California vote on Proposition 23 can set the pace on global warming

The Proposition 23 ballot initiative in California is a chance for a grass-roots expression on climate change -- and to send a signal to a stymied Congress.

America rarely sees a popular vote directly on global warming, let alone one also tied to the economy. Most government action to deter climate change has largely been left to elected leaders, regulators, or judges – with few results so far.

Now, in a Nov. 2 ballot initiative, California stands to send a strong message to other states and Congress on whether the public wants to make short-term sacrifices for long-term cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The initiative, called Proposition 23, would suspend a landmark 2006 law passed by the California legislature mandating reduced carbon output by 2020. A suspension of the law would end only after the state’s jobless rate drops to 5.5 percent or less for a full year.

Thus if Prop. 23 passes, the law, known as the Global Warming Solutions Act, would probably not be implemented for years. The state’s current jobless rate is more than 12 percent, the worst since the Depression. And the state has had a 5.5 percent rate only three times since 1970. The last time was 2006 – when the law was passed.

If voters decide to keep the law, they will do so despite a warning from the state’s Air Resources Board that “California acting alone cannot reduce emissions sufficiently to change the course of climate change worldwide.” A vote against Prop. 23 should thus be seen as sending a signal to other states, Washington, and most nations that global warming is a more critical issue than any short-term damage to jobs and the economy.

Indeed, California is already a leader in clean-energy rules. And it is developing global capabilities in solar, wind, low-emission automobiles, and energy conservation. The state has 12 percent of the US population but accounts for only 6.7 percent of its CO2 emissions.

One tough question facing voters is whether California’s progress in green-tech industries can replace losses in industries dependent on coal and oil. Contending studies on the economic impact of the law, unfortunately, depend to a large degree on what Washington and the rest of the world do to advance clean energy, whether by subsidies, research money, or regulation.

The state law, also known as AB32, would use various means to slash the state’s carbon footprint by 25 to 30 percent below 1990 levels during the next decade. (Final rules are expected in coming months.) Passage of such a bold measure helped inspire the US House to pass a similar law in 2009.

But that political momentum collapsed in the Senate this summer with opposition from lawmakers from states highly dependent on fossil fuels.

Voter rejection of Prop. 23 might help push the next Congress to find a compromise on climate policy – even if conservatives win more seats in the Nov. 2 elections. A display of grass-roots determination to act on global warming in a high-unemployment state would not go unnoticed. Indeed, in recent weeks, a consensus has begun to emerge to increase federal money for green-energy research.

One reason the United States has been slow to act on global warming is that advocates were long reluctant to engage the public with the short-term costs of cutting CO2 emissions. Prop. 23 at least does the service of tying the climate issue to the state of the economy. A sustainable path on climate policy needs everyone’s eyes wide open to possible consequences.

The ballot measure also highlights the stark choice for individuals, a state, or a nation in “going it alone” without wider action taken by others on climate change.

Under the leadership of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California voters appear ready to say “no” on Prop. 23, according to latest opinion surveys. If so, a new era for state-by-state and region-by-region action on global warming may begin.

Without widespread support, action from the top reaches of government – such as current efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency – would be unlikely to succeed over the years needed to lower greenhouse gases.

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