When Money Talks, Climate Solutions Die

California oil derricks. (Photo: Richard Masoner/cc/flickr)

When Money Talks, Climate Solutions Die

Californians are rightfully proud that we have led the country in establishing a cap and trade system to reduce carbon emissions and set up a renewable energy portfolio requirement that has us on track to generate 33% of our electricity from non-greenhouse gas sources by 2020.

As a state with a legislature controlled by Democrats, some find it tempting to point to California as evidence that all we need to do to combat global warming is elect a majority of Democrats to the U.S. Congress. Sadly, California also provides evidence that this isn't sufficient.

We all know that however impressive California's steps to date have been, they are nowhere near enough to reach the dramatic reductions in carbon emissions necessary to prevent the worst-case scenarios of climate change. Governor Jerry Brown and Senate Leader Kevin De Leon just threw in the towel on efforts to take additional steps by legislating a 50% reduction in oil use by cars and trucks by 2030. De Leon explained that he could not win support of enough of his Democratic colleagues in the legislature because lawmakers "could not cut through" a massive advertising campaign by oil companies.

It's important for oil company executives and shareholders to make their perspectives known when it comes to legislation that could affect their industry and their profits. But it is just as important for people who may fall victim to forest fires, floods, crop losses, drought damage, loss of tourism dollars, disease, and ecosystem disruption to have their perspectives heard. One Sacramento Bee columnist pointed out just how imbalanced the speech that Assembly Member Jim Cooper and the voters in his district was hearing, noting that he had benefitted from nearly a million dollars in campaign ads that were paid in large part by the oil industry. Another article pointed out the huge imbalance in lobbying between petroleum interests and those urging a reduction in carbon emissions.

Some pundits would have us believe that the massive imbalance of paid speech is just fine, so long as it's all properly disclosed (as it appears to have been in this case.) But can any of us make wise decisions when we hear five times more from one side in a debate than another? Newspaper columnists fantasize that voters can hold legislators accountable if they "line up on the wrong side of history" and vote with the oil industry after raking in their cash, but the California legislature has a habit of not forcing such a public vote. Bill sponsors keep private tallies and only take a bill to the floor if they have the votes to pass it. If they don't, they spare legislators like Cooper any need to take a public position which he could be held accountable for.

It's a shame that Senator De Leon didn't succeed, but he could have done voters a favor by at least putting all his colleagues on record.

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