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California Defends Climate Law, Remains National Bastion of Clean Energy Economy

61 percent of voters say no to referendum that would have suspended the state's landmark climate legislation

Nov 3, 2010

California voters defended their landmark climate law by rejecting Proposition 23 yesterday, ending questions over whether the state's 2006 legislation aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions would be suspended until the state unemployment rate fell by more than half.

While election results in the rest of the nation make the outlook for federal climate legislation dim, yesterday's vote in California solidifies the position of the state as the country's bastion of the clean energy economy, whose outsized GDP will unavoidably influence policy and commerce across the nation as its climate law gets implemented.

Some 61 percent of voters rejected Prop. 23. While pre-election polls indicated they were likely to turn down the controversial ballot measure, which was largely funded by out-of-state oil interests, the overwhelming defeat has advocates thrilled.

“It’s clearly a strong victory for clean energy in the face of scare tactics in a weak economy,” said Steven Maviglio, a spokesperson for No on 23, the coalition that campaigned heavily against the referendum. The defeat, Maviglio told SolveClimate News, indicates voters believe California can have both “a strong economy and a clean environment.”

In other California races, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came out swinging this election season when his signature Global Warming Solutions Act (also known as AB 32) was threatened by Prop. 23, will be replaced by Democrat Jerry Brown, who defeated Republican Meg Whitman 54 percent to 41 percent. Senator Barbara Boxer (D) was elected to a fourth term, besting Republican challenger Carly Fiorina with 52 percent of the vote to Fiorina’s 43 percent.

These results make California distinct nationally. In Washington, the GOP took the House and nearly took the Senate. Republicans picked up 10 governors’ seats. An anti-incumbent mood, Tea Party activism and disapproval of President Barack Obama’s performance all factored into GOP victories.

It’s not the first time California has bucked the trend—and when it comes to climate legislation, advocates said, that’s a very good thing. They foresee national implications for the defeat of Prop. 23, which they characterize as the largest public vote on climate legislation in U.S. history. More than 9 million Californians cast a vote on the ballot measure.

Its defeat has awakened a “sleeping giant,” said Wade Crowfoot, West Coast political director for Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which co-sponsored AB 32 with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The people who defeated this are the new face of energy.”

What It Means for California: Clean Energy Agenda to Take "Quantum Leap"

Crowfoot is referring to what Maviglio calls a "well-financed and broad" movement to defeat Prop. 23. “We built a long-lasting bipartisan coalition: environmentalists, small businesses, Republicans, venture capitalists, municipal officials,” Maviglio said.

"Well-financed" is clear: with $31.2 million in the coffers, No on 23 outspent Prop. 23’s supporters by 3 to 1, a margin the Yes on 23 campaign attributed to brazen self-interest by wealthy venture capitalists who "apparently felt their millions would be better invested in defeating a voter initiative that would have postponed additional subsidies for green tech, instead of in green industries themselves,” the campaign said in a statement released after the polls closed.

Governor-elect Jerry Brown, who served two terms as the state’s governor in the 1970s, promoted a detailed clean energy jobs plan during his campaign and has said he supports the Global Warming Solutions Act, which sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Broad public support combined with AB 32’s policy muscle “positions California very well to take a quantum leap forward for clean energy,” Crowfoot said. “We’ve made clean energy a mainstream issue here.”

What It Means for the Country: California as Bellweather

Mainstreaming clean energy in the national mind is what Seth Kaplan sees as the bigger potential for the Prop. 23 defeat. Kaplan is the clean energy and climate change program director for the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advisory group that helped 10 northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states develop the nearly two-year-old Northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation’s first mandatory cap-and-trade program.

After the collapse of climate legislation in Washington this summer, the action has skirted back to states and regions, said Kaplan. “It’s where we were a few years ago when we started with RGGI,” Kaplan said. “And that’s where we are again.”

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