For climate expert, California summit will be momentous homecoming

I live in Washington, D.C., but California will always be “home.”

Growing up in Irvine, I stomped in the snow at Mammoth Lakes in the winter, lounged on Orange County beaches in the summer, cruised through the scorching Death Valley on the way to Las Vegas. It was clear to me why this state was the cradle of the conservation movement.

This month, California is hosting the most important climate summit since Paris — a gathering of forward-looking companies, governments and organizations forging ahead to act on climate change.

Where else would such an event happen but the “Golden State”?

California was already a land of superlatives. It’s the most populous state in the U.S. It has the world’s fifth-largest economy. It’s an agricultural, cultural and technological powerhouse. And its backdrop is perhaps the widest diversity of nature in the U.S. — from sunny beaches to snow-capped mountains to the famed redwood forests of “This Land is Your Land.”

We Californians knew this was something few other places had. We knew we had to take care of it, and that meant more than just recycling.

This was a responsibility I took seriously.

As a college student at the University of California, Irvine, I helped to start the Green Campus Program, bringing students together with university administration to make our campus sustainable by pushing for smarter campus expansion plans, retrofitting energy draining appliances, and encouraging students to use more sustainable products.

Yes, it was a small thing, but that’s how big things have always started in California.

It is no surprise that the state’s universities are consistently some of the greenest in the country, including my alma mater. That the state is leading the charge in renewable energy, boasting more jobs in clean energy than any other state. That California sets its own, tighter standards on automobile emissions — standards that the rest of the country follows.

To top it off: Last week, California lawmakers voted to make its electricity generation emissions-free by 2045. Seriously. Can you imagine any other U.S. state doing this?

In protecting nature and the climate, California is setting the pace for the nation — and the world. And it’s a good thing, because the situation has changed for the worse since I was younger.

Unrelenting heat waves pummeled the state this year. Shrinking glaciers and less predictable rainfall are wreaking havoc on water supplies. And wildfires this year pushed the state into “uncharted territory,” presaging a new normal of annual devastation.

Worse still may be the political climate, which has enabled the backward-looking policies being pursued in Washington that threaten to derail decades of progress on tackling the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced — and which necessitated the summit in the first place.

But that’s all the more reason we need the summit to succeed — and all the more reason for me to be proud of my home state. In fact, California is reinventing the climate movement, showing the world that acting on climate change is not just about governments, it’s about each and every one of us.

This week, my organization will attend the summit in San Francisco to share a simple truth: Protecting nature is the key to fixing the climate. This land is our land — and it is our best hope for halting climate change in its tracks.

California started a movement within me decades ago. Now, this could be its moment to start a movement for the whole world — to keep charging ahead in the face of unprecedented challenges and to lead, even when the rest of the world lags.

Shyla Raghav is CI’s climate change lead.

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