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Golden State Idling in Climate Change Gridlock

Will Rogers, a native Californian, is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, a non-partisan, national security think tank in Washington, DC, where he examines the national security implications of energy security and climate change. He is co-author of Broadening Horizons: Climate Change and the U.S. Armed Forces.

The same shortsightedness that saddled California with a 19 billion-dollar budget deficit could undermine the state's long-term climate change agenda this November. But unlike California's deficit which can be remedied with smart economic choices, once the global climate reaches a tipping point, there is no turning back.

Gridlock in Washington has prevented policymakers from passing energy and climate change legislation that would cap the nation's greenhouse gas emissions and renew America's international leadership to stabilize an ever changing - and likely more dangerous - global climate. States will have to take the torch and be the vanguard on this issue, and like California, many states already are. But what happens on Election Day in California could scuttle those efforts and set a dangerous tone for the nation's efforts to combat climate change.

In 2006, California passed a landmark climate change bill - AB32 - that would cut the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, sending an important signal to the rest of the nation and the world that Californians were prepared to pursue an aggressive agenda to tackle climate change. Yet Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that would suspend the climate law until California's unemployment rate - now at 12.3 percent - falls to 5.5 percent, would derail that agenda and mortgage tomorrow's security.

Today's phenomena, from severe flooding in Pakistan and China to choking wildfires in Russia's western plains, may portend a future world where rising seas and more intense and frequent droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, monsoons and wildfires are relatively ordinary. Indeed, scientists are rather unequivocal in predicting this kind of future, they just cannot tell us exactly when and where some of these effects could come to fruition. The military in the meantime is beginning to give climate change the serious attention it deserves, from how it could affect its weapons systems and bases, its ability to safely execute and complete its missions, to how it may reshape geopolitical relationships.

California could be profoundly affected by climate change over the next few decades. Sea level rise and more frequent and intense coastal storm surge could take a toll on the state's iconic oceanfront property. More severe heat waves and longer drought conditions may spark more frequent and intense wildfires that already pepper Southern California and leave communities wallowing in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Rising average temperatures combined with increasingly scarce water resources in the American Southwest could be a body blow to the delicate heart of California's economy, its agricultural industry, including the state's world renowned Napa Valley vineyards.

What California - and the nation- cannot afford is to remain idle, or worse, reverse course, in addressing climate change. As the eighth largest economy in the world (if it were an independent country), California plays a pivotal role in shaping national momentum around key policy issues, including on energy and climate change.

A study by the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at the University of San Diego School of Law found that if Proposition 23 is adopted on November 2, California would likely suspend its efforts to combat climate change until at least 2016. That could mean that national action on energy and climate change could also be stalled until at least that time - if not later. And that would be a dangerous signal to send just weeks before diplomats head to Cancun, Mexico to meet for international negotiations on climate change. Countries such as China and India could view our domestic gridlock on energy and climate change as forestalling meaningful international leadership from the United States.

If Californians can marshal the state's leadership prowess and demonstrate, despite facing a high unemployment rate and a massive 19 billion dollar budget deficit, that we are prepared to continue our efforts to combat climate change, the state could set the tone for national action and move the United States forward in hedging against a potentially dangerous future. Californians owe themselves nothing less than a real investment in their long-term security.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

By Will Rogers:
Special to CBSNews.com