California: The Next Climate Battleground

Co-authored by Gary Cook

With the climate train now limping out of Copenhagen, the question becomes what's the next stop? The next major international negotiation meeting isn't scheduled until December in Cancún. In the meantime, many advocates are looking to Washington DC and gearing up for the battle to move a climate bill through Congress. But in 2010 the real play is even further west, in California where a strategic battle is brewing over clean energy and climate protection.

The cards have already been dealt for federal climate policy making this year, and even the most optimistic acknowledge we won't be clearing the table on this go around (assuming that climate legislation even makes it to a vote, an outcome increasingly in doubt). Meanwhile, key cards for the next round of federal policy making are being laid out 3000 miles away in California.

Lasting change typically comes from the bottom up, and climate policy is no exception to the cliché. Rarely do federal policy makers move beyond the ambition of state governments and the grassroots movements that usually set the ceiling for the possible. The 2006 victory to enact California's AB-32 climate law helped set the bar and paved the way for the current crop of federal proposals, and the outcome of several key battles in California in 2010 will likely define where those proposals are able to go.

This same bottom-up political logic ruled the day in Copenhagen. By the time the December negotiations had rolled around the die was already cast. Weak pledges from countries going into the negotiations ensured a weak deal coming out. And the likely logic of the next round of negotiations is that without a strong U.S. policy there will be no strong international treaty.

How can we dramatically strengthen U.S national climate policy? One critical battleground this year lies in California, where there is an opportunity to establish climate policy as an important driver of economic growth - currently a weak spot in the federal policy debate. There are three strategic battles brewing in the state, each with the potential to define the course of federal politics.

Delaying Clean Energy

This spring and summer California officials will hold a series of public meetings to hammer out the rules for California's climate program, enacted by the groundbreaking AB32 bill. A critically important battle is shaping up over the rules limiting the use of offsets (a controversial pollution trading practice), and the California limits are likely to help set the bar for the federal standard. The offset provisions currently in federal legislation have the potential to postpone domestic pollution reductions another 20 years (by allowing polluters to substitute in reductions made overseas), delaying much needed domestic investment in low carbon and clean energy technologies. The size of the federal offset provisions are creating a problem so severe that many advocates have begun to question the value of the federal bill. The battle in California will help set the national standard in the U.S., and a strong outcome would help plug the loopholes in federal legislation.

Killing Public Power

The June ballot in California will host the second important showdown between climate advocates and the powers-that-be, in this case California's largest power utility, PG&E, which backed a successful signature gathering campaign to qualify a ballot initiative that would "limit the ability of California cities to go into the public power business...[and] force local governments that want to compete with PG&E to win the approval of two-thirds of their voters first. " The measure is opposed by cities that want more clean energy for their residents than PG&E has been willing to deliver. Here, too, with cities taking action, the bottom up approach has the power to set an important trend. And it's a threat that PG&E is taking seriously, spending nearly $4 million to get the initiative on the ballot.

Counter-attack on Climate

But the stakes will be even higher for climate advocates come November in the race for California governor, an election battle that will polls say will pit Republican Meg Whitman against Democrat Jerry Brown. Whitman has made the fight against climate legislation a cornerstone of her campaign, calling AB32 a jobs-killer and pledging to enact a moratorium in her very first day on the job as governor. A victory for Whitman will embolden the opponents of federal climate legislation, providing them with a clear game plan for torpedoing climate policy, and would put a dagger into the hearts of those who tout the economic benefits of clean energy and climate protection. Recently opponents of AB32 have launched a signature gathering campaign to qualify an initiative for the state ballot that would suspend the initiative until unemployment falls below 6% for a full year - an obvious attempt to link unemployment and climate protection.

Alternatively, a defeat for Whitman due at least in part because of her position on climate and clean energy would be a major victory for climate advocates, highlighting in no uncertain terms that there are political consequences for opposing climate legislation. The key to tripping up Whitman and others like her lie in the fact that her ideological assault on climate would kill California innovation in favor of the status quo. She is championing the economic interests of a narrow set of corporate interests (e.g. the fossil fuel industry), rather than the innovation companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in California who believe that AB32 will drive their business model of providing low carbon goods and energy services.

The political challenges we are seeing in Copenhagen, in Washington and other national capitals all beg the same question: which country will overcome the status quo voices of their fossil fuel industry and move forward on climate protection and sustained economic growth driven by a modern low carbon economy? For the U.S. in 2010, a critical piece of the answer will be found in California.

Hunter Cutting is a campaign director and communications consultant in San Francisco. His writings on climate and energy politics may be found at

Gary Cook, the former director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, is a climate and energy policy expert, also based in California.