Making History on Climate Change

In 2006, California made history with the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), which committed my home state to a landmark effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Despite strong opposition from the fossil fuels industry, including repeated efforts to gut the law, California's groundbreaking effort to clean our air, protect our climate and grow a clean-energy industry that produces good, career-path jobs is moving forward.

And now, California's legislature has a chance to make this good law even better and keep this crucial effort from stalling. SB 605, introduced by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach), takes crucial steps to ensure that the promise of AB 32 is fulfilled. The bill has passed the state Senate but now must clear the Assembly, where it will have an important committee hearing Aug. 12.

A key element of California's approach is a cap-and-trade program that puts a cost on carbon emissions and channels the money to clean-energy products that reduce pollution and create jobs. And despite repeated attacks from oil companies and other polluters, the public is behind the effort.

A new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California finds that 75 percent of California voters think we need to take steps to counter global warning "right away." And an astonishing 83 percent say it is important to spend money raised by the state's cap-and-trade program on projects that will clean the air in lower-income and disadvantaged communities.

Sen. Lara's bill will help ensure that this actually happens. That's why it's been endorsed by over 60 organizations in public health, housing, transportation, business, and environmental advocacy, including the State Building and Construction Trades Council, California Nurses Association, California Labor Federation, and the California Black Chambers of Commerce

Even the best law faces bumps along the way, and that's certainly been the case for California's climate change effort. For one thing - despite objections from many of us -- Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature decided this year to borrow the first $500 million of cap-and-trade funds to shore up the state's overall budget.

While that deal can't be undone, SB 605 guarantees that if the carbon auctions bring in money beyond that initial $500 million, the first $125 million will go to projects in disadvantaged communities. It puts the neighborhoods most in need of clean air and good jobs at the front of the line, giving substance to the promise that a clean energy economy will help struggling communities build economic security and prosperity, a goal that my colleagues at The Greenlining Institute are always looking to advance.

In addition, it fixes two flaws in the original law:

First, the bill strengthens AB 32 to give more attention to toxic pollution - the stuff that causes asthma, birth defects and other health problems. AB 32's main focus on carbon is vitally important, but we can and should bolster the effort to cut the cancer-causing air pollution generated when we burn oil and other fossil fuels.

Also, current law lets polluters meet some of their obligation to cut greenhouse gases though what are called "offsets" -- activities like planting and protecting forests, which remove carbon dioxide from the air. That's not a bad thing, but current law allows those offsets to be located anywhere in the world. Planting trees thousands of miles away is fine, but it won't clean the air in Fresno or reduce asthma rates in Oakland. And it definitely won't create jobs in recession-battered California neighborhoods.

Another problem with offsets located halfway across the world it that they're hard for the state to keep track of and ensure they're for real. So Sen. Lara's bill takes an eminently sensible approach, telling polluters that they can still do carbon offsets, but must put California first.

Altogether, the provisions of SB 605 may turn out to be nearly as historic as California's original climate change law, shaping it into a sharply-focused attack on pollution that will build healthy, prosperous communities in places that are now struggling.

You can help by sending a letter of support to Assemblymember Wesley Chesbro, chair of the Natural Resources Committee, where the bill will be heard Aug. 12.