Sustainability Still Wins Elections

Two Steps Forward

Sustainability Still Wins Elections

Sometimes, the voters get it right. For sustainability advocates, desperate to find something positive in this week's election, here's one: Proposition 23, the California voter initiative to undo America's most aggressive climate program, was soundly, roundly defeated.

It wasn't even close: More than 60 percent of California voters chose to stay the course on California's nation-leading green-economy march. The opponents of climate action didn't just lose, they were trounced.

Prop. 23, for the uninitiated, aimed to reverse California's sweeping greenhouse gas legislation, known as AB32, signed into law in 2006 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. AB32 requires a reduction in state greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The law will engage a broad-based effort by just about every business entity in the state, along with government at all levels -- and, of course, individuals in their roles as shoppers, drivers, and homeowners -- in dramatically reducing California's climate impacts.

Reaching the law's mandates involves a low-carbon fuel standard for vehicle fuels as well as regulations for tires, engine oils, paints, window glazes, and vehicle insurance. It involves new regulations that affect housing, trucking, refrigerated vehicles, cargo vessels, rail freight, chemicals, and many other parts of the economy. It is, simply put, the most comprehensive climate legislation enacted, at least in the U.S.

Which is why some big companies hated it. Fossil fuel companies in particular. Valero and Tesoro, two Texas oil companies, provided the majority of funding in support of Prop. 23. The proponents took the stance that California simply couldn't afford to address climate change during a recession, with state unemployment at more than 12 percent. Proposition 23, had it passed, would have mandated that AB32 efforts be back-burnered until the economy greatly improved -- until such a time that unemployment hit 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. That is to say, until never.

Proposition 23 was significant for one principal reason: It was the first time that action on climate change had been put to the voters.

And the voters spoke, resoundingly: Californians overwhelming agreed that this is no time to stop California's leadership on energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean technology, and greenhouse gas reductions.

And they shook off the claims that this would be a job-killer, agreeing instead that AB32 represented a tremendous opportunity for the state to build on its existing foundation as a leader in new technologies, companies, and industries. Indeed, it was the new-economy companies, investors, and entrepreneurs -- and the occasional large company, like HP -- that stood on the side of climate action.

"Evidence says 'As goes California, so goes the nation,'" Sunil Paul, a clean-tech investor and entrepreneur, and creator of an initiative called the Gigaton Throwdown, told me last week. "It's true not just for food -- McDonalds to California cuisine -- but for environmental laws. Environmental regulation in other states and at the federal level often starts here in California. But so can dismantling the laws. California policy instability in the early 1990s lead to the collapse of the U.S. wind turbine business and those anti-clean energy attitudes took root elsewhere in the country."

Another clean-tech VC, Rodrigo Prudencio of Nth Power, put it this way: "Prop. 23's biggest impact on California's clean-tech economy would not have been in the direct impact of killing AB32 -- only a few cleantech companies rely on a price of carbon in their economics," he told me. "Rather, it would have been the surreptitious attack on the many laws and regulations that underpin California's environmental leadership, many of which, arguably, could be sidelined by passage of Prop 23. The proposition was a legitimate Trojan horse."

In this case, the big wooden horse of economic recovery was quickly seen for what it was: a diversionary insurgent effort by some of the biggest contributors to climate change to maintain the status quo in order to protect their narrow interests.

And so it went: Californians said, in effect: "Climate change is both a threat and an opportunity. The threat is to our homes, communities, and children. The opportunity is to reinvent our economy toward a low-carbon future -- even if it takes significant changes in our economy and our lives. The promise of a green economy, and all of the companies and jobs that will create, is greater than the risks of change."

And just in case you think Californians were smoking something, consider that another initiative, Prop. 19, which would have essentially legalized marijuana, was similarly quashed by voters. Today, the sweet smell in the air is that of rational, progressive thinking.