In summary

It’s clear that top-down approaches to climate action simply don’t work, so we must implement a new model.

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By Heidi Harmon, Special to CalMatters

Heidi Harmon is the former mayor of San Luis Obispo. During her three terms, the city set new standards for municipal climate policy. She was recently named senior public affairs director for the Romero Institute’s Let’s Green CA! program.

“Mom – I’m really scared. Is this the apocalypse?” 

I woke up blurry-eyed in the middle of the night to a text message from Emet, one of my children. Emet had just read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent forecast. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know how to respond to my kid. I couldn’t make Emet feel better. Because I was scared, too.

All my life, I’ve prided myself on being a good mother. Emet and Zoie are adults now, and they’re embarking on their own futures. But as their mom, I worry about what kind of future they’ll have. 

Here in California, our lives and livelihoods are under threat by massive wildfires, toxic air, drought and deadly heat waves. And despite the recent COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, the Washington Post has reported that our planet is on track for a catastrophic 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming. Without radical action, our children will grow old in a world of unprecedented disaster, increased conflict, intensified environmental racism and mass extinction. A world unrecognizable to their parents.

It’s always been my role to assure them, “It’ll be OK.” I can’t do that anymore. And that breaks my heart.

It’s time to do something about it: and I’m not holding my breath for COP27.

More than two decades ago, my commitment to my children turned me into a climate activist. Later on, they provided the inspiration I needed to run for mayor of San Luis Obispo. As a three-term mayor, my city became a national leader on climate policy. 

We set one of the most ambitious carbon neutrality goals of any city in the United States, implemented a carbon-free building code, and joined and advocated for the expansion of the clean energy utility that now powers California’s Central Coast. In partnership with our community, my colleagues and I made San Luis Obispo a model of equitable climate action for the region, but all our victories at the local level aren’t enough to calm my children’s fears. 

I had to think bigger. I recently joined the Let’s Green CA! initiative and dedicated myself to making California a model of climate action for the nation and the world. 

Our state has an incredible history of environmental leadership, from celebrating the first-ever Earth Day to leading the nation to higher fuel efficiency standards. Today, we’re falling behind, as Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon recently said. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

As the fifth largest economy in the world, California has the power to model serious climate action, and set the bar for other states and nations. In the absence of federal leadership, this is our moral responsibility. That’s why I’m calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of climate emergency.

An emergency declaration would not only unlock significant executive powers and funding to confront the climate crisis with the urgency it requires, it would alert Californians – and all Americans – to the existential challenge we face.

The science on the climate crisis is clear, and the technology to solve it is here. All that’s missing is the political will to act. It’s clear that top-down approaches to climate action, like those on display at COP26, simply don’t work. So we must implement a new model, one that puts the power in the peoples’ hands. 

Instead of top-down, Let’s Green CA! will build solutions to the climate crisis from the ground up. When the California Legislature convenes in 2022, we expect to introduce legislation to electrify California’s homes and personal transportation infrastructure over the next decade, remedy historic environmental injustice and ensure good-paying union jobs for the professionals who will build California out of the climate crisis. We’re envisioning a future in which we remove toxic fossil fuels from our day to day lives; a future in which our homes and cars are all fossil fuel-free within the next decade.

It is time for our state to step up. Let’s ensure that all of our children look to the future with hope, not fear. Together, we’ll make California the leader our children, our nation, and our world needs. The power is in our hands.


Heidi Harmon has also written that California officials should look into SoCalGas threat of a COVID-19 protest against San Luis Obispo.

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