Proposition 23 and the Souls of Californians

In a few weeks Californians will vote on Proposition 23. Its passage would be a devastating blow to the effort in California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Technically, Proposition 23 would suspend the implementation of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 or AB 32 until the state had achieved an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent or less for four consecutive quarters. But in the last forty years, the state has enjoyed only three periods, each about two-and-a-half years long, of such low unemployment. Proposition 23 would effectively kill AB 32, the most impressive effort by a state to take up climate change mitigation in the absence of leadership from the federal government. AB 32 requires greenhouse gas emission levels to be on par with 1990 levels by 2020, about 30 percent below what they are projected to be without the legislation, and it sets a goal of an 80 percent reduction by mid-century.

Two Texas based oil companies, Valero and Tesoro, both with major refineries in California, are bankrolling Proposition 23. These major polluters, with records of substantial violations of California pollution law, have poured over $4 million dollars into the campaign for Proposition 23. In state where the unemployment rate is 12 percent, the money spent on the message of pitting jobs against climate change mitigation has met with some success. A recent LA Times poll found that although two-thirds of likely voters think that climate change is either ?very important? or ?somewhat important,? Proposition 23 is in the lead with 40 percent of likely voters favoring it and 38 percent against it.

There is still hope. Historically, it has been difficult for a proposition to pass without garnering 50 percent support by this time in the process, because the majority of undecided voters typically vote no.

One lesson that is now emerging concerns the importance of making the economic arguments for climate change policy. Last July, England, France, and Germany called for European greenhouse gas emissions to be 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. This makes California?s pioneering law look feeble, especially considering that the call was made by countries with center-right governments. The rationale that the Europeans offered is important in the jobs versus climate change debate. The lower than expected CO2 emissions due to recession pose an opportunity for Europe to increase its commitment to mitigation at lower costs and thus to gain a competitive advantage in the coming low-carbon economy.

The social vices of arrogance and ignorance often seem characteristic of anti-mitigation attitudes. There is the arrogance of the U.S. senators who believe that we owe the international community no serious climate change mitigation policy. There is the ignorance of the voters who reject the straightforward message of climate science. But the European position suggests another vice: imprudence. It remains to be seen what we Californians will reveal about ourselves when the votes for Proposition 23 are counted.