Dominated by the Sierra Club, California’s "Environmental Establishment" operates politically largely as a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. This fact plays heavily in what sorts of environmental initiatives this establishment chooses to put on the California ballot.
This year, the state’s environmental establishment put Proposition 21 on the ballot. It proposed a surcharge on vehicle license fees to provide stable funding for state parks. Proposition 21 was soundly defeated; 42 percent voted yes; 58 percent voted no.
California voters defeated the other anti-environmental initiative on the ballot. Backed by out of state oil companies, Proposition 23 sought to suspend Assembly Bill 32, the state’s landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Less than 39 percent of voting Californians cast a ballot to suspend the law -- which is the most far reaching and progressive climate legislation in the nation.
What do these results tell us about the environmental movement in California and what that movement should work to put on the ballot in 2012?
I think the voters are saying that the California environmental establishment is too timid. Even in a mid-term election in which demoralized progressive voters did not turn out to vote, Californians voted to support what is arguably the toughest environmental legislation in the USA. At the same time Californians rejected the establishment’s desire to carve out a little enclave of special interest funding for their pet agency.
The defeat of Proposition 21 was predictable. In recent elections California voters rejected other initiatives which sought to carve out exceptions and insulate pet government programs from budget cuts. Apparently California voters want rational, responsible government financing, not a hodgepodge of special funding arrangements. That is likely why they also passed Proposition 25, which provides for a simple majority vote of the legislature to pass the state budget. In recent years the 2/3 budget majority requirement has resulted in deadlocked battles ultimately controlled by legislative minorities.
The California environmental establishment should ponder these results and realize that the time has come to think bigger and reach with more ambition. Since the 1990 defeat of Proposition 128 (a green-focused initiative that proposed strict limits on pesticide use and limited global warming gas emissions, among other enviro items) that establishment has been timid at the ballot box. The period since 1990 has also seen the environmental establishment become a fixture of the Democratic Party. This group now prefers to work its big agendas at restaurants, bars and conference rooms in the state capital rather than at the ballot box.
Back in 1990 the environmental establishment was not so tightly linked to the Democratic Party. Proposition 128 was known as “Big Green” because it truly was visionary; it would have banned offshore oil drilling, phased out the most dangerous pesticides, sharply reduced air pollutants and limited forest clearcutting.
Big Green went to the voters during a recession. It was defeated because the voters were convinced that it would cost too much. But by defeating Proposition 23 this year California voters are saying that the climate must be fixed no matter what the cost.
The conclusion I draw is that California’s voters are more ambitiously environmental than their leaders in the environmental establishment. California voters won’t support an environmental movement which thinks small and seeks to carve out and protect small pieces of nature.
In 1990 Big Green was too far ahead of California voters, too visionary. Today Californians are ready to vote for big, bold and visionary environmental initiatives. The California environmental establishment should provide them with the opportunity in 2012.
Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.