Doubling Down on California’s Climate Commitment

Legislation it passed a decade ago has produced significant gains without wrecking the state's economy. A new law holds promise for accelerating those gains.
by | September 27, 2016

Bob Graves

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

Back in 2006, California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 32 (AB32), its first-in-the-nation climate mitigation legislation. State officials were either, depending on one's viewpoint, making a commitment to rescue the state from a bleak environmental future or sending its economy off a cliff. "There's no way to get to the targets except by stopping the use of energy," Dorothy Rothrock, vice president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, said at the time. Opponents ran ads warning of job losses, reduced investment and energy rationing.

Despite those dire predictions, California has survived the last 10 years quite well: It tied with Oregon last year as having the strongest state economy. And, already on track to meet AB32's 2020 emissions reduction target, California doubled down this month on its climate commitment with the enactment of Senate Bill 32 (SB32), which will require the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

For a variety of reasons, SB32's goal is much more challenging than AB32's target of simply hitting the levels of 1990 by 2020. As Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Megerian wrote, the new targets "will affect nearly all aspects of life in the state -- where people live, how they get to work, how their food is produced and where their electricity comes from."

SB32's passage was politically palatable only because the technology exists to achieve its ambitious targets. Yet that same technology is widely available elsewhere in the country. So why are Californians more amenable to using it, even if it means -- as some claim, echoing 2006's doomsday predictions -- that they will be paying more for electricity, natural gas and transportation fuels and possibly poisoning their economy?

To no small degree, of course, this willingness comes from the progressive political, social and cultural perspective shared by most Californians. Californians take their identity from a broad set of factors: an appreciation of its diverse and beautiful coastlines, valleys and mountains; a confidence in its resilient economy, bolstered by a world-class technology sector and anchored on its entertainment, agriculture and manufacturing industries; and an entrepreneurial mindset stemming from the Gold Rush and an expectancy of success that accrues to the bold and adventurous.

 

Nevertheless, advocating for a subject as complex as mitigating climate change wouldn't engender broad public support, even in California, without some near-term and real-life persuasion. Despite decades-long efforts, the state is still home to five of the nation's 10 worst air-quality regions, all of them exceeding federal standards for ozone, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxides, particulate matter and carbon monoxide. Poor air quality is a fact of daily life for millions of Californians, one that translates into an unusual level of political support for difficult environmental choices. According to a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll, 59 percent of the state's adults say that to reduce global warming they are willing to pay more for electricity generated by renewable sources such as solar or wind.

That number, of course, leaves plenty of room for skeptics who remain unconvinced that it makes economic sense for California to commit to another big climate goal. So, to better predict SB32's impact, it might be useful to review some facts and figures on what has happened since AB32's passage. Adrienne Alvord, the Union of Concerned Scientists' western states director, aggregated some key statistics: While California's population has grown by 7.4 percent, its petroleum consumption is down by 14.3 percent, global warming emissions are down by 7.3 percent, electricity consumption is down by 1.5 percent, and employment is up by 7.8 percent. "For those of us who were in the trenches back in 2006, the results are gratifying and speak for themselves -- we have achieved a significant milestone," Alvord noted. "But this is not how some folks predicted it would work out."

True, it hasn't always been a smooth ride. Yet as the data show, California has made demonstrable gains under AB32, and with SB32 is likely to build on that success into the future. As Gov. Jerry Brown, borrowing a phrase from Mark Twain, put it in his 2012 State of the State address: "California has problems, but rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated."

Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute
bgraves@governing.com
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