What California can teach D.C. about climate change policy

Since 2000 two cities in the U.S. have been playing extraordinarily important, though remarkably different, roles in crafting public policy to address climate change challenges.

One city is Sacramento, the capital of California, the most populous state in the U.S. and the 15th largest economy in the world. Since the early 2000s progressives in many political and business sectors in the state have responded with bold, multifaceted and inspiring action in response to climate change.  

The other city is Washington, D.C. In 2008 a cap-and-trade plan was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives but died in the Senate. President Barack Obama and the Senate Democratic leadership could not rally the 60 votes needed for the plan to pass.

In Sacramento, the response has been built around the notion that we must reduce our emission of greenhouse gases in order to minimize climate change. This year is crucial: The central strategy of California's campaign to minimize emissions, namely through a cap-and-trade program, is being implemented. If the program proceeds as planned, the state should succeed in reducing its emissions to 1990 levels by the end of 2020.

As Sacramento leads the way on climate change for the U.S., it makes sense to think about what lessons can be learned to improve and accelerate efforts in the rest of the nation and world. These are lessons that Washington lawmakers urgently need to learn.  

Leading and lagging

Why has Sacramento been such a vanguard, while D.C. has been a laggard? Here are three key differences.

First is popular support. Over the past 50 years, California has been more responsive to the health of the environment than most states. California voters supported a strong response to climate change and the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, also known as AB 32, was very popular when it first passed. Even four years later, when large oil companies launched a campaign to stop AB 32 implementation with a ballot initiative, voters resoundingly defeated it 61 percent to 39 percent.

California has been a "blue state" for at least a couple of decades. While both its legislative houses have had Democratic majorities, that majority became a supermajority in November 2012. In the current term, 71.1 percent of state senators are Democrats, along with 68.8 percent of state assembly members.

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