How Calif. Mid-Terms Will Decide the Future of Federal Climate Laws

History is in the making in California with one of the biggest political battles over climate set for the state's mid-term elections this fall. The November ballot represents the Normandy Invasion equivalent for national climate legislation -- a historic battle whose outcome will likely have major impact on the future of efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to electing a new governor in November, the more than 23 million elegible Californian voters will have the chance to cast a ballot on Proposition 23, an initiative designed to delay or nullify AB 32, the landmark climate legislation enacted in 2006 and considered to be a meaningful part of Governor Schwarzenegger legacy.

Widely regarded as the most aggressive on the planet, AB 32 calls for a host of GHG reduction measures, including the implementation of a cap and trade system by 2012. The Public Policy Institute of California predicts that more than $150 million will be spent trying to sway voters either way on AB 32, the most on any initiative in California's history.

Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee for governor, has stated her intention to postpone AB 32 for one year if elected. Jerry Brown, her Democratic opponent, has been a strong supporter of climate change legislation.

Let's look at three possible scenarios California voters could choose come November:

1. Preservation of AB 32 and Election of Jerry Brown

Should voters choose to uphold AB 32 and also elect Brown, who has stated his opposition to outright suspension of the statute, California will move to implement cap and trade by 2012 -- with the potential to become the first state in the U.S. to put a price on carbon. This fast track approach will put California at odds with those preferring to stall or prevent action and with their federal representatives in Washington, who will surely seek legislation to either pre-empt or restrict California's plans.

Given the relatively broad support in Congress for climate legislation, as evidenced by the passage of Waxman-Markey, it is not likely that a federal response would terminate California's cap and trade plans without simultaneously establishing an alternative market-based approach.

In fact, given the divisiveness that has characterized the current session of Congress, it is hard to imagine collecting the 60 votes in the Senate required for a bill that would terminate an AB 32-driven California cap and trade plan. Consequently, should California continue with its plan to implement cap and trade by 2012, Congress will undoubtedly pass meaningful climate legislation by 2011, implementing a federal ruling to set a price on carbon by that time.

Next page: What if Meg Whitman wins, or AB 32 is vetoed?