Brian Gillis

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I’ve recently been tempted to blame my existential climate-change-induced dread on a 50-year-old environmental law that may be exacerbating California’s contributions to the climate crisis. The impacts of climate change are here and will only grow more severe. I’m angry, and I am scared for the future because we aren’t doing nearly enough to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. The climate action pledges taken by many countries are insufficient, and we aren’t even on track to meet these pledges. The calls-to-action are all about urgency: “we need to act yesterday to avoid a climate catastrophe.” So, an environmental law specifically created to slow projects down, even when that project is a much-needed wind farm, becomes a natural punching bag for frustration.

That punching bag is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a law first passed in 1970 that is rooted in the environmental conservation movement. It is a broad, process-based law that requires “projects” to undergo environmental review before they can proceed. As the governor’s office puts it, it makes agencies “look before they leap” when approving a project. In doing so, the CEQA process can appear to pit conservation concerns and climate change solutions against each other. For example, when approving a wind farm, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) might be forced to delay the construction of an essential alternative energy source as it studies the habitat of a local bird population. CEQA stands as a visible barrier in the face of urgency, but is this a fair characterization of this impactful environmental law?