get from natural resources and tend to take for granted).

Whatever the outcome, one thing seems inevitable, with or without human intervention. Driven by warming ocean temperatures, rising sea levels will continue to push saltwater farther upstream, changing the Delta’s character and the “services” it provides.

Recently a team of students at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism produced a Flash presentation on some of the issues raised by advancing salt in the Delta. The multimedia report: Delicate Balance was produced for Climate Watch by Amanda Dyer, Martin Ricard and Jeremy Whitaker. We’re grateful to them for their time and creativity.

delicatebalance

Not With a Bang, But…

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper. –T.S. Eliot

With the President headed for Mexico for a two-day summit, I was struck last week by the juxtaposition of two headlines that jumped out of a daily environmental news digest.

One headline read: “MEXICO AIMS TO BRING CO2 CUT PLAN TO CLIMATE TALKS.” The other, just above it, referring to similar efforts in this country, read: “CLIMATE BILL MAY FALL BY THE WAYSIDE.”

“With the fight over health care reform absorbing all the bandwidth on Capitol Hill,” Lisa Lerer wrote for Politico, “Democrats fear a major climate change bill may be left on the cutting-room floor this year.”

Granted, Mexico’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is reportedly about 2%, or a tenth of the U.S. contribution, so one might argue that there’s a lesser job to do there. But with less than four months remaining before the next major U.N. climate conference, it raises the grim prospect that while other nations press on, the U.S. could arrive in Copenhagen empty-handed, which is to say without meaningful carbon legislation to show.

At the same time last week, the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum called for a 50/50 commitment from developed nations; a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Many of those island nations are on the hot seat as rising seas levels could make them among the first to lose substantial real estate before the end of this century.

At his first climate summit for governors last fall, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced a video from then President-elect Obama, in which he promised that his presidency would “mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change.”

Praising the governors in attendance for their own climate initiatives, the newly elected President declared that “Too often Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office.”

Of course “Washington” includes Congress, which is still dithering over the major carbon emissions bill championed by the new President. It squeaked through the House by nine votes and now looms as a 1,400-page pig that the Senate python will attempt to digest or regurgitate. Either way, what comes out is unlikely to closely resemble what went in.

Meanwhile the whole cap-and-trade concept has been coming under increasing scrutiny and skepticism. Last month, when the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California polled Californians on the subject, more respondents favored an out-and-out carbon tax than cap-and-trade (56% to 49%). The Western Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade pact that is a keystone of California’s climate strategy, AB 32, remains in limbo while western legislatures wait on Congress.

So when the Governor convenes his second climate summit in L.A. next month, billed optimistically as “The Road to Copenhagen,” he and his fellow “subnational leaders” (Wisconsin, Michigan & Connecticut governors are currently signed up) may find that the ball is still in their court. According to a news release from the Governor’s office, “climate leaders from around the world will come together and collaborate on efforts to further the global fight against climate change.”

They’ll do it with the same question on the table as last year: Can they count on Washington to take up the reins?