If Proposition 23 passes, will other greenhouse-gas laws fall?

California's 2008 law to limit greenhouse-gas emissions is seen as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's biggest achievement. If it is undone by Proposition 23, other similar laws could follow, experts say.

By , Staff writer

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    California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talks in front of a map showing what areas might be affected by global warming in San Francisco, Dec. 2, 2009. The passage of a global-warming law (also called Assembly Bill 32) in 2008 was seen to be perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Governor Schwarzenegger's regime and the centerpiece of his legacy.
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The results of California's governor's race, its Senate race, and Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana will have reverberations nationwide. But another issue to be decided Nov. 2 in California could have global implications.

Proposition 23 would suspend the state’s world-renowned global warming law, which requires that by 2020 the state's greenhouse-gas emissions be reduced to 1990 levels – a roughly 25 percent reduction from current estimated emissions.

Its passage in 2008 was seen to be perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's regime and the centerpiece of his legacy. It brought British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and other world leaders to California.

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“It’s not just the perception of a single initiative that’s at stake here, but rather a key vote that could affect the perception of this generation’s top environmental issue around the world,” says Nabil Nasr, director of the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies (CIMS) at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

The importance of Prop. 23, say Dr. Nasr and others, is a potential domino effect.

If regulations to rein in carbon dioxide and other planet-heating emissions are thwarted in California, “these dirty-energy interests will ramp up their efforts to stifle new energy policies in Congress and other states,” Gene Karpinsky, president of the League of Conservation Voters, told the Los Angeles Times.

Pro and con

The two Texas-based oil companies behind the initiative – Valero and Tesoro – counter that the proposition makes sense in tough economic times. “We would like voters to know that Proposition 23 is a common-sense approach to protecting California's economy while preserving the state's stringent environmental regulations,” says Bill Day, spokesman for San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp.

Last week, the Washington-based League of Conservation Voters contributed $1.2 million to the “No” campaign, calling the vote “the single most important race in the country,” said Mr. Karpinski. The initiative would suspend implementation of the global-warming law, also called Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), until the state’s jobless rate drops below 5.5 percent for more than a year.

That has happened three times since 1980. The current unemployment rate is a record 11.7 percent.

Within the state, the vote is considered a litmus test of Governor Schwarzenegger’s tenure. He was ushered in as “the people’s governor” by special recall election in 2003, and AB 32 is considered his biggest achievement to date. Now, a vote to suspend AB 32 could erase his legacy with an ironic twist, say analysts.

“The major question is, will the voice of the people who brought this man in through direct democracy be the same one that overrules his major policy triumph?” asks Thad Kousser, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego. “If California backs away from this global warming solutions act for economic reasons, will other states and countries back away from it as well?”

Support waning?

With three weeks to go until the vote, Prop. 23 appears to be losing support in the polls. The most recent California Field Poll shows 45 percent of voters oppose the proposition, 34 support it, and 21 percent are undecided. As of Oct. 15, opponents of Prop. 23 had raised more than twice as much money (a reported $19.6 million) as supporters.

“I think Prop. 23 supporters have thrown in the towel,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

He says that in the spring, when Valero and Tesoro circulated the petition to qualify Prop. 23 for the ballot in the spring, the oil compnies could not have anticipated two things: the Gulf oil spill and the defeat here of a Pacific Gas & Electric initiative in June that would have made it harder for local government to get into the electricity business.

PG&E spent nearly $50 million on the "Yes" side, and there was practically no money spent against it, whereas Prop. 23 has major opposition both financially and politically.

In the propaganda wars over the issue, each side is trying to couch the vote in different terms. Supporters call it California Jobs Initiative, and opponents call it the Dirty Energy Proposition.

Uncertain consequences

As is often the case in California initiatives, the devil is in the details, analysts say. Beyond the broad brush strokes of what Prop. 23 is intended to do, the fine print is unclear, they add.

Lost in all the politicking is “the real and important question of whether AB 32 makes economic sense for the state,” says John Matsusaka, president of the Referendum and Initiative Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Not enough is known about the the long-term costs of AB 32's requirements, he adds, “and whether we could be on the verge of doing significant economic damage to the state."

[Editor's note: The original photo caption for this story incorrectly referred to what the state passed in 2008.]

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