California confronts climate change, economic change with Proposition 23

Supporters call Proposition 23 the California Jobs Initiative; opponents label it the Dirty Energy Proposition.
Supporters call Proposition 23 the California Jobs Initiative; opponents label it the Dirty Energy Proposition.
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In less than a week voters will decide on the California jobs initiative. Supporters say Proposition 23 will stop the state from regulating businesses to death and killing jobs. Opponents argue that it'll kill the state's landmark global warming law - and California's hope for becoming a green technology leader.

California has lost close to one-and-a-half-million jobs in the last four years. During that same time, the state enacted its landmark global warming policies.

Yes on 23's Anita Mangels argues that those policies have put people out of work and cost millions of dollars the state doesn't have. "The economy is not what it was when the legislature passed that law," Mangels says. "When people are working, we can much better afford to do the types of things we would like to do to continue our progress in climate change."

Mangels offers little proof that climate laws – alongside the financial apocalypse – have harmed specific job sectors. Prop 23 would suspend some limits on greenhouse gas emissions until the state's unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent for a year.

Mangels says the state's global warming policy is too aggressive – and too singular. "Essentially, we would be one state with 3 percent or less of the world's global warming emissions when the rest of the world is actually taking a more moderate approach to protecting their economies," she argues.

But State Senator Fran Pavley – an architect of California’s climate law – says countries with comparable economies are cutting carbon. She argues that the state's shaping policy on an international issue. "This measure is critically important, not just to California, but it has national and global implications," Pavley says.

Pavley also disputes that the Golden State is acting alone. "There's 30 or 40 states that we have probably twice a month a conference call together that they're working on passing a national bill," she says. "They're working on passing renewable portfolio standards or energy efficiency standards."

Those standards aim to cut use of natural gas and petroleum. Oil companies like Valero, Tesoro and Occidental have spent $9 million backing Prop 23. Environmentalists have countered that with $27 million from venture funds and green tech backers.

"When you think about Prop 23 think about two Texas companies funding it," the narrator of one ad says. "Think about higher energy costs and more dependence on oil. Think of the cost to the environment and public health."

Advocates for Prop 23 emphasize that it wouldn't touch other environmental laws. For what it would do, Scott Anders of USD's Energy Policy Initiatives Center considered the state's climate plan and unemployment.

He says restarting the existing law after a pause could take 6 to 11 years. "There've been three spikes in unemployment in the past 30 years," Anders says, "so we looked at the peak rate and counted the number of months it took to get down to 5.5. percent."

Some emissions limits would continue. Federal law supports what are called Pavley standards – rules that would apply to cars, a significant source of carbon.

But Anders says the atmosphere would still take a hit if California suspends its greenhouse gas limits. "About 50 percent of the emissions necessary to get to the target would be suspended and they'd be suspended for eight years," he says.

In that half is a major program that would cap carbon emissions for electric generators and industrial sources. California also requires most utilities to generate a fifth of their energy from renewable sources. Prop 23 would halt a plan to raise that proportion to 33 percent.

The Vote Solar Initiative's Adam Browning says that would reshape California's energy market – again. "If Prop 23 passes there's really no mandates for new generation from renewables," Browning worries. "Contracts that were signed, OK. Nothing more. And that would be apocalyptic for the state's growing wind and solar industries."

Green jobs California’s climate law has helped along are growing fast. But state figures put them at 3 percent of the total.

Anita Mangels of Yes on Prop 23 says the venture capitalists who oppose the measure and their startups won't create enough jobs to help in the near term. "There's absolutely nothing in the law that says they have to keep that money in California. So what you'll probably see is venture capitalists coming to California setting up fancy offices in Silicon Valley," says Mangels. "But the factories are going to be in China or elsewhere. The jobs are going to be in China or elsewhere. And the revenues are going to go elsewhere."

Venture capitalists point out that California's attracted a billion dollars of investment in the last four years. The nascent green tech sector could boom the way Silicon Valley did in the 1970s and '80s.

UCLA's Matt Kahn says there’s plenty of uncertainty along that path. But he can't think of a more promising sector to help California get its economic groove back. "Our comparative advantage are our excellent universities. The venture capitalists who like to surf here. The nerds who like to live here. And the progressive policies the state has had past success with," Kahn says. "If we pass on the green economy, what are the other cards we can play?"

California voters are examining those cards right now. On Tuesday they’ll play the hand economic distress and climate change have dealt them.