Fighting Climate Change in the Age of Trump? Stay Golden, California.

The state knows a thing or two about creating a climate policy that’ll keep battling carbon pollution—even if the feds cut and run.


President-elect Donald Trump has given environmentalists ample cause to worry about the country’s battle against climate change. After calling man-made climate change a Chinese hoax (it’s not), Trump has threatened to reignite the coal industry, ditch the Clean Power Plan, and slip out of the Paris climate agreement. His cabinet appointments also offer little in the way of hope. While none of this is good news, all is not lost. The government still has levelheaded policy makers in its ranks, and a number of states are championing clean energy standards on their own turf. Take a look at California, where climate policies are ahead of the national game.

“When the federal government is not working as hard as we think it should, state policies become all the more essential,” says Cara Horowitz, co–executive director of UCLA Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. The state’s climate laws, she asserts, “will remain in place no matter what Trump does.”

In many ways, California’s history of protecting public health and its progressive climate policies go hand in hand. Beset by smoggy skies and rising asthma rates, state government responded with the world’s first vehicle emission regulations in 1966. To compete in California’s market, manufacturers across the country had to churn out cleaner vehicles. According to Dave Clegern of the California Air Resources Board, the regulations were largely responsible for state tailpipe emissions falling nearly 99 percent by 2006. After that, he says, it was just a matter of rejigging car exhaust regulations to combat greenhouse gases. “The tools were already in place,” Clegern says. “We basically just adapted the rules that we already had.”

The 110 Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles

Gavin Hellier/Stocksy

Later in 2006, then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the nation’s first statewide limit on heat-trapping pollutants, the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32). The goal was to return to 1990 emissions levels by 2020, and California is on track to achieve this. In fact, in September 2016, Governor Jerry Brown and the state’s legislative leaders doubled down on the pledge: The Golden State is now committed to seeing its emissions levels fall 40 percent below that target by 2030. Helping Californians meet that goal will be the state’s commitment to doubling energy efficiency in homes, factories, and businesses over the same time frame.

Today, California touts the nation’s only economy-wide emissions-reduction program. This includes landmark policies like the country’s first-ever standards for more energy-efficient computers and a mandatory cap-and-trade system that makes major polluters pay for their carbon emissions.

“As an original cosponsor of AB 32, NRDC is drilling down on policies to produce real carbon pollution reductions,” says Ann Notthoff, NRDC’s California advocacy director. NRDC was among the leading sponsors pushing to put a cap on California’s carbon emissions via clean power plan laws, car regulations, and smart growth and transportation laws.

But strong climate policy isn’t only about cutting pollution. It’s also about finding economical clean energy sources, which California is also doing. The state’s ambitious renewable energy standards require that it get at least half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Analysts feared this shift would do serious damage to the state’s economy. Yet since moving away from fossil fuels, California’s gross domestic product actually rose from $2.19 trillion in 2006 to $2.46 trillion in 2015. Meanwhile, its oil consumption dropped from 330 million to 282 million barrels of crude oil a year between 2006 and 2014, and state employment rose by nearly 8 percent.

As California cuts its electricity and oil consumption, job growth is keeping pace with population growth. Last year, it tied Oregon for the state with the highest economic growth rate.

“This isn’t just a matter of state pride,” Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, told The Mercury News after the election. “We have an economy that is tied to the growth of renewable energy and clean technology…It would be foolish from an economic standpoint to go backward.” So, how might these policies fare in the age of Trump?

“The federal administration can make it more difficult for California to achieve its own goals,” says Horowitz. Under Trump, the government could pull financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy–backed solar operations in the state’s deserts and from the national laboratories busy brewing new renewable tech in California. It could also pass legislation that limits or ends tax credits for electric vehicles or solar and wind power.

A wind farm in Palm Springs

Inga L/iStock

But that’s not all. The Trump team has threatened to go after the Endangered Species Act, which could also hurt climate change efforts. The wildlife-saving law helps regulate oil and gas operations on public lands, and the oil industry is quite optimistic that Trump’s pick for interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, will make it easier to drill there.

California is the number three producer of oil in the United States. Even more drilling could be on its way on the millions of federally managed acres inside the state’s borders.

The coast isn’t clear on the state’s coastline either. For years, oil companies have been itching to drill in the waters off Humboldt, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties.

Needless to say, as Trump stocks his cabinet with climate change skeptics and oil and gas industry advocates, California will need to find more allies to help it continue to move forward. “California can’t do this alone,” says Horowitz, and it won’t have to. As in the past, many states have been following California’s environmental lead. Washington, Oregon, and several New England states have adopted similar climate policies. After the election, Illinois passed one of the most significant clean energy bills in decades, Michigan boosted its own renewable energy mandate, and Ohio’s governor vetoed a bill that would have undermined the state’s clean energy goals. Small-scale renewable energy programs are also stronger than they’ve ever been.

The next four years still won’t be easy, and it may never be more important than it is right now to think globally, act locally.

Western Dispatch

Residents of the city’s affordable housing units don’t normally get prioritized for energy efficiency upgrades. That’s about to change.

Western Dispatch

From dusty fields in the San Joaquin Valley, fungal spores are wafting up, exposing more and more farmworkers to the disease.

Western Dispatch

Facing dwindling freshwater supplies, the city is ready to stop dumping millions of gallons into the Pacific—and to follow Orange County’s lead.

onEarth Story

Stuart Palley’s award-winning images depict a devastating and natural ecological process—but one we are all very much a part of.

Western Dispatch

Residents who live near the country’s busiest ports are getting a new lens on the pollution in their backyards, and new tactics to help fight it.

Western Dispatch

Two ballot initiatives involving the bag ban are on the ballot this November—but one of them is not what it seems.

Personal Action

Turn your city into a climate sanctuary, rally on Main Street, and other ways to make change globally by acting locally.

Vicki DeLoach/Flickr
onEarth Story

The much-needed El Niño downpours might be helping exotic snakes, insects, and plants spread into new areas.

Western Dispatch

With a new series of bills, California promises to protect the environment no matter what happens on the federal level.

onEarth Story

Climate science is under its fiercest attack yet. But one group has been countering the onslaught—by connecting with everyday Americans in their own communities.

Policy Primer

The agreement’s authors built in a time line for withdrawal that President Trump will have to follow—slowing him down from irreparably damaging our climate.

Personal Action

What is your city doing about climate change? Ask your local leaders these five questions.


Tracking Trump's attacks on the environment and how you can help NRDC stop him.


Find out how NRDC helped the Golden State protect its oceanfront and all the plants and animals that call it home.


Dr. Michael Anthony Mendez on his new book, "Climate Change from the Streets", and the readiness of Latinos to act on climate and justice.

NRDC in Action

For years, states could ignore global warming when creating their disaster-preparedness plans. Not anymore.

onEarth Story

California cities square off against oil companies in a debate over who’s to blame for a warming planet.

Policy Primer

Congressional hearings kick off for those who will lead our government’s top agencies. Earth has reason to worry.

onEarth Story

While Pruitt’s ethical lapses threaten to destroy the EPA, he rolls back clean car standards and panders to oil refiners.


A Berkeley scientist is studying how climate change is affecting California’s giant sequoias, long considered dependable forest stalwarts.

Western Dispatch

As Californians protest the Trump administration’s intent to expand drilling off the Pacific coast, some city and state officials consider new legislation to block it.

Personal Action

Sometimes the best way to turn your anger into action is to pick up the phone. Follow these tips to minimize your anxiety and maximize your impact.

NRDC in Action

NRDC senior scientist Lara Ettenson is determined to bridge social, economic, and cultural divides by advancing clean energy in California.

Personal Action

President Trump and the Republican-led Congress are poised to wipe out crucial environmental safeguards. Here’s how you can join the fight.

onEarth Story

What does it mean for a state that’s bigger and wealthier than many countries to commit itself to clean energy? It could end up meaning the world.


The lowdown on the earth’s central environmental threat.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.