Big Oil's false choice

The coalition to defeat Prop. 23 argues that addressing global warming creates jobs and saves the environment

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Fossil fuels or a cleaner energy mix? That's the Prop. 23 question

rebeccab@sfbg.com

Tapping into voters' economic insecurities at a time of record high unemployment rates, out-of-state oil interests say addressing global warming will cost California more jobs. But a broad coalition that includes environmentalists and top business groups argue that just the opposite is true, saying the economy will suffer if we suddenly kill the incentives now driving the clean energy industry, one business sector that actually grew during the recession.

Proposition 23 would indefinitely suspend Assembly Bill 32, California's Global Warming Solutions Act. Texas oil companies are bankrolling the initiative, spending millions of dollars to convince voters that they must choose between saving jobs and saving the environment. Since jobs are more important right now, they argue, the environment will have to wait.

But the other side — which includes groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, whose top priority is always job creation — is promoting the compelling idea that the path to economic recovery lies in rising to the challenge of climate change. They argue that addressing global warming now isn't just about avoiding more out-of-control wildfires, diminishing crop yields, prolonged intense droughts, coastal flooding, and other calamities that climate scientists say global warming will bring to California. It's also about creating jobs now and trying to lower California's 12.4 percent unemployment rate, the third highest nationwide.

The push to defeat Prop. 23 has brought together prominent business people, public-health advocates like the American Lung Association, big green organizations such as the Sierra Club, and environmental-justice advocates who are pushing for green jobs as a way to fend off poverty and tackle air quality problems in disadvantaged neighborhoods. If the coalition of unlikely allies is successful, Big Oil's comfortable lock on the energy market could be thrown off balance by California's emerging green economy.

"Ultimately, we think it's going to be a David vs. Goliath battle, because they have very deep pockets," said No on 23 campaign spokesperson Steve Maviglio. "The proponents are playing to the fears of those most affected by the economy."

When voters decide on this one, it will signify a choice to proceed down one of two paths at an important crossroads. A global climate summit in Copenhagen late last year failed to produce an effective response to climate change. A push for a federal cap-and-trade system to combat global warming yielded similarly disappointing results. AB32 presents a third chance to set a new standard, and a precedent, for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But if Prop. 23 passes, environmentalists will have struck out.

A report issued in July by the National Academy of Sciences lays bare the far-reaching implications of policy decisions around climate change. "Emissions reductions choices made today matter in determining impacts experienced not just over the next few decades," the report notes, "but in coming centuries and millennia."

 

CLOSE RACE

In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB32, mandating a statewide reduction of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The law is slated to go into full effect in January 2012, when a cap-and-trade system will make it more costly and burdensome for major polluters to continue burning high quantities of fossil fuels, among other strategies.

The law helps alternative energy companies and creates incentives for large and small businesses to green their operations. Prop. 23, deceptively titled the "California Jobs Initiative," would suspend AB32 until the state's unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. A decade could pass before such a market condition is in place — in the past 40 years, it's occurred just three times.

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