While national climate change legislation was imploding this past summer, it looked like climate advocates were poised to also suffer another, even more disheartening defeat: the suspension of the most important state-level climate change law in the United States. A coalition of out-of-state oil companies and oil industry supporters had succeeded in qualifying Proposition 23 on the California ballot. If passed, this controversial ballot proposal would suspend California’s Global Warming and Solutions Act of 2006 indefinitely.
In tough economic times, and with industry groups working to convince California combating climate change kills jobs, it seemed almost hopeless to believe the climate law stood a chance. But then something very interesting happened. A coalition of clean tech companies, mainstream environmental organizations, and less well-known grassroots activist groups banded together to defeat Prop 23. And though the final outcome is still far from certain, it has become clear Prop 23 faces a tough fight. If the ballot initiative is defeated this November, climate advocates could walk away with a new model for successful coalition-building around climate change.
Contrary to expectations that the fossil fuel industries supporting Prop 23 would quickly out-fundraise opponents, by Thursday the No on 23 campaign had raised nearly twice as much money as Prop 23 supporters. That doesn’t necessarily mean the trend will continue; rich oil companies could mobilize quickly and dump millions into the campaign during the final weeks before Election Day. But so far the pro-climate opposition has shown itself more than capable of competing.
Some big donations have come from environmental groups like the Sierra Club, but many are from California-based green tech companies and venture capitalists who see suspension of the state’s climate change law as a threat to jobs in their industries. Last week Vinod Khosla, one of California’s most famous green entrepreneurs, donated $1.04 million to help defeat Prop 23. Other companies giving large amounts include Google, Bloom, and Sempra Energy. Instead of becoming a jobs-versus-environment issue, as oil companies hoped it would, this fight has become a contest between the old fossil fuel-powered economy, and a new economy which thrives on innovation and clean energy.
Yet lest Californians come to see this as simply two big industries squaring off, the No on 23 campaign also has its grassroots element. Environmental organizations, labor unions, and health groups that rely on grassroots support are some of the most outspoken critics of Prop 23. Lesser-known groups with little funding but lots of people power are also joining the fray. Various student groups on college campuses are mobilizing their peers to vote against Prop 23 this November. Meanwhile the Rainforest Action Network shut down Chevron gas stations around San Francisco last week, criticizing the oil giant for environmental crimes the include failing to stand up for California’s climate change law.
The effect of all this has been striking: everyone from big venture capitalists to student groups seems to be rallying against Prop 23 and in support of California’s climate law. Compare this to the fight over national climate legislation earlier this year, when environmental groups were in disagreement as to whether the bill was even good enough to support. A little-discussed factor in the demise of national climate legislation is that the bill being offered was so compromised many activists were unwilling to spend their time pushing for it.
To actually pass national climate change legislation, we need a bill good enough that it will bring left-wing environmental groups together with major clean tech companies to present a united front strong enough to overcome Big Oil. It’s just this kind of coalition that has sprung up in California to defend the 2006 Global Warming and Solutions Act. The lesson from California seems to be the key to passing a climate bill won’t be found in further compromise and a collapse of ambition. Rather, to build the kind of coalition needed to pass major legislation, lawmakers and activists need to think big.
Article by Nick Engelfried, appearing courtesy Justmeans.