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Open Access Publications from the University of California

California's Next Gold Rush: Chilean Lithium and California Climate Policy


Human-caused global warming threatens to destroy the planet. Governments arebeginning to transition economies off of fossil fuels which emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Renewable energy, power captured from sun, wind and water, will replace fossil fuels, but a hurdle remains: storage. California, the world’s sixth largest economy, isbuilding huge amounts of renewable battery storage from lithium. The state passed an ambitious goal of reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 and is counting on lithium to get it there.The metal is light and can pack a lot of power. It makes electronic devices like the mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles portable and possible. It’s also being used for stationary storage, what utility companies call largescale batteries that store energy for electric grids. However, the state policy doesn’t acknowledge the burden its demand for the natural resource puts on other countries.Lithium is secured through water-intensive mining by large international corporations in the middle of a desert region in South America. The lands where lithium abounds are sacred spaces for indigenous populations near the mines who also consequently rely on mining for employment.There are concerns that lithium extraction is permanently depleting water sources thesecommunities rely upon both spiritually and for survival. This article endeavors to shed light on the complexities of abating global warming for the benefit of richer economies at the expense of poorer, more vulnerable ones.

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