A Banner Year for California Climate Laws: Important Lessons and Landmark Progress in 2016

October 7, 2016 | 6:20 am
el_vaquero CC-BY (Flickr)
Adrienne Alvord
Former Contributor

California has just had the biggest year for climate action in a decade.

In the last weeks of August, in a come-from-behind win, California passed SB 32 (Pavley) and a companion bill, AB 197 (Garcia). SB 32 extends AB 32—the highly successful state climate law passed ten years ago (details here)—and sets an aggressive new standard of lowering emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. It also places an emphasis on communities most affected by climate impacts and on putting new conditions on regulators.

As Governor Brown signed into law these and other bills related to climate into law, a diverse group of climate action advocates celebrated, while a sense of shock rippled through the oil industry. (Learn more about both reactions.)

While the headlines have focused on the state’s ambitious new goals to lower our global warming pollution—and with good reason—Governor Brown  signed into law other bills that will create tangible steps needed to achieve the state’s targets and address the risks of climate change.

Shortly after SB 32 passed, the Legislature also passed two Union of Concerned Scientists-led bills that the governor also signed. One law (AB 2800-Quirk) will help make California safer by engineering our key infrastructure—roads, bridges, buildings, water systems—to better withstand climate change impacts. The second law establishes the first-ever registry for tracking the global warming emissions from water agencies and large water users (SB 1425 – Pavley).

California seems to pass climate action laws on a regular basis, but the scale and ambition of the laws passed set this year far apart, particularly because it wasn’t supposed to happen.

Press reports as late as August cast doubt on the ability of the Legislature to pass aggressive new climate laws thanks to big money from oil and other interests in this year’s election. Not only did these bills pass, but they all received at least one Republican vote, and AB 2800 got 13 Republican votes—just shy of one third of all Republicans in the legislature.

So what happened here?  Are there lessons that others can learn from California’s victories this year?

New climate targets won with teamwork, transparency, and leadership

In terms of setting aggressive new climate targets with SB 32 and AB 197, there were three elements that I think made the difference:

1. Diverse groups all put aside differences and worked hard together.

The groups who banded together in the last weeks of session included low-carbon fuel and energy businesses, environmental justice and social justice groups, faith communities, and climate activist NGOs including science, public health, and environmental groups, who put aside petty differences and focusing on a win for all.

In particular, joining the EJ-backed AB 197 with the climate-focused SB 32 created an alliance of all the groups working together for the same package. Combining grassroots support from so many sectors made it hard for legislators to ignore.

We coordinated daily in the last week of session to count votes and target members, shared information with each other and with legislators about how much individual districts and the state as a whole have benefited from current climate laws, and highlighted the urgent need for more action.

Public support—which polls showed strongly supported climate action this year—was crucial, and tens of thousands of emails, phone calls, posts, tweets, and constituent visits were made by people from all across California.

Everyone showed up and lobbied hard, and in the end we had the facts, the passion, and the support base among Californians that competed successfully with the big money.

None of us could have done it alone, but together we won.

2. The media and the public were watching.

One of the most important things our coalition did (and I’m proud that UCS played a big part in this) was to help interest major news outlets in writing editorials in support of these bills.

We did this by sending them information on the success of our ten-year-old law, AB 32, in reducing emissions while growing the economy; and by highlighting the urgent need to go much further and the danger to current and future low-carbon investments if we hesitated.

Five of the major dailies in California, including the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Jose Mercury News, published editorials in favor of passage, and among other things they emphasized both the economic advantages of going further and the fact that the public supported these policies. And the press kept the pressure up, turning these bills into front page news, letting elected members know that their votes would be watched.

It turns out that in an election year, many members would rather be seen as champions for clean energy, public health, and our children’s future than as champions for Big Oil. Knowing that the public and press were watching made a difference.

3. Leadership united in support.

It took a bit of a nudge, but in the end Governor Jerry Brown and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon went all-in on getting these bills passed, joining Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León who had never faltered in championing these bills throughout the session.

United leadership had a strong influence and created momentum that in the end helped bring the bills over the top despite initial strong resistance from some oil-friendly legislators among the Democrats.

So in the end old-fashioned coalition teamwork, shining a bright light on elected members, and courageous leadership were able to defeat big money in politics. This doesn’t happen every day, but our efforts this year showed that sometimes it can work.

Building broad support to prepare for climate impacts

Other lessons were learned in passing UCS-led bills AB 2800 and SB 1425, both of which address the urgent need to better prepare for climate change and its impacts.

Both of these bills, especially AB 2800, received bipartisan support. We helped create a big tent of support by being willing to work incrementally, by appealing to values like saving public money, and by focusing on issues like public safety.


All smiles in the state capitol as climate legislation passes. Photo: Adrienne Alvord

All smiles in the state capitol as climate legislation passes. Photo: Adrienne Alvord

Rather than focusing on issues that divide, these bills provide examples of ways to talk about and work on climate action that can unite diverse interests—from engineers and architects to organized labor and water users—in an understanding of actions we need to take to ensure a resilient future.

We still have plenty of divisions and work to do, but as we learn more about what resonates we have a better chance of crafting solutions that generate support across the board.

In a year when sensationalism and divisiveness seemed to rule our political lives, the success of new and ambitious climate policies in California should be a beacon of hope.

The standards we set will be difficult to reach, and of course we can expect a concerted campaign next year to push back on these wins, as is always the case. But in 2016 we prevailed against the odds in California, and perhaps some of the ways in which we were able to move forward can be replicated in other states and beyond. Isn’t it worth a try?