PhotoA funny thing happened to Prop. 23, the California ballot measure designed to suspend the state’s landmark law to lower carbon emissions, on its way to election day.

It was basically mugged — stopped dead in its tracks by opponents who were better funded, better organized, and better represented in the torrent of campaign ads that flooded the airwaves leading up to November 2.

News Analysis

Also see:
Post-Elections Climate Analyses
Through Lens of Major Newspapers

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The controversial ballot measure, bankrolled mostly by Texas oil refiners Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., was expected to wage a formidable war against AB 32, The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

The ballot initiative would have suspended the state law, which calls for rolling back emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, until unemployment in the state falls to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. That’s happened only three times in the last 40 years.

California voters defeated Prop. 23 soundly: 61.1 percent of voters rejected it, while only 38.9 percent voted yes. Nearly four and a half million voters said “No.”

In a series of post-mortems, some of the state’s biggest newspapers offered some reasons for the rout.

Margot Roosevelt, writing for the Los Angeles Times on November 2,
reported in the paper’s blog Greenspace that a combination of developments doomed Prop. 23. Among them:

  • Opponents, including San Francisco hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, the National Wildlife Federation, and Silicon Valley green-tech moguls such as John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, raised $31.2 million. Proponents, even backed by oil interests, raised just $10.6 million.
  • Aggressive TV ads urging Californians to “Stop the job-killing dirty energy proposition” mobilized a huge grassroots campaign that joined Latinos, health care advocates, green tech businesspeople, environmentalists, college students, and others.
  • Actors Edward James Olmos, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Redford, and director James Cameron, were among celebrities who campaigned against Prop. 23.
  • Outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his own sagging poll numbers, fiercely defended what many see as his most important legacy, attacking the “self-serving greed” of Valero and Tesoro.

Prop. 23 and the Giants’ World Series Victory

On the eve of Election Day, after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, Schwarzenegger found a way to conflate the victory with an attack on Prop. 23: “The San Francisco Giants defeated the Texas Rangers tonight, just like California voters are going to defeat the attempts of dirty Texas oil companies to undo our clean energy laws at the polls tomorrow,” he said.

In her November 2 blog post, Roosevelt wrote:

“No environmental campaign in U.S. history can boast the level of activism in California this year: Prop 23 opponents mustered 3,200 volunteers, made 2.8 million phone calls to voters, sent out 3.4 million pieces of mail, made 379,676 on-campus contacts with college students, and operated a sophisticated computerized outreach program that identified and contacted 481,000 voters, and showered voters with 900,000 get-out-the vote phone calls and text messages in the last three days.”

Significantly, most of the state’s largest energy companies and utilities, including Chevron, Pacific Gas & Electric and Sempra Energy, either were neutral on the measure or actively opposed it.

Environmentalists quoted in Roosevelt’s blog and elsewhere said the defeat of Prop. 23 is resonating across the country.

“It is the largest public referendum in history on climate and clean energy policy,” Fred Krupp, president of the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, told Roosevelt. “Almost 10 million Californians got a chance to vote and sent a clear message that they want a clean energy future. And this was in an economic downturn. There has never been anything this big. It is going to send a signal to other parts of the country and beyond.”

On Election Day, even moderate Republicans in California were lined up against Prop. 23 — not buying the proponents’ arguments that the state’s climate change law would damage the economy, Roosevelt reported a few hours before polls closed.

Veteran reporter Roosevelt’s analyses of the Prop. 23 election continued on November 4, and the Los Angeles Times‘ environmental affairs blog “Greenspace” offered additional analyses.

Steyer, co-chair of the No on 23 campaign and its largest single contributor, told the San Jose Mercury News on November 3: “I chose to do this because I lost my temper. It was outrageous that corporate interests were trying to take us down.”

LA Times Editorial: GOP ‘Lawmaking Arm of Big Oil’

On November 5, three days after the election, a Los Angeles Times editorial celebrated the defeat of Prop. 23 but lamented election results elsewhere.

“The failure of Proposition 23, which would have suspended California’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, sends a powerful message that tough economic times haven’t blinded Golden State voters to the urgent threat posed by climate change,” the editors wrote. “But much of the rest of the country proved less farsighted.”

“The Republican takeover of the House puts an end to hopes for a federal climate bill or clean-energy legislation; a party traditionally hostile to environmental regulation appears to have shifted even further to the right on energy issues, essentially turning itself into a lawmaking arm of Big Oil.”

Two of the state’s other most influential dailies had also opposed Prop. 23.

The Sacramento Bee wrote on October 31 that Prop. 23 was an “initiative bankrolled by Texas oil companies (and) would suspend state’s global warming law indefinitely.”

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote on October 24 that Prop. 23 “doesn’t hit the pause button on climate change rules, as backers claim. It effectively hits the kill button.”

Passage of Prop. 26 Leaves Unanswered Questions

There are still some unsettled issues surrounding California’s climate change law.

While Prop. 23 was projected to lose a day before the election, environmentalists feared that the passage of Prop. 26 could offer fossil fuel interests an end-run around the state’s global warming law, Roosevelt wrote on November 1 in the Los Angeles Times.

Prop. 26 actually did pass on Election Day.

Dubbed Prop. 23’s “evil twin” by opponents, the measure requires a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority, for the state legislature and local governments to assess many fees on business.

Supporters of Proposition 26, among them the California Chamber of Commerce, tobacco, and alcohol companies, and oil companies, called their effort the “Stop Hidden Taxes” campaign.

“Environmentalists fear that Proposition 26 will make it almost impossible to enforce regulations under AB 32,” Roosevelt wrote.

Orange County Register: Regrets over Prop. 23 Demise

The Orange County Register, in California’s Republican stronghold south of Los Angeles, had endorsed Prop. 23, writing on October 5 in tones that echo the views of many Tea Party activists and newly-elected Republican lawmakers:

“We prefer permanent repeal of the 2006 law. For now, we urge at least a delay of its disastrous economic effects and infringements on private-sector freedoms. Otherwise, the state Air Resources Board’s unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats will impose Draconian regulations on California businesses, ostensibly to curb manmade greenhouse gas emissions, which we believe pose little, if any, threat.”

After Prop. 23’s defeat, the Register‘s editors, hopeful for other attempts to derail California’s 2006 climate change law, had this to say:

“We also were disappointed to see Prop. 23 go down to a lopsided defeat, but understand how millions of dollars were spent by interests that stand to gain from the initiative’s failure.

“… Interests that stand to profit immensely from taxpayer subsidies and governmental preferences waged a high-spending campaign to portray Prop. 23 as a job-killer. In fact, it is the state’s global warming law … that will kill upward of 1 million jobs because of the burdens it places on businesses to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. AB 32 may create so-called green jobs, but far fewer and only because taxpayers will subsidize them, and government will give the manufacturers of alternative energy products concessions denied to normal industry.

“We hope that legal challenges to the state’s global warming law succeed in stopping AB 32’s implementation before more tax money is squandered and more real, productive jobs are destroyed.”

That, however, clearly is not how California voters expressed their views at this time and on this issue. That much is clear. But whether their voices echo for politicians nationally, as EDF’s Krupp wishes, is far from certain.

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...